The Townshend Town Hall from the stage.
Doran Hamm/Courtesy photo
The Townshend Town Hall from the stage.

Space, and a real stage

L&G Players find a welcoming home for winter show — and maybe beyond — in Townshend’s Town Hall

Student actors and backstage crews at Leland & Gray Union Middle/High School have come full circle and have returned to the Town Hall as they prepare for a performance there of Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes.

"In terms of space, being in the Town Hall has been amazing," says Doran "Dory" Hamm, director of the Leland & Gray Players. "Just having the giant space to both rehearse and to give the kids a stage. I can't stress how much a bunch of boards raised up can change how kids mentally see a space."

Hamm leads a creative team - all alumni of New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro - who took over the Players' leadership in the fall. Shannon Ward, Ben Stockman, Cassidy Majer, and Hamm produced the Players' fall musical with an eye toward future productions.

Hamm quickly zeroed in on listening to student actors and crew and to their wishes for the continued growth and well-being of the school theater program, which began producing three shows a year in 1997.

In 2014, the Leland & Gray Players' production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream earned the New England Theatre Conference's prestigious Moss Hart Memorial Award for secondary school performance region-wide.

But the Players have never had a true stage to work on - nor a space designed for performances.

Hamm says the reaction of the young actors is similar to when their rehearsal and performance space, the Dutton Gymnasium, transforms.

"When the stage goes up they see it differently," he says. "It becomes their space; it gives them a sense of ownership and it feels different than being just a gym."

Townshend Town Clerk Ellenka Wilson and Selectboard Assistant Connie Holt "have been amazing, so welcoming and accommodating," Hamm adds.

Hamm has a few specific dreams as to how the Players could thrive at the Town Hall.

"This is our test float," though. "Everyone's so stoked about it. The kids have been very respectful of the space and know they're lucky to be in it."

Timeless satire

The heroes of The Emperor's New Clothes, Hamm explains, "are two quick-witted, but very poor, tailors who try their best to follow the rules, but life keeps kicking them in the butt. So they turn to swindling the rich as their backup."

Soon, the greatest swindle of all is rendered on the most powerful emperor, and it takes an innocent child to blow the cover.

The stage version of the timeless satire, adapted by Brattleboro's Rosa Palmieri, features an eclectic cast of 13 from the tradition of commedia dell'arte, which flourished first in Italy and then throughout Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries.

The foundation on which much of modern comedy has developed, commedia was performed outside, in public halls and marketplaces, and in courts of the time employing stereotyped characters from various walks of life who follow a scenario, more than a script, improvising along the way.

The Players' production, Hamm says, staged with the help of a crew of three, "is very stylized, very commedia in terms of the largeness and the satirical fashion of it."

The setting, he says, is "French-y Renaissance but not in any specific country."

The spirit evoked is of "a commedia troupe, patched and tattered, strolling town to town to perform, talking usually about the social dynamics and the politics of the time, making fun of the rich along the way - it's still very relatable now."

Performances will take place this Friday and Saturday at the Townshend Town Hall. Following this opening, the Players will enter the one-act in the Vermont Drama Council's Regional One Act Festival, where it will compete against performances from North Country Union High School in Newport, Rutland High School, Windsor High School, and Thetford Academy.

Reflecting on what he hopes the Players will gain from the experience of participating in the festival Hamm says, "for me - winning or losing: I don't care."

"It's really important and really inspiring for the kids to see other young performers," he says. "I don't care about progressing to the all-state festival: that's not important to me, but [giving the Players a chance] to really be immersed in the theater arts - that's what's important."

Hamm adds that, "if nothing else, this is a great exercise in satire."

"Commedia offers a rich platform for play and a license to be big - and satirical, which kids do well," he says. "The work of memes today - that's just a modern adaptation of old-time commedia."

Full circle

A once-vibrant theater program lay dormant for years until the founding of the L&G Players in 1996.

While earlier productions had been mounted in the school's main gym, the Players' 1997 inaugural production, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman's Stage Door, was offered in the Townshend Town Hall. Hopes were high then for finding a home for the Players there.

For a number of reasons, primarily the reluctance of the Selectboard of the time, a permanent home in the Town Hall didn't work out.

Efforts ensued to finally give Leland & Gray a home for its student actors, stage designers/makers, and growing number of theater "techies."

The proposal for such a designated space that would have served all performing arts at the school was rejected by voters in 2002.

The next year, plans started taking shape to renovate the school's 1929 Dutton Gymnasium, just south of the school's main building, into a space that would accommodate basketball overflow, school gatherings, and some public use, as well as the theater arts. In 2009, the renovated gym debuted as a performing arts space with a production of Kaufman and Hart's Once in a Lifetime.

Per consultation with New England Youth Theatre co-founder Jerry Stockman - the area's go-to professional for technical theater needs - the new space included room-darkening shades, stage curtains, accordion bleachers, a light loft, and a pipe grid to hold lighting instruments.

An addition at the rear of the building offered backstage space for rehearsals and a green room during performances. The downstairs of that addition served as a scene shop for both summer youth theater programs and L&G productions.

A trapdoor in the addition allowed completed scenery to be passed up from the scene shop and carried into the gym, which was outfitted show by show with risers and drapes to create a stage, but that door proved to be a major hazard and was rendered unusable.

By 2017, the backstage area had been loaded with costumes which had had to be moved from the gym basement for building safety reasons.

Over time, Dutton Gymnasium has become "overbooked," Hamm says. The scene shop has recently been taken over by a bicycle repair program.

If the current production goes well at the Town Hall, Hamm hopes that this spring the Players can use the space for their final show of the year: the Players' annual cabaret, Hats Off!

"As L&G does so much for kids [that demands time and space], I'd rather put my energy toward [nurturing a relationship with Townshend and] the Town Hall than fight to maintain a tiny foothold in Dutton," Hamm says.

Hamm hopes for "continued collaboration between the Town Hall and the L&G Players and what that relationship could yield."

Wilson echoes Hamm's enthusiasm and says that "old buildings come to life when people are able to enjoy them."

"I'm very excited that Leland & Gray is able to use Townshend Town Hall: It is a beautiful space and very underutilized," she said.

"Having grown up in Townshend, I recall the elementary school used Town Hall for performances; there were variety shows and dance recitals, weddings, birthday celebrations, memorial services," Wilson says. "It's wonderful to hear footsteps above my office and to have joy and excitement in the building."

The Emperor's New Clothes plays the Townshend Town Hall on Friday, March 15 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, March 16 at 7 p.m., as well as at the Regional One Act Festival at Thetford Academy on Saturday, March 23. Suggested admission donation is $10 ($5 for kids and seniors). The show will be less than an hour long, and a question-and-answer time with the company will follow. For more information, visit

This Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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