• State of the Arts: Middlebury’s Town Hall a product of its community
    April 28,2013
     
    Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo

    Doug Anderson of Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.

    This is part of an ongoing series on Vermont’s leaders in the arts.

    By Jim Lowe

    Staff Writer

    Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater wasn’t hurt by the recession — largely because of its relationship with its community.

    “I actually think we benefited from the recession,” said Doug Anderson, the organization’s executive director since its founding in 1997.

    “In this sense,” he said, “People would travel, in this town, a great distance to see the performing arts. When we started providing it here — professional-caliber performing arts — cheaper and at home, without an hour-long drive home afterward, it suddenly became very, very attractive.”

    That worked at the school level as well.

    “Schools routinely bus their kids great distances for all kinds of programs, and now the kids walk here,” Anderson said. “It saves an enormous amount of money, and the kids love it. And now every kid in the (Middlebury school) system is in this building at least once a year.

    “Ours is very much a local audience and they’re delighted we’re here,” he said. “I think we’ve actually saved them money.”

    Anderson is also artistic director of the Opera Company of Middlebury, which resides at Town Hall and is one of Vermont’s three professional opera companies.

    Town Hall Theater is one of the state’s smallest, with only 232 seats (as opposed to the Flynn’s 1,411 in Burlington, Rutland’s Paramount Theatre with 850, or the Barre Opera House’s 650). With a huge outpouring of community support, the 1883 building was rebuilt into a multi-use professional theater, with construction beginning in 1997.

    “I thought the restoration of this building was going to take two years. It took 10 years,” Anderson said. “Everything was so wrong with this building and we had to replace everything. There was a new horror every three months.”

    Next season, Town Hall Theater will celebrate its fifth year as a publicly operating nonprofit theater.

    “We opened very big and strong — and stayed that way,” Anderson said. “Now we’re bursting at the seams. We have a brand new education program, which is going great guns, but it has to fight to find time in our theater. There’s too much going on here.”

    Town Hall’s $320,000 annual budget seems small, but that’s because its presentations are budgeted separately. The theater currently has four resident companies — the opera, Middlebury Actors Workshop (professional), Middlebury Community Players, and the Made in Vermont Chorus — and is looking to add an orchestra and a children’s theater.

    “They have their own budgets, they do their own fundraising, and we simply take a rental fee or a ticket tax,” Anderson said. “If they were in our organization, that budget would look huge.”

    In fact, 79 percent of Town Hall’s budget goes to salaries and management expenses, while only 14 percent covers the building’s costs. Where Town Hall is truly unusual, though, is that only a third of its income comes from ticket sales.

    “Nine percent comes from businesses and 58 percent comes from memberships and donations,” Anderson said. “The mantra of the business is 50 percent donations / 50 percent ticket sales.”

    This somewhat lopsided balance allows Town Hall to serve a greater number of people and constituencies in the area.

    “We really try to keep our ticket sales low — and they are very low,” Anderson said. “A big musical here is $20. Anyplace else that might be $35 or more. We struggle very, very hard to keep tickets for everything we do as reasonable as possible.”

    Anderson points out that theater, in fact, is bad business.

    “You can’t ever charge, unless you’re on Broadway, what it really costs to produce theater,” he said. “We don’t have $150 tickets. So, the idea is, to do marvelous work, have people really enjoy you and the idea of having your theater in their community, and hope they will come forward to during membership time to support the theater.

    “That, in fact, has happened over the last five years,” Anderson said.

    As the theater is small, Anderson sees the future as expanding the scope of its offerings as much as the size of the audience.

    “I think we’ve identified everybody who loves opera, everybody who loves musicals, everybody who loves plays, and they’re already coming here,” he said “So growth for us is going to be finding new constituencies and new markets — finding the country and western market, finding the 20- to 30-year old market, people who like certain kinds of rock music or reggae music. So expanding the range of what we do is how we’re going to have growth. This is my growth.”

    Being small also requires that the theater keep up or increase its pace of 165 events a year.

    “When we’re dark we’re losing money — we can’t afford it,” Anderson said. “I would much rather rent the place out to a bunch of fishermen, as we did recently, and make a little money that night. So we’re eager to do a variety of things to keep the building open, to keep it operating, because we simply need to do that to survive.”

    Like all nonprofit groups, cash flow is a big issue for Town Hall.

    “It’s always, oh my God, it’s the second Wednesday: Can we make payroll? But we’ve never failed to make payroll,” Anderson said.

    And, like other theaters, a huge challenge is to predict the success of an upcoming event in order to budget successfully.

    “It’s really hard to guess,” Anderson said. “But, so far, we’ve met our budget every year. It’s always a push.”

    The yet unmet challenge, Anderson said, is to take its marketing into the 21st century.

    “Nobody on our staff is of the computer age,” he said. “So our next thing is going to get a young marketing director, somebody who understands Tweeting, understands Facebook — not only understands, but thinks that way.

    “The morning after a show here, there should be video on some Facebook page. We just don’t think that way,” Anderson said.

    Next month, Opera Company of Middlebury will embark on its most ambitious production to date, Tchaikovsky’s large scale tragedy, “Eugene Onegin,” May 1-June 8. Anderson, who is stage directing, is aiming at a traditional production, rather than his often novel ones.

    “It’s so powerful, so I’m doing it with gorgeous costumes,” he said. “It’s going to cost in excess of $100,000.”

    OCM’s annual budget is simply the budget of the production, but that includes professional soloists, a professional orchestra, and a conductor, as well as staging costs.

    “I don’t think there’s a proper perception of what it costs to put on an opera,” Anderson said. “For an average opera we can have 70 people on the payroll and a lot of them are from New York. Recently a budget for one of our operas would be $70,000 to $80,000.”

    Last year, OCM added Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” as a semi-staged production, so that added another $40,000 to the budget. And he hopes to continue adding another “chestnut” each fall.

    “You can, in fact, charge more for an opera, so our tickets will be $55 and $50,” Anderson said. “So a larger percentage of our nut comes from ticket sales, but I would say 60 percent still comes from donations.”

    “The most important thing is that opera fans are pretty rabid, God love them,” he said. “They love the fact that we have professional opera here — and they’re delighted to support it.”

    In fact, both Town Hall Theater and Opera Company of Middlebury serve at the pleasure of their community.

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