“Watch out! That wall is still wet,” Monica Callan said, roller in hand, standing in the freshly painted bright entry to the second floor “black box” performance space at the Grange Hall in Waterbury Center.
Programs for the upcoming “One and Only Series,” with six weekends of solo performances, winter workshops from standup comedy to Shakespeare, and “Learn to Swing Dance” are spread out on a table. Rolled yoga mats lean in a corner. Downstairs, “At the Table,” an exhibition of pastels celebrating food, is in the main floor multipurpose gallery — where recent events include a Pysanka egg-decorating workshop.
As 2019 opens, The Grange Hall Cultural Center is embarking on a busy winter season. Lots of theater performances and workshops are on the schedule, along with music, film, exhibitions, movement classes and more. Monica Callan and Peter Holm, owners of the Grange Hall since 2016, are taking this historic 1850s landmark into a new era.
Callan and Holm’s goal is for the Grange Hall to be a self-sustaining arts center, presenting its own arts programming, working with other nonprofits to collaboratively help those grow, and for the building to be available to community members to rent for events and classes.
“I see it as a community center. We’re going to do arts programming because that is what we know and that’s what we love and that’s what we think there isn’t enough of,” Callan explained, noting, “but anyone in the community can pitch it, we’ll see how we can make that work.”
“We’re theater geeks, but people are geeks about everything, and geeks make the world go round, so we want to encourage that. If somebody wants to share their slides from their Himalayan trip, we’re here,” Callan said. “We want this to be a place where people’s experience is valued and we can expand all of our experiences through their sharing.”
The Grange Hall, built in the 1850s, has a long history serving the public. For its first decades, it was a Baptist church. When the congregation merged with another church in around 1920, it entered a dormant stage, but leapt back to life in 1929 when it was acquired by the Grange. Grange members added the second floor hall and it became a community hub for agricultural meetings, dances, chicken pie suppers and more. Remnants of the set of a theater production from the 1940s stayed in place and were used for decades.
Callan is an arts administrator, playwright, actor, director, filmmaker, founder and producing artistic director of MOXIE Productions. She had held performances and workshops at the Grange since early 2000s, and had long recognized that a multi-disciplinary arts center could be a real asset to Waterbury Center.
In the wake of Hurricane Irene, she worked extensively with the FEMA process in visioning a possible state-of-the-art center.
The large-scale project did not move ahead. However, in 2016, an unexpected opportunity arose, when the Grange offered Callan and Holm their building.
“This is much more modest than envisioned in the FEMA process, but is better because it is much more sustainable,” said Callan.
Although smaller scale, as a century-and-a-half old building, it requires many repairs and upgrades. They have already tackled several projects including the staircase, kitchen upgrades, some electrical and insulation, and are looking ahead to a new roof and ADA access to the second floor. But they are also maintaining the character of the building — the wonderful old plaster walls in the theater with their ghosts of patterns of a long-gone wall.
“Our goal is to renovate it to a point where it can stay in public use and when we’re too old to be doing this there will be a group that we will pass it on to,” Callan said. “In the meantime we get to do the things that we find fun — and it’s open to the community — If anybody has something that they want to do here, as long as its legal, bring it on.”