Opportunity knocks at the Vergennes Opera House

December 27, 2007
VERGENNES — Sometimes the perfect opportunity does come along — just ask new Vergennes Opera House Executive Director Jackson Evans, who was hired in September by the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House, the organization that operates the city hall theater.
Evans, a 29-year-old Northfield native who started full-time in November, has a background that makes him virtually an ideal fit for the job: His résumé includes a fine arts degree in photography and film from Ithaca College in New York and a master’s in historic preservation from the University of Vermont.
And Evans and his wife, Katja, bought a home in Vergennes within walking distance of the opera house just this past spring, and he now can visit his seven-week-old twins, a son and daughter, during his lunch hour.
The couple had been living in Burlington and was seeking a smaller town with a greater sense of community before settling on Vergennes. Evans and a partner were operating a historic preservation consulting firm out of Montpelier, but Evans said when the position at the opera house opened this fall — former director Donna Lord left to pursue another opportunity — it was too good to pass up.
“When my wife and I moved to Vergennes we were drawn to the strong sense of community here anyway, and to be able to be part of that in the work environment was a big draw,” Evans said.
Evans already knew about the Vergennes Opera House and its role in the 1990s revival of downtown Vergennes from his studies at UVM. The Little City is considered a big hit in downtown revitalization, with the opera house getting plenty of credit, he said.
“Vergennes is always cited as a prime example of one of these great success stories. And the opera house is always positioned there as the initial catalyst,” he said. “If I were living in Burlington I would still have been interested in the position just because of what it is, because of its role in preservation and community development and the role it has in the community.”
Evans’ first two days on the job, back in September when he was on a part-time basis, were fast-paced: He worked a sold-out Richie Havens concert, then drove in the Ladies Rally, a key annual fund-raiser that netted the theater $14,000 on Sept. 22.
Since then his duties have included a predictable mix for a small nonprofit: moving chairs and shoveling snow; making sure diverse events like Vermont Symphony Orchestra concerts and Little City Players performances ran smoothly (they were well-attended, he said); learning what has been effective over the years at raising money and filling seats; finishing a membership drive; pricing out more sprinklers; and planning for the future.
Looking ahead may be most important, he said, although he believes the theater stood on solid ground when he signed on.
“Overall I’m stepping into a pretty strong organization with a pretty strong foundation, and that foundation is really built on the excitement that went into restoring this building,” Evans said. “(But) once the building is saved, you have to figure out what to do with it. That’s kind of where the opera house has been at for the last couple years.”
Evans and board members intend to make sure the theater remains viable, and to do so they want to raise its profile among local residents. They are looking at taking a larger role in annual events like Vergennes Day, French Heritage Day and the Holiday Stroll, for example.
“One thing that the board and I both agree on and feel really strongly about is having a strong presence in the community,” he said. “How can we as the opera house be out in the community and really be encouraging people to use the space and encouraging people to attend events?”
Evans also wants to bring back regular movie nights to the theater, and maybe use his film background to broaden what is offered; in the past the opera screened silent movies on Friday nights.
“Those are events that anybody can say yes, I’m going to go to,” he said. “You don’t have to have an appreciation for classical music or opera. A movie is a movie.”
He will also try to broaden the opera house’s volunteer base, and not just because he had spent a lot of time shoveling its handicap ramp.
“We’ve really let that (recruiting) slip in the past. I think it’s a crucial link to the community,” he said. “There’s plenty of stuff to do.”
Evans has also, with board approval, tweaked the membership options. Backers can now become members and be listed on the playbill and receive the opera house’s quarterly newsletter for $35, down from $50. A sliding scale of membership benefits runs up from there; top donors get dinners for two at local restaurants, group discounts and even a “special recognition package.”
Making membership more affordable, he said, helps raise the $90,000 a year in grants, gifts, fund-raising like the Ladies Rally, venue rentals and net ticket sales the theater needs to break even.
“That’s another big goal for 2008, right now, to build our membership base,” he said. “People who maybe don’t have a lot of time but want to support us anyway can maybe help us out through a donation.”
Of course, having a slate of offerings that appeals to as many residents as possible is vital.
“What works is having events, having lights on and doors open and someone on the stage,” he said. “The way to go is bringing in more variety, different things, so that there’s always something for everybody at the opera house.”
Upcoming events include “Petestock,” an annual variety show organized by Monkton singer-songwriter Pete Sutherland on Dec. 30; African drumming lessons; and what Evans called “a 1950s-style crooner.”
Evans said he and the board would consider anything from magicians to St. Patrick Day dances for local service clubs, because they believe the theater’s mission it to serve local residents.
“This place is really for everybody. It’s really to serve the greater community in whatever way,” he said. “Historically, it was the biggest open space in the city, and it was used for everything from commencements to weddings to high school plays … We want to continue that history of broad use, where anyone can come in and enjoy the space.”

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