THT sparks student, town collaboration

MIDDLEBURY — The Town Hall Theater has served as a hotbed for collaboration between townspeople and Middlebury College students since its opening 18 months ago.
Those on both sides of the equation say performances by college groups are drawing a whole new audience when they are staged off-campus. In addition, shows where students act alongside community members are breaking down boundaries between formerly separate arts communities.
“It’s a great cross-over space,” said Town Hall Theater Director Doug Anderson. “It’s locals and college students working together on a common creative project.”
Two more performances this week hope to continue breaking down boundaries and building up alliances. On Thursday night, Middlebury College’s Sound Investment swing band will play for a swing dance at the theater. The following night, the Otter Nonsense Players, a popular campus improvisation comedy troupe, will stage their Town Hall Theater debut.
They come on the heels of the January run of “The Wild Party,” a musical featuring college students and directed by Anderson.
Such activity is just what college and theater officials envisioned when in the fall of 2007 the college announced it would provide the THT with $1 million over the next 20 years to give the theater a strong financial footing. That came on top of two $125,000 gifts earlier in the decade.
Thursday night won’t be Sound Investment’s first performance at the Town Hall Theater — last April, it played for a well-attended dance there, preceded by free swing dance lessons from the college’s swing dance club. The group aims for one concert performance and one swing dance performance each semester. Band director Dick Forman sees the Town Hall Theater performances as a good chance for the students to play for a different crowd.
“The mix is different when we work in town,” he said. “It’s kind of a real-world event, as opposed to campus.”
The students in his band are always enthusiastic when they have the opportunity to play off campus, and he hopes that the Town Hall Theater event will become an annual gig.
“It really serves both the town and the college well,” said Forman. “The students get to play to a wider audience, and the people in town get a chance to see these kids creating music.”
Anderson has good memories from the last swing dance.
“I saw a college junior dancing with a 65-year-old Weybridge farmer. That kind of thing happened all night,” he wrote in an email.
Otter Nonsense member Will Bellaimey is also looking forward to the group’s off-campus debut.
“It’s a really cool space,” he said. “It feels very different from the theaters on campus.”
The group’s standing-room-only campus shows often take place around 11 p.m. — a time that attracts an audience made up overwhelmingly of students. So the group is hoping to draw a crowd to this show that also includes townspeople and professors.
“It’s a great chance to get a whole new audience to see the show,” said Bellaimey. “We’re building a bridge, and hoping it does something good for town-gown relations.”
The Town Hall Theater has offered opportunities for campus groups like the Middlebury College Musical Players, who are not affiliated with any department and have, in years past, struggled to find an adequate performance space. And in the summer, students and professors from the college language schools take the theater over for three weeks, putting together performances in various languages.
“I like to think of it as an international arts festival that just appears here,” said Anderson.
For Anderson, some of the best events have been the ones where college students and townspeople got the opportunity to work together. Some are college productions, like last year’s music department show, “Gypsy,” which featured several children from the community. Some are the theater’s own productions, for which college students often audition.
And though it can be hard getting students into town when there are shows and events happening closer by, on campus, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.
“It is a challenge to get a college kid to walk down the hill and see a show during a snow storm,” Anderson said. “But as long as the work is good, students will follow it down here.”
The Sound Investment will play for the swing dance at the Town Hall Theater Thursday, March 11, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, or $6 for Middlebury College students.
Otter Nonsense will perform at the Town Hall Theater on Friday, March 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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