Town Hall Theater eyes big moves; new acting co. is first up

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Town Hall Theater (THT) Executive Director Douglas Anderson metaphorically looks upon entertainment ideas as tiny flames that should be fanned to burn brightly on the community’s stage. And Anderson has been doing a lot of fanning these days on some new ventures that could soon ignite a veritable blaze of visual and auditory pyrotechnics at the THT.
Anderson this week confirmed the formation of a new, semi-professional, resident acting company at the THT that will debut this November with eight performances of the musical “Shrek.” And he is closing in on a deal that would produce a resident symphony orchestra for the THT.
The as-yet-unnamed theater company and symphony orchestra are to join four resident companies already in place under the THT’s entertainment umbrella: Middlebury Actors Workshop, Middlebury Community Players, the Maiden Vermont chorus and Opera Company of Middlebury. Together, the companies are intended to offer an abundant and diverse selection of entertainment for the public in a way that nurtures creativity and aspiring actors while providing a revenue stream to sustain the THT.
“When we were restoring this (THT) building over a 10-year process, we of course were thinking about what was going to fill it,” Anderson said. “Many small towns have restored their local theater without simultaneously thinking, ‘What comes next?’ Running a building like this is expensive, you’ve got to have a certain amount of varied entertainment throughout the year that appeals to all members of the community.”
In return for a percentage of their ticket sales, these companies get to use the THT building and its considerable amenities — such as lighting and publicity — for their performances. It’s a formula that provided the very successful Middlebury Community Players with a permanent home after 40 years of performing in temporary venues. The THT 10 years ago helped incubate the Middlebury Actors Workshop and then welcomed the Maiden Vermont chorus and the Opera Company of Middlebury.
“Six women walked into my office one day and started singing, and I immediately had bigger ideas for them than they did,” Anderson quipped of bringing Maiden Vermont into the fold.
“This is something I think Town Hall Theater should be doing,” he added. “If there is a group of talented individuals … we should fan that flame and we should give the tools to take whatever they do to the next level. That’s been our philosophy, and it’s been very successful.”
Successful, to the tune of 165 events at the THT each year, an unusually high number for a small community theater, Anderson noted.
“If THT had to produce all of those events, we would all be dead,” he joked of the Herculean effort it would take to engineer such an agenda in-house. “But the other companies have their own boards, their own fundraising and they all bring us a great wonderful variety.”
Anderson hopes to soon announce an agreement with a resident symphony orchestra, one that currently hails from the Champlain Valley. And he is very excited to see the formation of the new theater company being led by area residents Justin Bouvier, Tim Guiles, Kim Anderson and Leigh Guptill. The THT has provided that company with some funding for start-up costs and royalty fees it will incur for staging “Shrek.”
“I think we have a wonderful model here,” he said, hoping other groups will follow suit.
Meanwhile, Guiles and company are excited to be given the opportunity to take on “Shrek” and a variety of other plays on the THT stage during the coming years. Guiles recalled that it was during the THT’s fifth anniversary gala this past June that the seeds were sown for a new, local group to undertake production of a musical this fall. Guiles, Anderson, Guptill and Bouvier have long been members of the THT scene, either as performers or in a directing capacity. They found they shared a common desire to collaborate on “Shrek” and possibly future productions as a new company affiliated with the THT.
“Justin and I had talked several years ago about having a semi-professional company,” Guiles recalled. Plans call for the new company to be fluid rather than exclusive — that is, people from the community will be able to audition for future projects.
“This is supposed to be a model for a healthy way for theater to grow in our community,” said Guiles, a Middlebury musician and piano instructor who has provided artistic/musical direction for a number of THT events.
What will set the soon-to-be-named new company apart is that participants will get some financial compensation for their efforts. There will be profit sharing of any performance revenues that exceed expenses, such as the THT’s cut, royalties, sets, etc. While the leads will be awarded a bigger proportional cut, everyone associated with a project is expected to get some compensation, provided it goes into the black.
“We are trying to legitimize the arts as a career,” Guiles said, while acknowledging that actors in the new company will not be able to subsist solely on the profit sharing. “And this is another way to attract semi-professional talent and create great theater.”
The new company will hold auditions for ensemble parts in “Shrek” on Sept. 1 and 2.
It’s a family play that Guiles said will appeal to all demographics.
“‘Shrek’ is ultimately a story about being judged,” he said. “Do you let people define you, or do you define yourself?”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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