$2.5 million fund drive launched for theater’s fund: THT endowment would support theater upkeep, artistic director

MIDDLEBURY — Town Hall Theater officials are midway through a $2.5-million fund drive that would permanently endow a new “artistic director” position as well as ongoing maintenance at Middlebury’s historic downtown hub for community arts and entertainment.
Organizers on Monday went public with what they’re calling the Doug and Debby Anderson Endowment. If realized, the $2.5 million nest egg would generate enough annual interest income to cover an artistic director’s salary and a litany of annual upgrades to the 1884-vintage THT building at the corner of Merchants Row and South Pleasant Street.
Plans call for Doug Anderson — the THT’s first executive director — to transition to the new artistic director post. That would follow what would likely be a nationwide search for a new chief administrator for what has become a thriving venue showcasing local, regional and national talent.
“I’m leaving, but I’m not going anywhere,” Anderson quipped during a recent interview in the THT lobby.
The change in positions would extend Anderson’s run with an artistic institution he imagined and then spearheaded two decades ago. It was in 1997 that he went on an initial walk-through of what was then the local Knights of Columbus Hall, which in years gone by had served as the Middlebury town hall, a theater and other commercial uses. Anderson rallied support for purchasing and renovating the building to serve once again as a place where the community could go for dramatic productions, musical performances and art exhibits.
Boosters in 2008 capped a successful $5 million fundraising effort to make the Town Hall Theater a reality. Anderson agreed to take the helm of the fledgling enterprise.
It should also be noted THT has added personnel through the years. Current ranks include six full-timers and four part-timers, including a box office manager, education director and operations/marketing manager.
Anderson has sought to lessen his managerial responsibilities through the years in order to focus strictly on directing productions and nurturing local talent. Serving in both roles has often made for some 80-hour workweeks for Anderson, who noted he will soon turn 65.
“Anyone who has created a business knows that you’ll do whatever it takes to get it established,” Anderson said of his initial drive to take on multiple responsibilities. “You’ll put in all of the hours and sweat equity you can possibly give it to make the business a success.”
But serving in multiple roles is fast becoming “unsustainable,” he said.
Many theater organizations, he said, have both an artistic director and executive director, with the latter position overseeing contracts, budgets, human resources, promotion, building maintenance and theatrical amenities, according to Anderson.
The artistic director handles the creative side of the organization — programming events, directing productions, searching for new acts, and crafting a diverse season that appeals to a wide range of people and interests. At THT, that adds up to more than 165 events per year.
Anderson currently directs around a half-dozen productions each year, above and beyond his administrative job in the THT office. So he occasionally has to interrupt his directorial duties to troubleshoot heating, lighting and other glitches.
“It takes its toll after so many years,” he said of his diverse duties. “And while I love this place and what we’ve accomplished here, at my age one job — rather than two — is all I can handle. And my true value to this place is on the creative side.”
THT board members agreed, and they launched the silent phase of the $2.5 million endowment campaign around a year ago. As of this week, that campaign had harvested $1.25 million, including several contributions of $100,000, according to Anderson.
Thankfully, the THT’s successful track record has become its best selling point to prospective donors.
“They want this place to survive.”
Not only survive, but thrive. And Anderson believes a younger executive director could bring in some new ideas and energize a new generation of THT enthusiasts.
“I call this ‘THT 2.0,’” Anderson said of the generational makeover that will be key to the organization’s long-term success. “Where will we be in 10 years? What will we be in 10 years? We need to start addressing these questions now. New energy in the form of a new executive director is precisely the place to start.”
The new executive director’s tasks will include stewardship of a historic THT building that needs regular repairs. Recent additions to the list have included replacing an electronic soundboard, switching to LED light fixtures, upgrading the projector (at a cost of $35,000), painting inside and outside the building, and replacing thousands of exterior bricks.
The $2.5 million endowment would be managed by the Vermont Community Foundation, and there would be no dipping into the principal.
Freed from budgeting and building maintenance issues, Anderson said he’d look forward to spending the rest of his life directing performances and cultivating new talent at THT.
“It would be a dream come true, to walk into this building every day and just do what I was trained to do, which is to create productions and events,” Anderson said of his potential new role.
The new title would also allow Anderson to work more closely with the 10 resident companies that call Town Hall Theater their home. Those companies include The Middlebury Community Players, the Opera Company of Middlebury, the Middlebury Actors Workshop and Maiden Vermont. Plans now call for creation of a children’s theater company.
He promised to keep THT programming eclectic and diverse — a formula that has kept the organization successful through the years.
A recent five-day stretch included an art film, a live broadcast of a play from London, a jazz concert, a rock concert, and the Howard University Gospel Choir. Another week might include a conference, a women’s barbershop choir, a Judy Collins concert and the MUHS Junior Prom.
“Theaters can seem like elitist places, catering only to those who love theater,” Anderson said. “We made the decision early on to serve as many people in this community as we possibly can — hence the wide array of our offerings. I’ve told the staff that a theater packed with kids for a trained dog show is just as important as a theater packed with adults for an opera. Both groups deserve the best.”
Benj Deppman, president of the THT board, is excited about the fund drive and its potential to strengthen the organization.
“In many ways, Town Hall Theater has become the social and cultural town hall of Middlebury,” he said. “We have accomplished so much in such a short period of time, we have a lot to be proud of and enthusiastic about … We need to ensure the sustainability of the programming as well as maintain the building. We want ticket prices affordable and we want to stage a lot of events. The demands on Doug have been significant for years. We believe this community would benefit tremendously if Doug transitioned to artistic director, so he could focus on the performances.”
Board member Susan Anderson-Ray believes the $2.5 million investment in THT will pay big dividends.
“This is an exciting time for Town Hall Theater,” she said.
“The endowment will also ensure that we can be good stewards of our historic building, as well as keep the infrastructure and technology current so that it continues to be used a truly unique performing arts venue.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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