Doug Anderson — meet the man in the spotlight at Town Hall Theater

Take a snapshot of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater today, and what do you see? A glamorous but comfortable 232-seat community space that hosts approximately 165 performances every year. Acts range from dog shows to films, local theater to professional operas, and everything in between. The theater and its staff are funded by a comfortable revenue stream supported by ticket sales and donations.
Get the picture? It’s a booming success.
But Town Hall Theater is coming into new territory in it’s 10th year — its chief steward, its creator, its wizard Doug Anderson will be stepping down as executive director and into a new role of artistic director. And the question is: Will Town Hall Theater’s success continue without Anderson pulling the strings and levers behind the proverbial curtain?
We can only hope. After all, success is not guaranteed.
But Anderson has learned a few things in his almost 65 years about creating success, which he shared recently with a crowd at The Residence at Otter Creek.
“This is the craziest thing I’ve been asked to do… What happened to get me here? Think about that. What got you here to this moment?” he asked the audience. “What choices did you make? What combination of things had to happen?”
Complex questions that can only be answered by a full life story.
“Life is lived forwards,” Anderson quoted an unknown source, “but understood backwards.”
And he began — at the beginning.
“I was born in Dayton, Ohio, to a ‘Leave It To Beaver’ kind of family,” Anderson said. He was the fourth child of five, with three older sisters and one younger brother.
“My three older sisters were really into musical theater,” he said. “They had musical comedy albums and a turntable, and when I was maybe 8 or 10, I would sneak into their room and play their records… If I had older brothers, I probably would be a rugby player or something.”
By high school, Anderson was fully exercising his love of musical theater with a group of friends who put together a traveling children’s musical theater group.
“We built the set in a trailer and had no adult supervision,” he remembered, of a different era. “We traveled around southern Ohio all summer long… We learned and we wrote the plays; some bombed and some succeeded.”
Soon, Anderson became the director of that group. “That’s when I discovered Lisa Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson),” Anderson said.
That’s also when Anderson discovered one of his five patterns to make a successful life.
“Don’t wait for people to call you,” he said. “Make the work happen. Do things.”
Anderson got in the habit of making work, making art, all the time while he attended Kenyon College in Ohio. As a senior he wrote a musical (“Complications”) that earned him highest honors.
But the choice to make work wasn’t always easy for Anderson.
“You know those tiny moments that change your life? Well, I had one when I was a senior in college… I had decided I was going to be an actor and was set to go to a cattle call (an open audition with a large number of actors) with my roommate. But when my alarm went off, it was a cold, snowy day, and I decided I wasn’t going to go to the audition — I’d stay in bed…. But then something in me said, ‘Get out of bed and go.’”
He did, and Anderson got a job right away.
After graduating, he joined an improv theater “Bread and Circuses,” where he and the cast improvised a musical every night.
“They were the best days,” according to Anderson, but the company couldn’t afford to pay the actors. “I was so broke,” he added. “I remember one day I wrote two letters and could only afford to send one.”
Sure, Anderson recalled, there were plenty of times he would have loved to yell and scream about not getting paid, and storm out in a huff. But he never did.
That’s lesson number two.
“Always do the work and be the professional,” he said. “There’s always someone in the room who can help you, and you never know who that might be.”
In this instance, his name was Jay Perry.
“Jay noticed me,” Anderson said.
Together they went on to put together a night club act in 1977. “We got an agent for our 1930s-style vaudeville disaster,” said Anderson, describing the act. “Debby Duff Anderson was in the audience at one of the shows… and the rest is history.”
Debby is, of course, Anderson’s wife and right-hand lady.
Two years later, Perry produced Anderson’s first show, “Knucklebones” — a comedy — on 42nd street in New York City.
The connections didn’t stop there. After meeting one of Perry’s friends — Rex McGraw, a theater teacher at Ohio State and Ohio University — only a few times, McGraw offered Anderson a teaching fellowship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Go get a free graduate degree, and teach theater? OK,” Anderson said. So he and Debby moved.
Anderson grew a bright red beard to look the part of “professor” and taught undergrads in the conservatory training program for five years.
“I wasn’t happy there,” Anderson said, and Debby echoed that. “Life exists in a sea of corn there.”
On a fateful day in 1983, a career catalog was open to a page that had a job listing for Middlebury College.
Anderson had spent his boyhood summers in Middlebury visiting his family, the Bergedicks, and knew he had to apply.
He landed the three-year theater teaching position and he and Debby built their home in East Middlebury.
“We just fell in love with Vermont,” he said.
Knowing that the gig was finite, Anderson started writing for the Children’s TV Workshop — you might know them from shows like “Sesame Street.”
“I was ready to write for TV and get out of academia,” Anderson said. “But then Amherst offered me a theater/English job.”
After much wooing from Amherst and refusal by Anderson, he acquiesced and took the job — “with no English teaching experience.”
“After five years I had to publish something,” said Anderson, who was facing tenure at the time. “I decided to write about theater in London’s East End — for those who don’t know it’s the poorer and ethnic side of town.”
Anderson spent three or four months in the East End during his sabbatical in 1990 and hung out in the theaters.
“They don’t think about theater as a high art there,” he said. “It’s open to all; there’s even often a pub in the back of the theater… think about those guilded, fancy theaters — they’re saying ‘you’re not welcome.’ These theaters in the East End were serving the communities they’re in. That hit me very hard and ultimately influenced me when I was thinking about what Town Hall Theater could be. A community needs a big room.”
All during this time, Anderson was consistently writing plays. He won several national playwriting competitions and acquired an agent, who sent one of his plays to a director — a Circle Repertory Company rep — Roy Steinberg. One play got picked up, and academia took a backseat.
“We were planning the production in the Circle Repertory studio when Steinberg got the job as a director on the CBS soap opera, — er, ‘day-time drama’ — Guiding Light,” Anderson explained.
Instead of freaking out and getting upset with Steinberg for bailing on him, Anderson began watching the “day-time drama.”
“I started analyzing it like a professor,” he said. “I stayed in touch with Roy and we’d talk about the show.”
Eighteen months later, Guiding Light just happened to be looking for a writer.
“Roy invited me down to New York City,” Anderson said.
“We made an hour’s worth of TV every day,” Anderson remembered. “It was stressful.”
During that time Anderson would spend four days in the city and then come home to East Middlebury for three days. He’d go for walks in the woods and write.
“But then came the OJ Simpson trial and it crashed the soap-opera era,” Anderson explained. “Who wants to watch fictional drama when you can see the real thing?”
Anderson returned to East Middlebury full-time after that, leaving the soap opera scene behind him.
But drama followed.
In August 1997, Anderson got a call from Dutton Smith Sr. “He wanted me to buy the old Knights of Columbus building and make it a theater,” Anderson said. Together they walked through the building; Anderson was skeptical until he found the proscenium arch — an arch framing the opening of the stage.
“Standing there I immediately knew my small skillset would save this building,” said Anderson, with his background in theater and Debby’s connection to the local community (she owned the local kitchen store Dada from 1994-2000), “it all seemed to click. And I said, ‘We’ll take it!’ But there was no ‘we’; there was no money; there was just a guy who had a long view. I could honestly see what it was going to be in 10 years.”
And he was right, of course.
But that doesn’t answer the question. Who’s going to step into Anderson’s shoes and bring another decade of success?
“Who is going to run, love and care for this theater in 10 more years?” Anderson asked. “It’s important to take the long view now. It’s time to put me out to pasture and let me just be the creative guy.”
Town Hall Theater is creating a $2.5 million endowment fund for this transition; it has received over $1.25 million to fund it as of last week.
“Any organization has to continually reinvent itself,” Anderson said. “I hope the money is used for stuff we can’t even imagine! The next generation will decide how they want to use their big room.”
Editor’s Note: Doug Anderson will present an encore of his life story on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 4 p.m., at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. 

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