By George V. Nostrand
There’s no shortage of creative talent around Vermont. But sometimes there is a shortage of venues for it to be performed or displayed.
Vermonters always have practiced Yankee ingenuity, “making it work.” That means musicians regularly squeeze into a corner of a bar, or artwork is displayed on walls in banks or coffee shops.
There also are a growing number of creative spaces and innovative ways of using existing space that are popping up as alternative venues. They present art in unusual ways while relying on adaptive approaches for their successes.
Common threads hold these projects together: accessibility, affordability, intimacy and collaboration.
In Sunderland, for example, Georgette Yakman has set her sights — and imagination — on using a three-car garage as a space for house concerts and other events. While most people walking into a garage would just see a mess, Yakman saw opportunity. She hopes to start small with monthly concerts this winter, but she has plenty of ideas.
In addition to an intimate place to perform, connecting directly with the audience, performers would get a meal and a place to stay.
“Musicians who came here would be close to ski areas and other Vermont attractions,” said Yakman. “It could almost be a mini retreat for them.”
Musician Paul Asbell, of Burlington, has played in all kinds of venues over the years. He’d like to see more house concerts in Vermont.
“It just seems Vermont is so suited for it — and it’s so Vermont,” Asbell said. “You think about the heritage and people playing fiddle in the kitchen or music in front of a fire.”
Asbell said that intimacy lends itself to a certain type of performer and performance.
“Every room has an ideal kind of musical presentation that works in that room. When you match the performance and the space well, it allows for intimate setup,” said Asbell. “It’s not a coincidence that small, homey rooms are suited for solo performers — who are talking and playing. Those presentations are better sonically and personally.”
In Wallingford, Stacy Harshman opened The Sparkle Barn this year. It houses a gallery downstairs and a loft space above where she offers live music and shows movies. She’s hoping to offer classes soon.
Harshman recently provided local watercolorist Peter Huntoon, of Middletown Springs, the opportunity to showcase his multiple talents simultaneously. While people admired his paintings downstairs, his reformed band was performing in the loft.
Harshman, who said she has always wanted an art gallery, found the 1,800-square-foot traditional barn structure allows her to make the Sparkle Barn more of a community space.
“I also work at Pierce’s Store in Shrewsbury part-time and love the sense of community that place has,” Harshman said. “I want to bring some of that to my space here.”
Harshman, with her friend and collaborator, Nicole Polec, turned what had been a space for training dogs into a performance hall. In a stroke of good luck, the flooring, made out of recycled rubber that had been put down for the dogs, absorbs sound and improves the large room’s acoustics.
“Here in Vermont, we are fortunate to enjoy many unique venues that exude authenticity and charm,” said Huntoon after performing. “The Sparkle Barn has plenty of both and we really enjoyed playing there.”
Culture on the road
“Charm” was an unintended surprise for South Burlington’s Chatch Pregger, who has taken “alternative space” to a new level. His company, Farm to Ballet, takes traditional dance forms to nontraditional places.
“Farm to Ballet allowed us to take ballet to audiences in rural communities where there was no access to space where dance (performances) would traditionally be held. In doing so, we reached a much wider and diverse audience,” he said.
The concept of Farm to Ballet was to bring dance performance out of the studios, partnering with local farms and nonprofits — all to promote healthy food. One of the performances was held at Green Mountain College in Poultney. Other venues included farms in Essex, South Albany, New Haven, Woodstock, Shaftbury and Shelburne. “There are a lot of costs associated with the use of traditional spaces, and the size of the space you perform in is often limited,” he said. “We can put on big shows outside and really use the space. We also didn’t have to worry about a lot of props or backdrops. Vermont was our scenery.”
The more he looked at the idea, he said, the more advantages he found.
“Working with the nonprofits and farmers started out as a necessity for the project,” Pregger said. “Now it’s one of the most exciting things for me.”
Farm to Ballet is seeking space for next summer, when Pregger is looking to put on eight shows. Descriptions, information and applications can be found on their website, farmtoballet.org.
Even the executive director of Rutland’s Paramount Theatre has experimented with alternative venues.
Bruce Bouchard helped produce a performance and workshop in a field in Middletown Springs. Last summer, Bouchard brought actors from New York City up for a brief residency. The performances were at the Apple Barn at Burnham Hollow Orchard.
“I come from the found-theater ethos, more than the formal-theater ethos,” Bouchard said. “I fell in love with this place immediately. I walked in this building and swooned.”
So why would someone with access to an historic theater like the Paramount want to take a performance into the sticks? For Bouchard, one word summed it up: Intimacy.
Scribbling with a pen on a pad of paper, Bouchard showed how performers were in close proximity to the audience — in the round — something not available at traditional theaters. It places the audience right on top of the show and the performers.
“They’re just talking. They don’t have to worry about projecting or using a microphone,” he said.
Producers for shows in unusual spaces say the overall response has been positive and audiences are drawn to them. Harshman already is looking for ways to expand upon their offerings and grow audiences.
“We want to do one music event a month and one evening featuring short films. We’re also looking to add workshops and classes. There’s infinite possibilities here,” she said.