Commentary

Halkias: Oldcastle Theatre Company has a new venue to embrace

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by award-winning journalist Telly Halkias. It first appeared in the Bennington Banner.

For Oldcastle Theatre Company and its founding director Eric Peterson, the start of a new season is a cause for celebration and reflection, particularly with how tough the economy has been on small, professional theaters throughout Vermont.

Recently, however, with the opening of the musical “Northern Boulevard,” there was an extra ingredient mixed in: A new permanent home in downtown Bennington with state of the art design housed in the old Knights of Columbus building on Main Street.

From its inception, Oldcastle’s goal was to produce the best theater it could for the surrounding region. Until last year, it had been housed in the Bennington Center for the Arts since 1994, when local patron Bruce Laumeister included plans for a theater to complement art galleries. Oldcastle, entering its 41st season, is adjusting to the times with an eye on heralding the stage to a new generation.

Oldcastle’s story is the stuff of Vermont lore. Peterson and his troupe began as a traveling show, and then toiled away in residence at Southern Vermont College for nearly two decades. Having become an Actor’s Equity Company during that time, their logistical needs changed drastically.

To survive, Oldcastle required a dedicated space; the move to the Bennington Center for the Arts provided that boost, and the company worked to capitalize on it ever since, staying true to the original founders’ intent. The recent move downtown was just another scene in a continuing performance, leaving fans leaning in their seats for the next act.

In 1972, Peterson might never have imagined such longevity. Four close friends and colleagues collaborated with him to form not just a performing company, but also an ideal that has endured a roller coaster ride — both practical and aesthetic.

Norms of entertainment have changed, and the age groups of that era have changed right along with them. A corresponding paradigm shift Oldcastle encountered was waning public awareness of Broadway, and the ripple effect those shows had on community theaters,, and the industry worldwide.

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With the New York stage as the gold standard, theater’s exposure on the new medium of television was priceless to a show’s longevity in terms of being picked up by other companies — sometimes even one as small as Oldcastle.

But past its financial and artistic well-being, one of Vermont’s most venerable theater companies has always been socially responsible and generous, assisting in fundraisers for good causes every season.

Also, in the 1960s and 1970s, entire scenes from Broadway plays would be acted out on such small-screen hits as “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Their casts and directors were routinely interviewed in sessions that gave audiences previews of what they could expect. With that publicity, regional fans would know exactly what a company such as Oldcastle was doing when it picked up a New York show, and would flock to see it.

But times have changed. Today, TV has little interest in covering theater, New York shows aren’t quite the definitive industry stamp, and with the click of a computer’s mouse, anyone can see Olivier as Hamlet.

Under this new normal, community theaters are facing a pattern of adaptation to ensure financial success. The current trend, one of consolidation and streamlining, has emphasized the need for more financial flexibility.

Peterson, the 1970s idealist, along with the board of trustees and generous benefactors, is finding ways to navigate Oldcastle through those waters, all while harvesting a fresh crop of local arts lovers and keeping an eye on creative development and future fiscal requirements.

The 2012-13 campaign includes a program adjustment from four to eight shows designed to address the company’s economic viability, and allow for growth in its creative expression.

But past its financial and artistic well-being, one of Vermont’s most venerable theater companies has always been socially responsible and generous, assisting in fundraisers for good causes every season. In the past, for example, Oldcastle held a major event in conjunction with one of its openings to benefit the Bennington Free Clinic. Undoubtedly, there’s more to come.

In the midst of these efforts, Peterson, his staff, and the Oldcastle trustees grasp the need to cultivate a younger cohort of benefactors and patrons. The move downtown bodes well not only for theater fans, but for the community at large.

Over time, arts venues have proven to be commercial and quality of life multipliers for their neighbors, both business and residential. For a small place such as Bennington, in a small state like Vermont, Oldcastle Theatre Company and its related initiatives are sound investments for our culture, and the future.


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