Vermont Arts Council

Fringe in the North End

Burlington’s Old North End is rich in history, ethnically diverse, and runs on the lower side of the income scale. Homes on North Willard Street are more affordable than those on South Willard Street; it’s the same with North Union and South Union.

Small-scale shops blend with century-old housing. A big dose of reality mixes with a strong sense of community. And, a funky building with a garage sits at the jagged intersection of North Winooski Avenue and Archibald Streets. “There’s so many exciting things that happen inside this building,” says Paul Schnabel.

He’s talking about 294 North Winooski Avenue, home of the Off Center for the Dramatic Arts. The exciting things are Ben Bernstein’s multi-cultural work at North End Studios and the Center for Media & Democracy and Channel 17/Town Meeting TV upstairs. The space is also home to the Vermont Workers’ Center, and Women Helping Battered Women. A  real up-and-out kind of place. In short, an  “exciting little hub in the Old North End here.”

Original Theater. Not the Original Location

Off Center was incorporated in 2009 and the doors opened above Ken’s Pizza on Church Street in 2010. Paul Schnabel, John Alexander, Genevra MacPhail, and Stephen Goldberg founded the organization. It was on the third floor, a “40-seat tiny room converted to a groovy little space.” The Fire Marshall shut it down.

Paul walked by Ben Bernstein’s garage sale one day and had an idea. “This place should be a theater,” he thought out loud. “Do it,” Ben answered. So he did. “I had never met him (Ben) before!” They were “able to raise a modest amount of money and start a modest operation.” Now they are positioned as the go-to place for experimental theater and home of an annual festival.

I’ll Take the Help

Off Center is evolving; from founder stage to active nonprofit. Paul is “opening himself up to help from other people.” One is writer and theater artist David Schein. David grew up in Burlington, moved on to teach and perform all over the globe, then returned to the Old North End. “I’ve always had a theater to rehearse and tour from. I saw this place, and thought, ‘hmmmm, could I do some shows here?'” He could, he did, and he’s been associated with Paul since then.

When I spoke with David a week ago he outlined their progress. “Paul screamed for help in July. As of just last night, we now have a board of 12 people.” Off Center has officers, committees, and plans. David has run organizations for part of his life. “We’re artists and administrators. We’ve been in the trenches. We’ve also been through eight million meetings.” The vision is to “share the burden in a non-hierarchical kind of way.” The structure is “more a collective run by artists who work here.”

David Schein and Paul Schnabel

Off Center isn’t in competition with other theaters. “We work with them all!” Vermont Stage, for one, and the University of Vermont. The Flynn rents Off Center’s space. “So many of our board members act for Lost Nation, and Middlebury (Actor’s Workshop). This is the place where we do our own work. It’s a working studio space, a place to create, rehearse, and put on a show at low cost. You can afford to take a risk.” Relationships matter. “We’re bringing together this group of very active users — really increasing that sense of community. Maybe they’re doing this work, maybe in the Grange Hall. They’ve got a bunch of buddies, and say ‘c’mon and see this.'”

The Fourth Annual Fringe

“Committees are meeting as we speak,” David said. They’re choosing programming to offer throughout the year, each year. One safe bet is the Burlington Fringe Festival, coming up October 13-16. “This is the kick-off of a drive by Off Center to make everyone aware of what we’re doing.” More than 40 performers will appear in 27 productions. Both Paul and David’s excitement levels notch up when they start talking about the performers. They take turns naming the acts. The Potato Sack Pants Theater will perform something Paul described as “sort of a sketch comedy genre … hysterical dramatic dance pieces that use language, and performance poetry.”  Plus, “The House of LeMay doing what House of LeMay does — fabulous transgender cabaret!” Stephen Goldberg is doing a solo piece called “Goldberg,” and Kim Bent, well-known for his work at Lost Nation Theater, is performing “Caliban to the Audience” by the poet W.H. Auden. A “comic, dramatic, story teller like Dennis McSorley” is the sort of performance that sets Off Center apart from other places.

For David, now is the time to get to know Off Center. “Everyone knows us as actors and directors. The Fringe is just scratching the surface of all the original theater produced by Vermonters.”

more about Off Center and the Fringe Festival

tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets


Susan McDowell

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