Vermont Arts Council

Second Stage Brings Second Act

The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company has operated in the heart of Weston since 1937. In September 2017, funded by a $13 million capital campaign, the company opened a new space on an historic farm at the north end of the village. At that time, Producing Artistic Director Steve Stettler explained, “We will, of course, continue to offer great summer shows in the Weston Playhouse, but this project will allow us to extend our reach.” The additional building was made to accommodate shows that need flexible space, to expand the season, and to provide a place for other community events.

We checked in with Steve last week. Clearly proud, he asked, “What could be more perfect than a state-of-the-art barn-like structure that enables us to preserve a Vermont icon as a place to grow the arts?” After one complete season he knows: “We can produce theater in virtually any configuration imaginable — an intimate proscenium arrangement, three-quarter thrust, in-the-round, environmental, cabaret, you name it. In its first year of use, it has also proven to work equally well as a community space. We’ve had meetings and lectures, concerts, films, receptions and dinners, workshops, and a farmers market. The sky’s the limit!” Here’s more about the Second Stage at Walker Farm.

Arts Council: New spaces don’t just show up. What were the unseen efforts in the creation of the Second Stage over time? How did the organizers know this was a “Go!” in Weston?

Joe Iconis and Family open Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm with a concert of the Broadway-bound writer/composer's material.
Joe Iconis and Family open Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm with a concert of the Broadway-bound writer/composer’s material.

Steve Stettler: This space has been a long time in the making. We shared our vision for a year-round second stage with our board nearly 20 years ago, when we began a seasonal “Other Stages” program in a succession of found spaces in Weston. A group of friends of the theater purchased the Walker Farm property for us in 2006, and we went public with a major capital campaign in 2008, just in time for the global recession. The campaign was put on hold for several years, and is now being completed more than ten years after it began.

Our board, family of donors, community, and company of artists believed in this vision throughout the lengthy planning and fundraising process that led to the opening of Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm last September. While the amount of planning and fundraising was considerable over more than a decade, I’m happy to say that once we made the commitment, it was “all systems go.”

Arts Council: What is going on now that lets you know this is a success?

Steve Stettler: Our beta seasons of year-round events and increased programming has been an unqualified success — developing partnerships, invigorating the local area, and allowing us to expand our audience from 22,000 to 30,000 persons and our school matinee program by 50%, all since we opened Walker last fall. The response to the new facility by audiences, artists, and renters alike has been hugely enthusiastic, and we are now in the process of attracting companies and producers to be in residence in Weston to develop and share new plays and musicals.

Arts Council: There are a number of new arts facilities in Vermont. What’s your take?

Ava Vercellone, Emmett Smyth, and Ryder Scott in the musical “Fun Home” at Walker Farm, summer 2018.

Steve Stettler: Vermont has always been an ideal location for artists in retreat and communities who want to create and celebrate together. Over the three decades that my partners and I have been producing at Weston, we have seen this theater and many of the state’s cultural institutions achieve maturity and become fully professional while deepening their commitment to their community and the state of Vermont. It is a sign of the health and vitality of those companies and their importance both locally and nationally that they have been able to build Vermont-appropriate facilities that will allow them to make even greater contributions in the future.

Arts Council: Are you aware of any synergy between yours and some of the other new organizations? If not, should there be? Do you have ideas for building it?

Steve Stettler: We have had happy and fruitful partnerships with many other companies in recent years, and now that we have completed the big push to open this new facility, I see great potential for building on that groundwork and the new opportunities that are cropping up. My partners and I are just handing over the reins of leadership to Weston’s new Executive Artistic Director Susanna Gellert, and I know she has partnerships as one of her priorities for the years ahead.

Arts Council: If you had to offer a piece of advice for directors, boards, and communities considering building, what would it be?

Steve Stettler: Define, research, and plan responsibly for the programs that will be housed in a new facility, involving your community in those plans, and thinking far into the future. Bricks and mortar are exciting, but they need to be manifestations of promising and meaningful programs or they are simply expensive real estate. What happens and can happen in a new space should govern what the space will be.

—Weston Playhouse Theatre Company is one of the Vermont Arts Council’s Arts Partners.

— all images by Hubert Schriebl

— compiled by Susan McDowell

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