Theater + Pandemic: Four Upper Valley Theaters’ Stories

Remember when performances looked like this? (That’s Opera North performing at Blow-Me-Down Farm in summer 2019.) Needless to say, times have changed.

How do you do your work when its usual nature involves bringing people into close proximity in indoor locations — a nonstarter in these pandemic times? Four Upper Valley professional theaters offer examples. And while you’re reading this, consider donating to your favorite arts organizations and artists to help them get through these tough times. Arts in the US generally operate with narrow margins and bargain budgets; if we want them to be around to lift our hearts and tell our stories, we need to support them.

Opera North

Opera North, active mainly in the summer, usually stages two full productions in the Lebanon Opera House. In the past two summers, it has also offered shows at the magnificent Blow-Me-Down Farm venue the company has been creating on the banks of the Connecticut River in Cornish NH in partnership with the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park — two summers of collaboration among circus artists, singers, and orchestra in a mash-up of performance and music drew in people who might not have expected to enjoy opera.

This summer is different: no LOH shows, but three performances at the Cornish site:  “Bluegrass and Broadway” on Saturday, August 1, featuring Klea Bankhurst, an actress, singer and comedienne, and Plainfield legends Pooh Sprague and the Four Hoarsemen; and Mozart’s The Magic Flute on Thursday, August 6, and Saturday, August 8, sung in English by a cast of 10 singers with a 24-piece orchestra. What’s more, tickets are free, thanks to some generous donors. Click here to obtain those free tickets.

Opera North is a member of Vital Communities’ Vital Economy network (formerly known as Local First Alliance.)

Northern Stage

This White River Junction theater company has held no live events since the shutdown began but has been using digital platforms in varied and engaging ways. Play Date, a play reading class with online discussions and performances curated and led by Northern Stage and its family of artists, takes place every other Friday through September 25 (next one: July 17). Online performances include an engaging production of the only play we know of based on a Vital Communities program: Elisabeth Gordon’s  Small Town Trilogy, based on actual exchanges on the Norwich Community Discussion List. It’s still available for viewing. A July 1 online discussion on the Robin D’Angelo book White Fragility, facilitated by Brittany Bellizeare, a nationally known actor, teaching artists, and diversity and inclusion consultant, is available for viewing; email boxoffice@northernstage.org and you’ll be sent the link. So many people expressed a desire to continue the conversation that Northern plans to hold additional sessions in the coming weeks (details to come).

All these online events are offered for free, although donations are needed from those who can afford them. Writes the company: “Even the most vibrant not-for-profit theater companies operate with a narrow margin between success and failure, and a challenge like this is unprecedented in our lifetime. We hope those who are able will make a donation.”

As for the 2020-21 season set to begin this fall, BOLD Associate Artistic Director, Jess Chayes writes: “Northern Stage is currently on the cusp of announcing an exciting fall line-up of brand new virtual programming while remaining open to the possibility of live performance if circumstances allow. Beyond the fall and winter, we are remaining flexible and imaginative so we can best respond to changing health and safety guidelines due to COVID-19.”

Opera North is a member of Vital Communities’ Vital Economy network (formerly known as Local First Alliance.)

JAG Productions 

This White River Junction-based theater was poised to hit a new peak this spring when Esai’s Table by Nathan Yungerberg, a play it helped develop (and shared with the Upper Valley), was to open in New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Days before opening, COVID shut down all New York theater. (Hear about the play’s history here.) A mystical, heartbreaking exploration of Black Lives Matter themes, it was a great example of the classic and contemporary African American theater it is JAG’s mission to develop and present.

Bouncing back from that setback, Founder and Producing Artistic Director Jarvis Green (one of Vital Communities’ 2019 “Heroes & Leaders”) has used JAG as a platform for powerful online programming on racism, holding a series of interactive digital conversations with Black artists across genres discussing “Black theatre, Black art, Black organizing, Black joy, Black critical thought, Black fantasy, Black history, and more during a time of death, betrayal, and a global pandemic.” Participants have so far included award-winning playwrights Keelay Gipson and Stacey Rose, poet Major Jackson, choreographer Felicia Swoope, writer Desmond Peeples, and cartoonist Lillie Harris. Videos of past conversations are archived on the JAG website. (Consider a donation to help pay the artists who contribute to these online gatherings.)

Shaker Bridge Theatre

To counter the blues from having to cancel its final two plays of the 2019-20 season, this Enfield theater, located above the town offices and library, decided to hold a contest for short plays set amidst this pandemic, featuring two or three characters. The 14 winners (see the list) will be given staged readings in the theater in the 2020-21 season, and some may be performed via Zoom in the near future.

New Help for Renters, Landlords, Homeowners

To help landlords and tenants facing pandemic-related financial problems, refer to this resource sheet created by Upper Valley Strong, a coalition made up of over 35 non-profit organizations, agencies and town representatives who come together during times of crisis, such as COVID-19. Further information about promoting safe practices in your housing community can be found on the Upper Valley Strong website.

New Hampshire:

Funding from the CARES Act will be available to NH residents for rental assistance.  The five Community Action Program (CAP) agencies in NH will be administering the funds.  There are 2 types of assistance:

  • A one-time grant (up to $2,500) for past due rent (from April 2020) or other housing-related expenses as a result of lost household revenue or increased household expenses (must be related to COVID-19).  This grant program is targeted to those households who will be able to maintain their housing without assistance after the one-time assistance payment.
  • Short-term rental assistance for those who are looking to maintain or secure permanent housing (includes first month’s rent and ongoing short-term rental assistance).

What You Should Know:

  • Both the one-time grants and the short-term rental assistance will be coupled with regional case management services to help connect households to appropriate services as defined by the household and the agency.
  • There are no income guidelines, but the loss of income or additional expense must be COVID-related.
  • An Eviction Notice is not required, but a Demand for Rent or ledger is necessary.
  • You do not need to have met with your city/town welfare first in order to get access to funding.
  • Program payments will be made directly to the landlord or provider.
  • The program will end by December 30, 2020.

How to Apply:

  • Online at the TCCAP interest form website.
  • Applications will be online, but paper copies can be requested
  • If you need help applying, you can contact:

If the amount of arrears cannot be cured by rental assistance from the CARES Act, tenants can apply for additional rental assistance from City/Town Welfare.

Vermont:

Rental Housing Stabilization Fund:

 

Mortgage Assistance Program:

  • The VT Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) for HOMEOWNERS for mortgage assistance – applications will open July 13 through August 31 and will pay up to 3 mortgage payments per household for VT primary homeowners who’ve had closings before March 1 and who are income-eligible: https://www.vhfa.org/map

Re-Housing Recovery Fund:

Emergency housing rehabilitation grants and forgivable loans to make up to 250 units of housing available to re-house homeless families experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak.

AREA OF NEED:

  • Homeless Families/Substandard Existing Rental
  • Housing Stock Grant and forgivable loans disbursed by housing service provider(s) selected by RFP process with oversight authority through Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development.

How to Apply:

For up more information about how to apply for funds through the state of Vermont, please visit the Vermont Economic Recovery and Relief Package Website.

Additional Resource in VT:

Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA): SEVCA provides a wide variety of services to individuals and families in Windham and Windsor Counties, including utility and housing assistance; help accessing State and local support networks like 3SquaresVT, supplemental fuel assistance, medical insurance, unemployment benefits, etc.; financial literacy courses; small business development; tax assistance; weatherization services; Head Start; advocacy, information, and referrals; and thrift stores. SEVCA is also available to help people affected by COVID-19 find, explore, and access options for recovery and stabilization. Visit the SEVCA Website for more details.

Three Upper Valley Institutions that Could Use Some TLC

What’s it like to navigate the pandemic when you’re the one signing the checks? Three Upper Valley bosses and business owners tell their tale, and why they value our support!


Legendary singer-songwriter Graham Nash (left) backstage with Lebanon Opera House Executive Director Joe Clifford in October 2019. Photo by Nancy Nutile-McMenemy.

For the Lebanon Opera House, the pandemic has been an intermission—a really, really long intermission. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, LOH was forced on March 13 to suspend all programming by national touring artists, resident community arts partners, and the Lebanon school district. At present, LOH will be dark well into Fall 2020. Due to the absence of ticket sales—upon which, like many in the arts community, LOH relies heavily—the LOH Board of Directors made the painful decision to furlough three of its four full-time staff members in mid-April.

 Executive Director Joe Clifford remains under full-time employment and he’s working feverishly to raise much-needed bridge funds, reschedule performances (including the Grammy-winning Béla Fleck and The Flecktones, on June 2, 2021), issue refunds for canceled shows, and book performances for 2021.

 “As a ‘nonessential’ business whose mission is to build and bind the community through large-scale gatherings (i.e. performances), COVID-19 has struck at the very heart of our work,” said Clifford. “The nature of event planning dictates that we work months, sometimes a year, in advance. We simply cannot afford to cease the planning, booking, selling, and marketing of performing arts events. Of course, we’re operating on COVID-19’s timeline and the ability to host successful public events is no longer guaranteed. At this point, we’re fighting for survival. Our return to ‘normalcy’ will take many months as patrons slowly warm up to the idea of once again sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of their neighbors.”

 A donation made to LOH through the TLC 4Ward program will have far-reaching ripple effects. The relative health of LOH’s operations directly impacts Lebanon restaurants, shops, and more than a dozen Upper Valley-based arts groups (Opera North, Revels North, and North Country Community Theatre among them) who set-up residence on the LOH stage each season.


Left Bank Books has been part of Hanover’s Main Street for over 20 years. Owner Nancy Cressman writes: 

Building relationships with book-loving people is the foundation of our mission. Our longevity comes from serving a loyal local customer base and being a welcoming and peaceful spot full of over 9,000 interesting books for locals and tourists alike. Our collection is carefully curated to select authors who are esteemed in their fields. Our collection spans many interests, age groups, and languages. We have contemporary and classic literature, poetry, cookbooks, field guides, history, books by local authors and about our region, children’s books, art books; architecture and music are also well represented, as well as other fields of interest.

The challenge for us at this COVID moment is that we lost three months of revenue while we were closed, but the rent, electric bills, etc, kept coming. Summer is normally our busiest season, but with the Dartmouth students not on campus and tourist travel very curtailed, it means we will be looking to our local customers to support us by buying books. This is a hard ask, because so many local businesses need help in this time, but if you believe the Upper Valley needs a used book store where people can find titles that a bookstore selling new books would not have, and you believe that the retail experience can be one of discovery and friendliness, please consider donating to Left Bank Books. Our store’s model is a wonderful example of local sustainability. We gather books from the community and send them out again to new owners. We purchase books for inventory from library sales, which helps in their fundraising. We believe in reuse—thus we sell used books! We hire local people, including many book-loving teenagers for whom this is their first job. We are small, committed and hyper-local.


April Woodman, owner of 100 Mile Market in downtown Claremont, didn’t have time to respond in writing because she was staffing her store, as she does most business days. Her market, which opened four years ago this May, sells food produced within 100 MILES of Claremont. Pre-COVID, 1oo Mile Market had been slowly building its customer base. “Then the world went crazy,” she said. “We stayed open 37 days straight, we didn’t close.” Sales boomed. “People needed what they needed and there was a giant hole in the supply chain, and we helped fill it.” They had to make upfront investments in additional freezer and cooler space for local meat and dairy, so they are short the capital and time to create an online ordering platform for curbside pick-up. TLC funds would help with that. At present, orders come via a time-consuming jumble of phone, email, and text messages. 


Got a few extra dollars due to pandemic restrictions on your activities? Consider helping local businesses and organizations through TLC 4Ward or patronizing those entities!

Regional Collaboration Along Route 11

Claremont in its 19th-century heyday. Courtesy of the Claremont Historical Society.

As part of an effort to better engage the southern portion of Vital Communities’ 69-town region, over five months in 2019 VC’s Mike Kiess visited towns and cities throughout what has come to be known as the Route 11 Corridor. These 23 municipalities clustered along that state highway and the Sugar and Black rivers, from Wilmot,NH, to Westminster, Vt.

“I’d usually set up one or two interviews in advance,” Kiess said. “But what was most fun was getting to the town a few hours early and walking down its main street and finding a place that clearly locals were going into,” such as a coffee shop or convenience store. “I’d start talking to people and asking them about their community, what they liked about it, what concerned them. I’d end up coming away with 8 or 10 substantial conversations in addition to the one or two I had planned. I’d always find people who offered a great perspective I wouldn’t have heard otherwise.”

What did he hear during this “diner diplomacy”? “People expressed a great deal of pride,” he said. “People are really devoted to their communities. They are honest about the challenges and shortcomings, but they want their kids to have a good experience growing up and feel that often it’s their town that makes that possible.”

Those dozens and dozens of conversations, coupled with lots of statistics about demographics, economy, and more, went into a 38-page report (“Route 11 Corridor Outreach Report”) presented in a February meeting of people from throughout that region. Now, after having to pause while everyone adjusted to the demands of the pandemic, the group will come together digitally for its second meeting on Tuesday, June 23, 4 pm.

In the February meeting, participants came up with a varied list of ways people in their region could work together to enhance life for its residents—including neighborhood clean-ups, shared sports and arts events between towns, workforce internships, volunteer-supported housing upgrades, composting, and community pride events. At the June 23 meeting, people will choose efforts to sign on to and will decide on next steps.

A lot of the faces in the room belong to people Mike met in those town visits and invited to participate in the longer-term effort. They include June Sweetsir and Hillary Halleck (Charlestown), Stacey Hammerlind (Newport), Beth Daniels (Southwest Community Services), Gary Fox (Rockingham), and Elyse Crossman (Claremont).

These 23 towns haven’t seen themselves as a region, historically. Older residents remember intense rivalries between high school sports teams. The area shares the impact of a decline in the industry that in the 19th-century built the urban centers of Claremont and Springfield. The region was also affected by the early 1960s decision to route Interstate 89 through Lebanon and Hartford rather than what was then the more populous and developed communities of Claremont and Springfield.

Cooperative agreements exist between towns for certain functions, and shopping and restaurants draw people into the region’s urban downtowns and shopping centers. Nor is it necessarily the goal of this process to get Route 11 to see itself as a “Lower Upper Valley.” “We’re not starting something new,” says Kiess. “We’re just weaving together relationships that already exist and looking for how Vital Communities can support these efforts.”

Meetings of Minds = Economic Help

A searchable guide to local businesses of all sorts, expert help for businesses trying to survive the pandemic, and a crowdfunding platform that already helped save our local daily newspaper: these and more are part of an overall Upper Valley economic recovery effort in which Vital Communities has played a critical role.

It began when Vital Communities was asked to do what it does best: bring people together from across the Upper Valley to identify problems and create solutions.  At a meeting of municipal leaders in early March focused on the health and municipal impacts of the looming coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon City Manager Sean Mulholland and Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin asked if Vital Communities could bring together local leaders around economic disruption.

Vital Communities started two weekly virtual meetings, one with people from local Chambers of Commerce and the other involving a broader spectrum, including a bank CEO, a town manager, a few local chambers directors, and economic development folks at the city, regional level, and state level.  “At that time, everything was changing really quickly,” said Tom Roberts, executive director of Vital Communities, “so having a weekly phone call was helpful, just to compare notes, to join together, and to talk about what the needs were.” 

The meetings helped get important new information to local businesses and helped everyone deal with puzzles like the federal Payment Protection Program and safely reopening. “It’s helpful for the different members to be able to ask somebody from a bank what’s going on with this, or someone on the city level about that,” added Tom.  

So far the meetings have given rise to a number of developments that help our local economy in the short term and long, including:

  •  the creation of a discussion list for businesses to share information; 
  • the hiring of a Pandemic Small Business Navigator shared by Vital Communities and Grafton County Economic Development;
  • a new Vital Communities Guide that lists local farms and businesses to keep money local by patronizing; 
  • a “buy local” advertising campaign; 
  • creating a community crowdfunding platform, TLC 4WARD, to support small businesses. 

TLC 4Ward has already raised over $155,000 for the Valley News and has recently expanded to allow donations to many different local businesses through the site. 

These meetings highlight the value of collaboration and shared information at a time when doubts and questions abound for many. We are stronger when we work together to solve our region’s challenges!