Year in Review: Highlights of a very good year

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BRATTLEBORO — It is customary at the Brattleboro Reformer to highlight events of the year that stand out as pivotal moments. As the Ovation editor, my world consists, of course, of the arts and entertainment activities in this southeastern part of the state. In a town that teems with renowned music organizations, busy art galleries, a variety of dance troupes, thriving museums, and festivals of all sorts, it wasn't easy narrowing it down to fit within my allotted space. With two new theater companies, The Guilford Center Stage and the Williamsville Players, an already robust theater community got even more robust; several ground breakings for new facilities; and "Uncle Stevie" stepped down from the New England Youth Theater — an organization he co-founded — to pursue other interests; five area artists received awards from Governor Shumlin for their excellence in, and contributions to the arts. So all in all, it has been a momentous year.

But the events that popped out at me were because they are unique, or annual events that keep gaining ground, or are downright fantastic, became my choices for 2016"s Year in Review.

On the theater stage, Guilford Center Stage, debuting in 2015, maintained its mission of presenting Vermont-related plays in the Broad Brook Grange in Guilford Center last spring with a pair of one-act plays: "Nocturne Titanica,"with its take on the sinking of the Titanic, and "The Lace Jury," based on the first American all-woman jury of the 20th century, both written by Guilford playwright Michael Nethercott. In the fall a historical but comedic account of American travelers in Germany as World War II broke out in "A Battle of Wits" by Guilford-born Charles W. Henry, a well-known scenic curtain painter turned playwright, also paid tribute to a Vermonter.

One of the most unusual shows of the year was "The Mushroom Cure" with Adam Strauss, that was presented at Next Stage last September. Based on the true story of Strauss' attempt to treat his debilitating OCD with psychedelics he shares his hilarious and harrowing story partly through theatrics, partly through storytelling, with the hopes of raising awareness and gaining acceptance for it as a form of treatment.

In its never-ending interest in performance and outreach around issues of social justice that need addressing, Sandglass Theater packed a robust line of events last November in "Voices of Community: Art, Food, Shelter, Justice." Headlining the festival were three performances. Anu Nadav presented "Capers," a one-woman show hailed as a stirring blend of theater, documentation, and activism. "Speed Killed My Cousin," a new play by Linda Parris-Bailey was rooted in the story of an African-American female combat soldier and her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder upon her return home from Iraq. And, at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro, school groups were treated to Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater's "Are You Thirsty?" a dynamic exploration of the myriad questions contained in a cup of water — one of our most precious and necessary shared resources. Workshops, dance parties, and conversations rounded out the week.

On the music front, Friends of Music at Guilford's administrator Joy Wallens-Penford acquired copies of Bolivian baroque music manuscripts collected by Fr. Piotr Nawrot. Early in the `90s, in search of a subject for his dissertation, musicologist Fr. Nawrot got a tip that the Bolivian jungles held a treasure trove of Baroque music manuscripts. He set out in search of these manuscripts that were squirreled away in Bolivian church attics and basements. In FOMAG's The Midwinter Musicale, the "Barroco Boliviano" concert in the Guilford Community Church presented some this music for the first time to the area, perhaps even the country. Then in the spring Fr. Nawrot himself came to talk about his Bolivian Baroque reclamation project.

The Brattleboro Music Center broke ground for a new facility at the former Winston Prouty Center across from Living Memorial Park. Blanche Honegger Moyse founded the BMC in 1952, according to the organization's website, because "she sought to create an institution that would `promote the love and understanding of good music through performance and education and make it a vital part of the community.'" BMC's managing director and a former member of the board of trustees Mary Greene said, "I think that the whole community will benefit from the new vigor surrounding the music school," she continued, "and there is no question that everyone who goes to recitals and chamber music concerts will appreciate and be thankful for a space that will be designed for just that. Since the old opera house was torn down in the early 1950s, there has not been any space that has been built with music in mind."

The first-ever Youth Rock Festival organized by Jamie Scanlon inspired young musicians in a way that the Battle of the Bands couldn't. The mission was for youths to connect and share ideas with fellow musicians and to have fun doing it without the competition. Partnered with Youth Services of Windham County who sponsored the event, 14 bands participated in the performance in the evening and the workshops during the day.

Artisans and crafters had another great year in studio tours. Brattleboro-West Arts changed up their participation a bit, opening their studios for two weekends, one coinciding with the state-wide Vermont Crafts Council Studio Tour, during peak foliage season and one weekend just for the group of 14 artists who live west of Interstate I-91 in Brattleboro. The artists look forward to the tours as much as the patrons do.

The oldest continuing craft studio tour in North America, the 38th Putney Craft Tour took place on Thanksgiving weekend again, and added four new artisans to the roster. It continues to hold the distinction of being a Top Ten Vermont Winter Event named by the Vermont Chamber, and is an Official Year of the Arts event named by the Vermont Arts Council. Incorporated into a special Thanksgiving Weekend of Arts, area restaurants participated by creating lunch or dinner specials to help raise funds for the Putney Food Shelf, as did special performances at Putney's Next Stage Arts Project and Sandglass Theater.

The Rock River Artists had their annual tour in July that includes fourteen artists who work in a variety of media including painting, pottery, collage, photography, printmaking, furniture, wrought iron work and the unique thread on fabric technique developed by artist Deidre Scherer. I felt this event worthy of inclusion because of the resilience of its members after the devastating effects of Tropical Storm Irene that left an impact on these nationally recognized, award-winning artists not only on the terrain in which they reside but on their art.

Fertile grounds for creative writing, Brattleboro has an abundance of authors and poets who have many outlets including Write Action that meets monthly, alternately in Putney and in Brattleboro, plus a weekly gathering in The Lounge on High Street for writers to share ideas. Also worth mentioning, a couple of recognizable names authored new books this year: Newfane's mystery writer Archer Mayor's latest book, `Presumption of Guilt,' and former Brattleboro Reformer sports editor Garry Harrington published "Chasing Summits: In Pursuit of High Places and an Unconventional Life," chronicling how he shed 40 pounds, his house, job and most of his possessions in search of something more.

A review of literary events would not be complete without including the Brattleboro Literary Fest. Held during foliage season, it attracts dozens of authors for a four-day celebration of all things written. Sandy Rouse, the founder of the Literary Fest said, "What we tried this year — knowing it is an election year — we looked for books about hot topic issues like foreclosure, immigrants, books about political protests of different points of view, on social matters. We worked to find presidential historians such as Annette Gordon-Reed who is a Jefferson scholar and John Sedgwick, author of `War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation.'" The readings, panel discussions, and special events by new and established authors take place in downtown locations.

Documentaries, powerful and enlightening, dominated the year in cinema. "Audrie and Daisey" that screened at the Hooker-Dunham Theater in November was a gut-wrenching account of two girls that fell victim to cyber bullying with catastrophic effects on them and their families. When the folks at Windham County Safe Place Child Advocacy Center (SPCAC) in Brattleboro were approached by Netflix to offer a free screening of the film they jumped at the chance to share it with the community. As an agency that provides a safe haven for children who may have been abused, raising awareness about the age-old problem of sexual assault in a new-age world of social media in which the after effects caused by cyber bullying are that much more devastating is just part of its mission.

The Women's Film Festival returned last spring, screening films about or by women. The featured film "Lucky" was a 75-minute documentary about Lucky Torres, "masked in tattoos and armed with an indomitable spirit, she has forged a path all her own. Despite being homeless, unemployed and a single mother, Lucky still dreams of true love and success. Journalist Laura Checkoway spent more than six years following Lucky and has captured an experience rarely depicted on screen." The hope was that people go away from these films inspired, not hopeless and discouraged, and witness the richness of women's lives and open the discussion of internalized sexism. Over the course of three weeks, six feature films and 18 shorts from around the world were screened.

The Brattleboro Film Fest in March also had compelling documentaries, highlighting "Tanna," the first feature film shot entirely in the paradise of Vanuatu with actors dressed as the inhabitants have for centuries, including partial nudity. Based on a true story, it's an exotic echo of Romeo and Juliet, tense with inter-tribal strife as many of the actors play themselves that had won awards at the Venice Film Festival. This film launched the 10-day roster of films ranging in topics from conservation, refugees, police, and militarism, through comedies, documentaries, shorts and animations.

My favorite art exhibit as a Kennedy fan was that of the Mark Shaw Photography exhibit at The Dianich Gallery where the story of Camelot was revealed through the lenses of Mark Shaw. Candid moments are captured of JFK as a father and husband, of Jackie as a mom, and of the children Caroline and John, Jr. in their residences in Hyannis Port, Mass., Georgetown, D.C. and the White House, giving this American royal family humanity and normalcy. For gallery owner Catherine Dianich Gruver, the exhibit touched her deeply. "I first met JFK when I was just a child. We had heard that he was doing a dedication of a highway in Newark, Delaware. We walked around four miles to see him — it was a complete thrill. A few weeks later he was assassinated, making it more indelibly marked as an experience for me."

Brattleboro Museum & Art Center also made the list with its "Up in Arms: Taking Stock of Guns," in which nine artists approach the topic from a number of different viewpoints and through a wide range of media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography, printmaking — and even packing tape. Some are principally concerned with guns (and ammunition) as beguiling objects in and of themselves, while others delve into questions of gun control, gun ownership, and the relationship between guns and personal identity. Danny Lichtenfeld, Director of BMAC said. It was particularly poignant as the exhibit opened (though planned months ahead) shortly after the Orlando shootings.

There wasn't a shortage of children contributing their talents either. "Windows to Creative Expression," young poets and artists from The Poetry Studio had their own exhibit at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) showcasing their work. Poet Ann Gengarelly leads poetry classes year-round at the Marlboro studio and Art history Professor Tony Gengarelly joins the class each summer to teach bookmaking to the students to display their creations.Last May was the first time the Gengarellys presented their student's work to the public in an exhibit at Brattleboro's River Garden. BMAC's curator Mara Williams was impressed with the exhibit and invited the Gengarellys to bring their exhibit to the museum.

Dancers flock to Brattleboro from near and far for summer's Southern Vermont Dance Festival that keeps growing every year. So much so, that organizer and founder Brenda Siegel started a fundraiser campaign, It Takes a Dance Circle to raise monies to help pay for part-time help and stipends for dancers so it may continue on its path of expansion. For fun this year, dancers performed at Pliny Park in Brattleboro to the music of "Footloose" with a cardboard cutout of Kevin Bacon to help in the Brattleboro Chamber's endeavors to convince Bacon to show up at their BaconFest in fall.

Another annual dance event that is gaining momentum is spring's Goddess Rising.A belly dancing festival organized by Cyndal Ellis and Shanta Lee of SoBo Studios, this year's theme honored fertility, renewal, growth, birth and the goddesses of spring through performances and workshops. Dancers from all over New England share the culture and diversity of belly dance and educate people of its art form through workshops and the final performances.

There was lots of other good news to go around too. On the heels of Main Street Arts in Saxtons River that recently went through a renovation, and the new arts facility 118 Elliot completed last year in Brattleboro, Next Stage Arts Project celebrated the new year with the completion of its $1.6 million renovation. Now a fully accessible 160-seat auditorium with energy-efficient heating and cooling and more comfortable seating, the old church was completely upgraded with lighting system, restrooms and even a green room for performers. These state-of-the-art venues reflect the passionate appreciation of the arts to be found in the area.

The New England Center for Circus Arts broke ground on Town Crier Drive to construct a state-of-the-art, one and only, custom-built trapezium in the United States. The building, with a ceiling height of about 40 feet and a trampoline and an 8,600-square-foot gymnasium for circus arts training and performances should be ready for occupancy by June 2017. Administrative offices, lobby and reception room also are planned for construction. Gov. Peter Shumlin called the project "a huge moment" for Windham County. He said Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, twins and co-founders of NECCA, will soon be awarded the Vermont Council of the Arts Award for Excellence, and so, the twins were awarded Walter Cerf Medals for Outstanding Achievement,

Also awarded was Peter Gould, who accepted the Ellen McCulloch-Lovell Award in Arts Education. Director at Brattleboro's New England Youth Theatre for 15 years, a few of his achievements are as founder and director of Get Thee to the Funnery Shakespeare Camps and is part of the theater duo Gould & Stearns with Stephen Stearns. Saxtons River resident and painter Eric Aho received the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, and Brattleboro Union High School music teacher Stephen Rice received the Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service.

Cicely M. Eastman may be reached at 802-254-2311 ext. 261




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