BENNINGTON — After nearly a half century of renting space from others, Bennington's Oldcastle Theatre now owns its current building, the theater company announced.
The building at 331 Main St. was purchased Friday from the Bennington Redevelopment Group and the organization has become the Bennington Performing Arts Center — the Home of Oldcastle Theatre.
The company intends to play a major role in the revitalization of downtown by staging a year-round schedule of entertainment and education offerings. This will include community theater, cabaret theater, films, concerts, acting classes, art exhibits and other events, as well as the professional theater that Oldcastle has staged since 1972.
"We intend to be an important part of Bennington's new public square," said Oldcastle board President Anthony Marro. "We've done quality professional theater for five months of the year for a very long time, and we've expanded into other things in recent years. But we now plan to offer even more entertainment and education for residents of all ages, at affordable prices, all year round, and to find ways of putting more Bennington people on the stage as well as in the audience."
Oldcastle Theatre was created in 1972 by a group of five New York actors that included Bennington native Eric Peterson, who has been acting, directing and writing plays here ever since then and who remains the organization's producing artistic director.
"The redevelopment group is going to be spending the next two years restoring the historic core of downtown, including the old court house and the Hotel Putnam, and it's going to be very exciting," Marro said. "But except for the new roof that we need, we've pretty much completed our renovation and we're ready to go. We're going to be injecting new energy and creativity into Bennington right away. This whole project, and our involvement in it, is going to make Bennington an even better place to live, work and raise families, and we're excited to be a part of it."
The Bennington Redevelopment Group announced Friday that it had closed on a complex financing package to fund the first phase of the $54 million Putnam Block project, including buildings around the former hotel at the Four Corners intersection in the downtown.
The theater building is located just west of the hotel building and near the three historic structures that will be renovated during phase one of the multi-year project.
The theater company was named for Sir John Oldcastle, the 15th century heretic and rebel who was hanged and burned at the stake, but who is better known to theater-goers as the model for Shakespeare's Falstaff.
Oldcastle Theatre has staged more than 400 plays since 1972, including a range of comedies, dramas and musicals that has included "Equus", "Doubt", "The Lion in Winter", "Cabaret", "My Fair Lady", "The Fantasticks", "Moonlight and Magnolias", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", and "A Long Day's Journey into Night".
Over the years, Oldcastle has used the barn at the Park-McCullough house, the auditorium of Southern Vermont College, the Laumeister Arts Center, and most recently the former Knights of Columbus building on Main Street, which it transformed into an intimate 133-seat theater and rented from the Greenberg family.
But Oldcastle now owns its home for the first time, and has announced a capital campaign to raise the $90,000 needed to replace a badly leaking roof.
While the average life is a regional theater is less than five years, Oldcastle began its 48th season on June 7 with "Red", which is a play about the artist Mark Rothko and his famous red paintings that now are in the Tate Modern museum in London.
Other plays this season will include "Brighton Beach Memoirs", "Judevine", and "Water, Water Everywhere ..." an original play by Peterson about the attempt by a small local newspaper to discover the extent of and the responsibility for the polluting of drinking water by a local manufacturer.
Most regional theaters get less than 50 percent of their operating expenses from box office receipts, and like all of those others, Bennington's performing arts center needs donors, sponsors, advertisers and grants to stay afloat, the board said in a release, and it needs to stage more events that are low-cost and profitable to offset the losses that are a fact of life for professional productions in small theaters.
That was cited as a main reason why Oldcastle began transforming itself in recent years with broader series of offerings that included movies, magic shows, cooking lectures by Christopher Kimball, many different kinds of theater and music, and literary teas that had Lea Newman talking about the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.
Oldcastle also has turned its lobby into an art gallery that currently is featuring the work of Barbara Ackerman, and is planning a Veterans Day cabaret theater event honoring local veterans.
And the company now has a liquor license that allows it to sell beer, wine and hard cider at all performances, as well as water and soft drinks.