No deal: 'Cabaret' set strike resumes this weekend

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BELLOWS FALLS — Removal of the Main Streets Arts' set for "Cabaret" will resume this weekend after an attempt to resolve the conflict between a majority of the Rockingham Select Board and the non-profit arts group fell through.

Annesa Hartman, co-chair of the Main Street Arts board, said Tuesday the MSA "strike team" charged with removing the set will be back at the Bellows Falls Opera House on Saturday.

Interim Rockingham Town Manager Charles "Chuck" Wise said he is looking for volunteers to help on Sunday morning, and he said the town will also help the struggling arts group rebuild the "Cabaret" set, once live theater can resume with an audience in the Opera House.

Hartman said there is concern about coronavirus transmission, and with having too many people in the Opera House at once working closely on the set since much of the MSA strike team members are retired and on the older side. That concern led to the Saturday-Sunday split schedule.

Wise originally said the two sides in the dispute would get together on Sunday morning to work together on the project.

"I have had to watch all week as this issue has been reduced to the complexity of an internet meme," Wise wrote in a text. "We are all on the same team and will be eager to break down the set and then rebuild the set when the time comes."

"We are a team. We have learned a lot and want to make the most of this experience," he added.

Hartman, a former Saxtons River resident who now lives in Chester, said she has been involved with MSA for 16 years, primarily as a choreographer and as a director. "I love Main Street Arts," she said.

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She said the board reached out to Wise on Friday to try to resolve the conflict. The organization has been struggling financially for several years, and the big Broadway productions, such as Cabaret, a specialty of artistic director David Stern, raised most of the money that supported the arts organization's other projects, which include arts classes for area children and adults.

Other productions have included "Sweeney Todd," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Chicago" and "Secret Garden," which did not make money.

But she said that while Wise has been supportive, the deadline set by the select board last Tuesday stood.

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Also last week, unbeknownst to Hartman, Rockingham Select Board member Peter Golec also tried to find a middle ground, and he said he suggested MSA stop striking its Cabaret set while he tried to reach a compromise with other board members.

But by Sunday night, Golec said he had abandoned his effort. "I'm so frustrated," he wrote in an email. Golec originally proposed last Tuesday giving MSA an additional three months, but then reversed course and sided with the majority of the board in telling MSA to move its set out within two weeks.

Because of Golec's overture, a planned demonstration by Main Street Arts supporters planned for Sunday was cancelled. But Hartman said MSA was asking its supporters to turn out this weekend, during the conclusion of striking the set.

Main Street Arts pleaded with the select board last week to be allowed to leave the set up until early January 2021, which was its best estimate of when it might be able to put on "Cabaret," saying the set isn't in the way of a vacant, unused theater. But the board was adamant.

Last week, the Rockingham Select Board voted 4-1 to tell MSA to remove the "Cabaret" set out within two weeks, saying the town hall theater was not a storage facility.

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Main Street Arts left the set and staging and lights in place after it was forced to call off its opening night on March 12. A few days after that, the town closed down the Opera House movie theater, which remains closed. The Opera House movie theater had been able to show movies with the Cabaret set in place; construction had started on the set in January, Hartman said.

The light standards, which are on either side of the stage and traditionally erected in the week before a show's debut, do obstruct the view of seats on the far edges of the theater, she said.

While the town is talking about reopening the theater and showing movies to a limited audience following social guidelines, MSA is ready and willing to take down those light towers, Hartman said.

Getting those light towers down will take the most manpower, she said, but coronavirus worries make that particularly problematic since people have to be shoulder to shoulder getting those down.

Under normal circumstances, she said, it takes about 10 people working close together to bring down the light towers.

Hartman said the MSA board plans on "rebooting" the arts organization once the coronavirus pandemic passes. She said the arts organization has repeatedly asked for a contract from the town over using the theater, but never got one. She said the town earlier in the year effectively doubled the daily rehearsal fee, from $20 an hour to $150 a night, leading it to hold many rehearsals elsewhere. The town also received additional revenue from MSA based on ticket sales.

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