Oldcastle casts itself in a bigger role

BENNINGTON — As Anthony Marro sees it, the Oldcastle Theatre Company has been beating the odds for more than 40 years.

"We've been raising the curtain on Oldcastle plays for forty-six years now, which is rather remarkable given that the average life of a regional theater is less than five years," Marro, the chair of the company's board of directors, said.

Oldcastle's story has been one of adaptation, from its founding as a touring company in 1972, to its nearly two-decade residence at Southern Vermont College, to its move to the Bennington Center for the Arts. Five years ago, the company celebrated its move to a new, permanent home, the former Knights of Columbus Hall on Main Street, which has been transformed into an intimate, 130-seat performance space.

With that move came the beginnings of a transformation into a robust, year-round performing arts center, one that adds a full calendar of stage concerts, films, art exhibits, and community theater to the Actors Equity plays that have been Oldcastle's main staple. This shift has been accelerating in recent months, marked by the addition of an executive director, G. Spencer Sweet Jr., to oversee the business operations of the theater.

"We have a small stage but a very big commitment to enriching the lives of all Bennington residents," Marro told more than 100 supporters during "Raise the Curtain! Raise the Lights!", the theater's Nov. 18 gala. "We intend to become the new public square in what will be the rebirth of the historic downtown center of Bennington."

The changes are "already happening," Marro said in an interview. "What we intend, going into 2018, is to step all that up.

"Oldcastle isn't going to be a place whey you come to see a play three, four or five times a year, but a place you come to with great regularity — almost like a library. We want to expand beyond the core group of theater-goers ... to make the place accessible and useful to a much broader range of people."

Sweet will play a big role in that change. Joining Eric Peterson, who will continue in his longtime role as the theater's producing artistic director, Sweet will be responsible for developing the business plan for year-round operation, and to oversee fundraising and marketing. He will also be responsible for managing the staff, the building and the budget.

"This is a job that virtually all other regional theaters already have," Marro explained. "For most of our history we focused so much on doing just five plays a year with a small staff and on stages that we rented from others that we didn't feel the need for a senior business manager.

"But now that we've created our own theater here and intend to be producing things all year round, we felt it was time for an executive director to manage the building, the staff and the budget, and — since it now costs us $7,000 a week to help produce the entertainment, pay the staff and the taxes and turn on the lights — to help raise to the money we need to keep going."

Like nearly all other regional theaters, Oldcastle gets less than half of its operating expenses from box office revenue. The remainder comes from grants, donations, sponsorships, program ads, and fundraisers.

Sweet, who was born and raised in the Bennington area, was most recently executive director of radio station WBTN-AM. Before that, he had been employed for more than two decades with H. Greenberg & Son, Inc., managing the Bennington hardware store for the last 12 years.

The new role "seems to be a perfect fit for my blend of professional management experience with my passion for theater," Sweet said in a statement. The opportunity, he added, was attractive enough to lure him out of retirement.

Sweet earned a certificate of live sound engineering from the Berklee College of Music in 2011, and has been a contract sound engineer for events at Mount Anthony Union High School and Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. He and his wife, Lynn, the choral music teacher and co-director of musicals at MAU High School, each year participate in Broadway Teachers Workshop classes in New York that help high school and college teachers improve drama, music and dance performances at their schools.

David LaChance can be reached at dlachance@benningtonbanner.com.


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