Walker Farm theater unveiled for large, excited crowd

By Bruce Frauman
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Weston Playhouse management hold the ceremonial ribbon while Walker great grandchildren cut it to open the new building. All photos by Bruce Frauman.

At noon on Friday the new barn-red building behind the old barns, silos and farmhouse at the intersection of Route 100 and the Andover Road in Weston stood silent and empty.

But by noon on Saturday, Sept. 23, the new theater — the Center for the Arts at Walker Farm — was abuzz with excitement as those who had worked long and hard and donated funds were thanked for their support.

Then, around 2:30 p.m., the ribbon was cut, and the crowd of 600 poured into the building for its long anticipated opening.

Spotlights had been hung for the first performances of the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s new black box theater and, in a tent outside, simple hors d’oeuvres were served while longtime Weston Music Director Kent Baker entertained the crowd with show tunes. It was so hot on this early fall day that a Ben & Jerry’s cart served up ice cream for three solid hours as patrons patiently waited their turn.

Incoming WPTC board chair Oliver Olsen compared Weston’s population to the company’s ticket sales this summer to highlight its outside draw.

Anthony C. Wood, outgoing chair of the WPTC’s board of directors, told the crowd that the opening of Walker Farm is “a transformative moment for the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company.”

“It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a super village to raise a theater,” said Wood.

Echoing Wood’s remarks, incoming board chair Oliver Olsen pointed to the role that arts and culture play in bringing people to the Weston community. “566 is the official U.S. Census population of the town of Weston. … 21,549 is the number of (theater) tickets sold this summer,” said Olsen.

It began with a college paper

A volunteer tells a driver that the parking lot is full.

According to board chair emeritus Wayne Granquist, Jen Spade  Jenn Spain, a great granddaughter of farm owners Ken and Anna Walker, wrote a college paper “envisioning turning this homestead into a theater.” This set the stage for talks with the Walkers that led to the WPTC purchasing 5 acres of the farm and its buildings.

A committee led by board member Carol Cox then determined to save the house, barn and two silos while siting the new theater in the rear of the property. While the fundraising campaign “ran into the Great Recession,” it is largely complete, Granquist said.  He added that the theater was built on time and under budget, largely due to Operating Manager Lesley Koenig. $2.3 million is still needed to complete the capitol campaign, according to Producing Artistic Director Steve Stettler.

Managing Director Lesley Koenig calls this ‘the most amazing 15 months of my career.’

“This was literally the most amazing 15 months of my career,” said Koenig, who has been director of production at the Met and general director of Opera Boston. “About 15 months ago we started negotiating with BreadLoaf (Construction) and we have been building for exactly 13 months.” Koenig thanked a number of people who brought their skills and efforts to the project including the Town of Weston and the Weston Volunteer Fire Department and every member of the staff who “made this come true.”

Stettler, speaking for Founding Directors Tim Fort and Malcolm Ewen,  said that when the three came to Weston in the mid ’70s, “It was not a theater, it was a community.”

The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream station was the hot ticket, echoing Stettler’s mission statement of quality, community and cows.

Stettler then recommended that the organization’s new mission statement be “quality,  community and cows,” calling Weston, “the most amazing, welcoming, supportive community that has ever helped a theater.”

Stettler went on to offer a detailed history of the Walkers as dairy farmers and lovers of the theater. “This theater was built for this community, for the vibrancy of its life, for what feeds our soul.”

Vermont Speaker of the House Mitzy Johnson said, “When we think about how to build a strong, healthy future for Vermont, Weston is doing it right: to provide such an incredible resource for the community, not just for cultural engagement and expression, but as a place to bring community together and have a place to gather and celebrate and as an economic engine for the community and the state as well.”

Vermont House Speaker Mitzy Johnson: When it comes to building a strong, healthy future for Vermont ‘Weston is doing it right.’

The great grandchildren of Anna and Ken Walker — Emma, Nate and Nolan — cut the ribbon, ending the opening ceremony.

Five sets of performers entertained the crowd in the new performance space every half hour. These included veteran Weston Playhouse company members and four participants in the Broadway Theatre Camp singing, tap dancing and performing a play written by Sofie Pedemonti of Arlington, a member of the Vermont Young Playwrights Project.

TIm Fort. right, introduces singer/songwriter Syd Straw, daughter of Playhouse veteran Jack Straw.

Syd Straw, daughter of longtime fixture on the Playhouse stage Jack Straw, sang three songs that she had written, and told the audience “I love the theater. I love this theater.”

During an interview following her performance, she said, “The big question is: Where is the audience going to come from for all they want to do?” Although from those attending the Grand Opening on Saturday, that may not be a concern.

Creating theater community
out of community

Lew and Bonnie Watters have been involved with the Playhouse almost as long as the 43 years they have lived in Chester.

Those attending the Grand Opening included people who have served as ushers for the Weston Playhouse for many year as well as several interns. Lew and Bonnie Watters said they have lived in Chester for 43 years and have been connected to the Weston Playhouse “almost as long.” The Watters said their daughter appeared in productions — including Annie — and even met her husband there.

“We still stay connected as ushers and we are excited to see how it unfolds and what productions go on,” Bonnie Watters said. “This is amazing.”

Bob Davidson, who has been an usher for the past few years, called the new space “a quality job.” The theater space is clad in dark wood with a sprung floor good for dancers and acoustics that work well even without a sound system.

An appreciative crowd applauds one of the opening day performances

Brett Strasser was an intern for the summer, working with operations manager Emily Matthees. Strasser said he was privileged to go to construction meetings. “It was amazing to see the progress week to week, and even day to day,” he said. “The energy today has been really cool.”

Tim Fort, who has been associated with the Playhouse for 45 years and helping to run it for the past 30, said he “can’t imagine a more wonderful possible thing to do with one’s life. But I am also excited by the fact that new people get to do new things here.” As to the space, “It has amazing acoustics. Everybody who has been talking or singing has been raving about it. It just has a spirit about it. This is such a live space. And we can tell that the community is excited about it.”

Producing Artistic Director Steve Stettler says the Playhouse is not just theater but a community

“It was my amazing pleasure to oversee the realization of this decades-long dream of the founding directors” Fort, Stettler and Ewen, Koenig told The Telegraph. “You can do anything in here that you can possibly imagine. You can put on theater. You can put on weddings, events, readings, dance. And we turned it into a television and film video sound stage as well. We want this to be a theater for everyone.”

Koenig also said they want the space to pay for itself and — to that end — the company is “creating all sorts of partnerships with music groups, film societies, book club … with ITV (Independent Television) Fest in Manchester.”

“We had one L.A. producer come in and we just blew his mind,” said Koenig. “He was totally impressed. I think that could be a revenue stream that could help other parts of the company.”

The WPTC staff now has a week to prepare for its first production, Joe Iconis and Family, running Oct. 1 through Oct. 8. Tickets are available here.

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  1. Pam says:

    Cynthia, I can assure you I am right. Lol! I am granddaughter #2. Jenn’s mom, Sheri, is my sister, Jenn is my niece. Thank you for writing this. For those of us who could not attend, we thank you! My grandparents and my Auntie were our foundation. We all miss them dearly!

  2. Cynthia Prairie says:

    We’ve gotten conflicting information on this. We will again check this out and correct it accordingly. Thank you.

  3. Pam Justiniano says:

    Great article, but Jenn Spain is the first great grandchild of the Walkers. Her mom Sheri Spain is the first grandchild.

  4. Pam Justiniano says:

    Jenn Spain is the first great grandchild of the Walkers.

  5. Cynthia Prairie says:

    Thank you Malcolm. We will correct.

  6. malcolm ewen says:

    Hi,

    Great article. One correction though, the Walkers grandaughter (not great granddaughter) is named Jenn Spain not Jen Spade as is is mentioned in the article.

    Thanks!

    Malcolm

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