Art Notes: Theater company feeling forced out of Briggs Opera House

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-29-2023 4:57 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Last summer, as JAG Productions was preparing for its second year of Theater on the Hill at King Arthur Baking Co., Jarvis Antonio Green said he could envision a physical home for the company he started.

“I’m not the only cultural institution that doesn’t have a building,” he said, noting that there aren’t many places for community building in the arts.

Now, those thoughts take on new weight, as JAG is looking for a new place to stage its work. The company, which started producing plays in White River Junction’s Briggs Opera House in 2016, is searching for a new home. With Shaker Bridge Theatre leasing the 240-seat opera house, JAG is being squeezed out, Green said.

“What’s left over for other companies to do their work, it’s not a lot of space,” Green said this week, adding that “we many not be able to do our work because we don’t have a place to do it.”

Shaker Bridge is leasing the opera house for three years. The arrangement both provides a home for Shaker Bridge, which is moving out of Enfield’s Whitney Hall, where it has produced plays since 2007, and provides the opera house with some stability, in the form of an established theater company to take over its operation. JAM (Junction Arts and Media) will continue to maintain the schedule for the Briggs.

But the new arrangement has tightened the opera house’s calendar. As the resident company, Shaker Bridge has blocked out 25 weeks, five weeks for each of the five plays in its season.

JAG has tried to come up with a way to fit into the schedule, but the available time “has come up short,” Green said.

“Quite honestly, we’re looking outside the Upper Valley, because this moment has kind of shaken us up,” Green said.

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Representatives of Shaker Bridge and JAM said they feel the door is still open.

“The reality of the Briggs is that it’s a shared space,” Samantha Davidson Green, executive director of JAM, said in an interview. “We’re really at the beginning of these relationships.”

“Shaker Bridge has leased this place for the whole 12 months,” Joan Ecker, president of Shaker Bridge’s board, said. “We are opening our doors to any arts group that wants to come through, because that’s the ethos” of the Briggs. She said it’s possible for Shaker Bridge to adjust its calendar. “Our goal is to be a good neighbor.”

It’s in Shaker Bridge’s best interests to be flexible. Since they’re paying the whole lease, they need other organizations to come in and rent the space.

For a long time, particularly coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, booking time in the Briggs, a 240-seat theater in the Gates-Briggs Building, was pretty simple: a call to David Briggs, or for the last couple of years to JAM, and you were in. Although many groups have used the space since Northern Stage left for its new theater in 2015, the schedule was not jam-packed.

Since 2020, David Briggs has made clear that he’d like to see a plan come together to secure the opera house’s future. That hasn’t happened yet, but the Shaker Bridge lease, by putting the theater into a producing company’s hands, was a step toward such an arrangement.

There was talk last fall of forming a coalition of theater companies — JAG, Shaker Bridge and We the People Theater, which also has used the Briggs — to take over the opera house’s lease.

“My understanding was that none of the theater companies was interested in that,” Jason Schumacher, JAG’s managing director, said Tuesday. That was in November or early December, when the opera house was closed for renovations. The next thing JAG officials heard was when they inquired about booking time in the opera house and found that Shaker Bridge had put its season on the schedule. Schumacher said there were no discussions about JAG leasing the theater.

“We would have seriously considered and discussed it if it had been brought to us,” Schumacher said.

Stories involving conflict are easier to understand when there are obvious heroes and villains, but I don’t see any in this instance. JAG’s leaders are right to feel they’ve been squeezed out, but they could have taken the initiative to lease the Briggs. The folks at Shaker Bridge have taken on the risk of leasing the theater, which should stabilize its operation and make it available for other users, but they’re taking up a fair amount of real estate in their new home.

I suspect there are a lot of theater-goers who would like to see JAG continue to produce shows at the Briggs. But that doesn’t sound likely after this season.

“Conversations for the ’23-’24 season are done,” Schumacher said. “There’s just no four-week period on their calendar that we can slide into up to May of 2024. That door is shut.”

Just as concerning, though, is that JAG also has lost its summer performance space, Theatre on the Hill at King Arthur Baking’s Norwich home. For the past two summers it has put on groundbreaking works of African-American theater on an outdoor stage. JAG officials said they’ve been told it was too big a lift to mount the shows. It’s worth noting that the outdoor theater was a pandemic necessity, and that need seems to have eased.

Without a place to produce shows, JAG officials are investigating all options.

“This has been so foundationally disruptive that we have to think very broadly about the possibilities,” Schumacher said. That could mean finding a place out of the Valley or out of Vermont, where Green has been making theater since 2011.

Green received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, Vermont’s top honor for artists, last summer. Theater is the most robust art form in the Upper Valley, and he has had an enormous influence. If JAG finds a home elsewhere, it would be a big loss.

In the meantime, JAG has a show coming up next month. Maybe negotiations will continue.

“We’re in contact with JAG every day,” Davidson Green said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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