Shaker Bridge Theatre moving to WRJ from Enfield

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-23-2023 6:06 AM

Before he founded Shaker Bridge Theatre, in 2007, Bill Coons had picked out the sailboat on which he planned to retire.

Instead, he put his retirement money into starting a small theater company, from which he didn’t draw a paycheck for the first five or six years. Setting up shop in Enfield’s Whitney Hall was a risky proposition, but Coons built up a company around minor-key plays, an intimate setting and a growing cadre of actors either local or happy to get out of New York for a few weeks.

Now, though, the project is taking on a new risk that’s also a seismic development in Upper Valley theater. Shaker Bridge has signed a three-year lease on the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction.

“We’re not just going to be moving in there for our productions,” Coons said. “We are, in essence, taking over.”

In becoming the resident company at the Briggs, Shaker Bridge will take up about 25 weeks a year for its five shows. Other companies that have been using the venerable opera house in the Gates-Briggs buildings will be able to sign up for performance times.

Shaker Bridge’s move also will give White River Junction two resident theater companies, along with Northern Stage, which got its start in the Briggs before opening the Barrette Center for the Arts in 2015.

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Forced out of Enfield by the impending renovation of Whitney Hall, Coons said he and Shaker Bridge Board President Joan Ecker had searched the core towns of the Upper Valley for a new home. Shaker Bridge has one more show in its last season in Enfield, “Slow Food,” by Wendy MacLeod, opening April 6.

In addition to moving to the Briggs, Shaker Bridge will also expand its leadership, adding Grant Neale as artistic director, with Coons staying on as managing director and associate artistic director. Neale, who has acted with Shaker Bridge since 2011, operates his own theater company in New York, Nomad Theatrical Co. His wife, LeeAnne Hutchinson, also acts at Shaker Bridge.

Coons said moving to the larger space won’t influence the kinds of plays they choose. “Virtually everyone I talk to has said, ‘We’re going to miss the intimacy of where you are now,’ ” Coons said.

But it’s likely that Shaker Bridge won’t use all of the Briggs Opera House’s 240 seats, he added. They might add more dates to each show, though.

Rent at Whitney Hall was $350 a month, heat and electricity included, which made it possible for Coons to keep his small ship afloat. Neither he nor Ecker would disclose the terms of the Briggs lease, but it’s considerably more and involves carrying all of the space’s costs. The company plans to ramp up fundraising but also to expand its offerings.

That could range from musical events to performances by small New York theater companies Neale knows. Neale said he’s never had the experience of programming a five-month season of theater and is looking forward to it, but he’s been brought in to do more than that. He already runs a free “actors gym,” that invites actors in for exercises to keep their instruments sharp. He can foresee more staged readings, a pre-show music series, opening the stage to writers.

“If there are some gaps in my calendar, I want to have something at my fingertips,” Neale said in a phone interview.

Since Northern Stage left the Briggs nearly eight years ago, the old theater has been a busy place, hosting dance recitals, Center for Cartoon Studies functions, the yearly White River Indie Films festival, performances by JAG Productions and We the People Theatre, and musical events presented by Here in the Valley, among many others.

In 2020, David Briggs, who co-owns the Gates-Briggs Building, put out a request for proposals to take over the opera house on a permanent basis. He proposed to hand ownership of the theater to a nonprofit that could commit to raising $10 million — $3.5 million to renovate the theater and another $6.5 million to endow it.

The lease with Shaker Bridge is a step in the right direction, in that it takes the operation of the theater off his hands, Briggs said, but it isn’t the more durable solution he seeks.

“That gets it down the road for three more years,” Briggs said. “It does not confirm the long-term, permanent future.”

The past eight years, “we’ve had this time to all experiment and figure out what’s really involved,” Briggs said.

Ecker, the Shaker Bridge president, said Briggs deserves immense credit for keeping the opera house running so the many arts organizations that need a performance space can use it.

While the move is a stretch for Shaker Bridge, it’s made possible by all the activity surrounding the Briggs, Ecker said.

The audience for theater is an aging one, Coons noted, and Friday and Saturday night performances in Enfield were becoming more sparsely attended as theater-goers decided not to drive through dark winter evenings to see a show. It will help Shaker Bridge to be closer to big population centers and to be in a downtown with restaurants.

“White River Junction’s going to be a theater town, a theater district,” Coons said.

Enfield probably isn’t. The theater on the top floor of Whitney Hall will become a meeting room, Town Manager Ed Morris said. It could still be used as a theater, but “I think it would be harder for them up there,” he said.

When Shaker Bridge opened, it was touted as a way to bring restaurants and other businesses to downtown Enfield, but other arts organizations have concentrated in Lebanon and White River Junction and development has followed them.

To use the Briggs, other arts organizations will still contact Junction Arts and Media.

“Basically, we’re going to continue to serve the function that we have so far,” said Samantha Davidson Green, executive director of JAM. JAM also will continue handle the technical aspects, including lighting and sound, for outside groups, an arrangement in place since Oct. 1, 2021.

It’s unclear how the more free-form structure under which the Briggs has operated will transfer to a system with a primary organization. At least one company, JAG Productions, said it will struggle to find space to produce its work, calling Shaker Bridge’s lease on the Briggs "a major roadblock to JAG Productions' work in the Upper Valley,” JAG’s Managing Director Jason Schumacher said in a written statement. 

“Shaker Bridge Theatre has ... communicated to JAG that their intention is to program their season and put it on the Briggs calendar prior to opening up the theater to other performing arts organizations in the area. The consequence of this is that during the prime theatergoing season between September and May, there will be very few opportunities in the Briggs for JAG to mount a fully realized production. Because news of this lease didn't reach JAG until very recently, we are now attempting to deal with the repercussions of the deal by looking for other performance venues and considering options outside of the Upper Valley.”

“I totally understand why David’s done it, and I think it’s great for Shaker Bridge,” said Perry Allison, one of the organizers behind We the People Theatre, which produced “Working” and “1776” at the Briggs before the pandemic. “I think it’s going to make it much harder for us to do what we’ve done in the past.”

We the People was able to camp out in the Briggs for a month, long enough for set construction and technical and dress rehearsals before opening night. She added that Neale said he was willing to shift the final show of Shaker Bridge’s season by a week so We the People could have a full month.

“We’re going to plan to do a big musical in the spring of ‘24,” she said.

Coons expects to be busy as Shaker Bridge takes on its new responsibilities, but with Neale on board, he’ll be in the background.

“I’m not very good at sitting around,” he said.

When he’s not in the theater, he and his brother are building a sailboat together.

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

Editor’s note: The story was updated at 8:15 p.m. March 21, 2023, to include a statement from JAG Productions.

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