Theater Company Aims to Create a ‘Community Hub’ in Weathersfield

  • Sean Roberts, left, owner of World Under Wonder Playhouse talks with contractor Clayton Davis at the grange building Roberts is renovating in Weathersfield, Vt., on April 23, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rob Riessle, left, and Chris Boulton build a ramp at the World Under Wonder Playhouse in Weathersfield, Vt., on April 23, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sean Roberts, owner and director of World Under Wonder Playhouse in Weathersfield, Vt., on April 23, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Friday, April 27, 2018

Seated on a wooden chair inside the former Connecticut River Grange Hall on Route 5 in Weathersfield, Sean Roberts can see beyond the unfinished walls, dusty floor and exposed framing to envision vast possibilities for a community venue.

Roberts bought the grange hall, which sat vacant for 15 years, late last year and is renovating it for a range of activities, from plays and musical performances to library talks, improvisation, community dinners, school events and private parties.

While his program, World Under Wonder, will present a few shows a year, Roberts wants the focus of his World Under Wonder Playhouse to be on the broader community.

“I want to see other people, other organizations coming in and running things out of here so that this can be a community hub of the arts,” he said during an interview last week. “I want it to be something that people can feel they have the ability to create here and for me to not really get in the way.”

To encourage use of the hall, Roberts said he will not charge a flat rate fee but instead will split the revenue from ticket sales with whoever is holding an event.

“Anything that someone needs a venue for, this place can be financially accessible for them,” he said. “No one needs to hand me money in order to get in the door.”

Roberts purchased both the grange hall property and an abutting parcel in November, after looking around for about a month. The adjacent property contains three buildings, one of which last operated as a restaurant.

“We bought that (other property) because it had a parking lot and very nice septic system that could handle all four buildings,” Roberts said. “My mother found the restaurant building online — she is a real estate broker — and we went there first. As were leaving, we noticed (the grange hall) was for sale.”

The parcels comprise just under five acres, and Roberts has no immediate plans for the restaurant property, other than to advertise the buildings for commercial purposes.

The property purchases plus about $85,000  in renovations are financed through a loan from his mother and money Roberts received following his father’s death.

Additionally, he has raised about $1,000 in donations toward a goal of $10,000.

Running his company as a for-profit organization, Roberts acknowledges that donations might be harder to raise and he is passing up the opportunity for grants and other funding sources that could be available to a nonprofit to help pay for some of the renovations and programming. But he is willing to take on that risk rather that worry about the possibility of his vision being compromised or influenced by a board of directors in a way he strongly opposes.

“I don’t expect to make much money, but I care more about the specific vision than I do about money,” he said. “If I wanted to make money, I’d be a nonprofit,” he added, without a hint of sarcasm.

“I know what I want; I want inclusiveness and diversity and I don’t need a board of directors to tell me that.”

Roberts used the Claremont Opera House as a venue last year and Claremont is where most of his students are from. But the grange hall — the best option Roberts found during his search for a home for World Under Wonder — has a more central location for his goals. It’s about a mile north of the intersection of routes 5 and 131.

“I don’t expect to lose that (Claremont) population because it is 10 minutes away and I will also be closer to areas I have not tapped into including White River Junction, Lebanon and Saxtons River.”

Renovations to the hall, built in 1940, began in January and include adding foam insulation, new wiring, new energy efficient windows, a new ceiling, a pellet furnace downstairs to heat the entire building, a new roof and a new, handicap-accessible entrance and bathroom. The renovations are expected to be completed by the end of May.

“I really like the wooden floor that is in here,” Roberts said. “If I just give it a little bit of a sanding, it just needs to be polished.”

For the stage, which is about two feet high, he plans to install some new flooring or maybe apply a resin to cover the rough patches topped with a coat of paint. The light and sound room will be at the back by the entrance. There’s a kitchen in the basement that, once renovated, could be used to prepare food to serve at events.

“I love small, intimate theaters,” Roberts said. “When I came in here, it had this open room and had this small stage and I just thought it would be perfect. I thought it could seat 70 or 80, but we can seat 130.

Roberts said he inquired with Weathersfield Town Manager Ed Morris about what people want to see happen in town and said Morris told him that during a series of recent public meetings on development in town, one of the things people were saying is wanting to see a theater or community venue in town because they didn’t have it.

Morris said Thursday that a “village revitalization” discussion last fall brought together residents and town officials to brainstorm ideas. Some felt a community hall would bring more people to the area.

“I heard about that after I bought the building,” Roberts said, “so hopefully I will have a lot of community support.

“Lots of people have stopped in and are very excited about the place opening up. Some have stopped in, asking about wanting to host their children’s birthday party here. Some have asked about weddings and receptions.”

Roberts, 30, lives in Grantham, where he spent part of his childhood. He has been involved with theater since an early age. He credits an elementary school teacher, Nan Parsons, for introducing him to Odyssey of the Mind and encouraging his creative side — calling her “a wonderful human being.”

“So any creative outlet was a good choice for me where I could explore using my imagination to create things that were in front of me,” Roberts said.

At Newport Middle High School he performed in plays and after graduation worked with students in both school and summer programs for about seven years. In 2012, he stepped in to revive the Newport-based youth theater group, The Performer’s Playground, and later combined it with a theater program at the high school, where he was director.

Currently, Roberts is holding weekly rehearsals for a late June production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the first show in the renovated hall.

“Theater has always been a great outlet for anybody to be able to explore who they are,” Roberts said. “I use theater as a mechanism to help provide a person with the ability to figure out who they are and I think theater is one of the best things for that.”

Roberts started World Under Wonder as an adult theater program in 2014 and two years later opened it to all age groups. The program’s name refers to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“Alice found her way into wonderland through a rabbit hole,” Roberts said. “What if there is a rabbit hole in wonderland, where does that lead? Well that is the world that is under wonderland. You are in that realm below wonderland, a creative pool that everything is being made from.”

Roberts, the sole owner and director of World Under Wonder, will visualize that concept by having one of his theater students paint a mural on the ceiling at the entrance of the playhouse that looks like a rabbit hole. All of the Wonderland characters will be up in the rabbit hole looking down as patrons enter the World Under Wonder Playhouse.

Roberts reiterated that World Under Wonder is only a small piece of what he wants the playhouse to become over the next several years.

“That is kind of where I want to see myself in five years, where I’m a venue and I’m doing some productions here and there but I am offering so much by having a lot of other people here,” he said.

He tells his theater students they should broaden their horizons and look to be part of more than World Under Wonder.

“If I can find enough people who want to do a show here, bring in concerts, do workshops, there is plenty of stuff for you to jump into,” Robert said he tells students. “It doesn’t have to be me directing you in order for you to get an experience out of it.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.