After a Vermont playhouse flooded, the show went on

By LISA RATHKE

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Published: 08-24-2023 5:27 PM

WESTON, Vt. (AP) — Members of a beloved Vermont acting company were sleeping in theater housing when torrential rains and flooding forced them to flee, with water inundating the playhouse’s vast basement of dressing rooms, costumes and props and reaching into the first floor.

The July storms left the large, column-fronted white Greek Revival building with layers of mud and debris, and as volunteers and others dug out of the mess, the Weston Theater Company eventually kept performing — on higher ground. The shortened season came to end last week on a smaller stage on higher ground, and the actors are now figuring out how to make up for some of the losses and rebuild their leased playhouse to be more flood resistant in the tiny riverside town.

The prominent playhouse sits in the center of the 620-resident southern Vermont community of Weston along the West River. The oldest professional theater company in Vermont draws people from around the country, including part-time residents and visitors who want to see actors from the New York City area without traveling to the Big Apple.

When the theater flooded, some actors who were about to arrive for “Singin in the Rain” rehearsals were delayed for days. The basement also flooded during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. This time around the floodwaters were about 2.5 feet higher.

The damage is heartbreaking, especially after the struggle to recover from the pandemic shutting down performances in 2020, said Susanna Gellert, the company’s executive artistic director. The company performed under an outdoor tent in 2021 and didn’t start returning to pre-pandemic numbers until this year, she said.

“The real casualty of it is on our earnings,” she said.

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Most of the water was pumped out of the Playhouse but the damage was worse than after Irene, the company posted on Facebook, while also taking up offers from community members to help scrape mud out of the building and administrative offices.

The company was in the middle of performances of the sold-out show “Buddy, The Buddy Holly story.” The set and instruments were on stage but all the costumes were downstairs as well as the scene shop’s high-grade tools, which Gellert estimated was a $150,000 equipment loss. Also trashed were the building’s HVAC and sprinkler systems.

The Weston Community Association, which owns the building and supports the theater, is still tallying the damage and cost of repairs to submit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

It was the first time floodwater reached the auditorium of the playhouse, said Dave Raymond, president of the association, who also led the group during Irene. Water “took out” the first five rows of seats, which will be salvaged, but the hardwood floors were done for, he said.

“We had to tear all of that up,” Raymond said. “We had to tear out the front part of the stage because the water had come up through the old pit where the orchestra was.”

The association and theater company spent about $450,000 to have professional crews clean out and remediate the building, he said. The association plans to have all the electrical moved upstairs except for the sprinkler system and use concrete to block windows where the water came in — a “no-brainer,” Raymond said.

“There’ll be no view out to the beautiful river, which becomes a monster when it decides to,” he said.

Putting on the show despite the flooding “speaks to the resiliency of theater people,” said Andrea Johnson, of Wellesley, Massachusetts, who attended “Singin’ in the Rain” with her husband when the show was moved to the company’s smaller Walker Farm theater at higher ground. “The show must go on.”

That’s what actor Conor McShane, who played Cosmo, said in the musical. “The show must go on come rain, come shine,” he told The Associated Press — though he can’t believe he didn’t add “come flood” to the line every time, he said.

The theater company, citing the extreme devastation, eventually decided to cut its summer season short, canceling an upcoming show and postponing another until next summer, when Raymond expects the theater to reopen.

“To everyone who came to help dig the Playhouse out of the mud (from near and far!) and donated their time, food, money, and resources to help us pave the path forward - thank you,” the theater company, which just completed its 87th season, posted on Facebook on Sunday. “While the road to recovery will be long and arduous, it is nothing compared to the resiliency you’ve reminded us of, and there aren’t words to describe the magnitude of our gratitude.”

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