Douglas Anderson '75 arranges everything from farmers' markets to operas at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, Vermont.
Middlebury, Vermont, is the kind of picturesque New England town where people who visit want to stay. When Douglas Anderson ’75 left after a three-year teaching stint at Middlebury College, he always knew he wanted to come back. Just in case he forgot, he bought and kept a house there.
After a few years, Anderson returned in a big way: He became a pillar in the community, restoring its historic downtown theater and shaping its artistic vision. His efforts paid off in a permanent residence as the artistic director of the Opera Company of Middlebury and executive director of Town Hall Theater Inc., the nonprofit company he founded to preserve, own, and operate the city’s Town Hall Theater, home of the opera company and other performing arts groups.
Middlebury, population 8,496, is the smallest city in the United States with a professional opera company. Its 232-seat theater books 165 events a year, from lowbrow to high art. “It’s a little bit of a miracle that we exist,” Anderson said.
For Anderson’s operas, smaller is better. “These are fully staged productions in a tiny house,” he said. “At the Metropolitan Opera, you can sit one-fourth of a mile from the stage. But here, we are right in your lap. That kind of intimacy blows the dust off of opera.” Eleven seasons of sell-outs proves his point.
The company, which stages two to three operas each year, attracts top-tier talent from New York City because Anderson sells Middlebury. “I tell them that the compensation isn’t great, but we can give them a three-week vacation in Vermont with a house and tell them to bring their family members and dogs.” The company receives 500 submissions from professional talent each year to sing there.
Yet the Town Hall Theater is about so much more than opera. Anderson made sure of that.
In a stroke of genius, the 130-year-old venue — which had served as a furniture store, restaurant, and Knights of Columbus Hall in its recent past — was stripped to its shell and renovated with a retractable seating system that enabled the auditorium to double as sort of a community center. As such, it has played host to high school proms, dances, wedding receptions, and rock concerts.
“This isn’t an elitist space for the performing arts,” Anderson said. “When we opened, we’d have a farmers’ market on Saturday morning and do Shakespeare that night. My favorite event is a night we host every year for the area’s fishermen. They drink, tell fish stories, and watch a film about fishing. We recently showed a whole day of cat videos. We were packed with families. The kids howled. That kind of event is just as vital as a performance of Carmen.”
His formula for success has been a mix of hard work, perseverance, idealism, community organizing, risk-taking, and perhaps, most of all, salesmanship. “It takes a little PT Barnum showmanship to get something like a small-town theater restoration done. I have the ability to walk into a room of people and get them excited about something. Now I have to sell 165 events a year,” he said.
Anderson originally arrived in Middlebury in 1983 to teach theater at Middlebury College, where his wife, Debby, still runs the box office for the college’s arts center. The couple left their house behind in 1986 so Anderson could work as assistant professor of theater at Amherst College and later as a head writer in 1994-95 for the CBS daytime drama, Guiding Light, ending 17 years in academia.
But the soap opera gig taxed his patience and offended his aesthetic sensibility. “I wasn’t the kind of guy who could deal with the daily chaos that goes into writing a soap opera,” he said. “I had all these great ideas, but you have to be willing to do the same storylines over and over. The audience doesn’t mind as long as there is conflict.”
He left after one year and returned to Middlebury, wondering what to do with the rest of his career when “this theater thing fell on my head,” he said.
When a friend took him to see the old building, it was not love at first sight, but close. “The downstairs was a crummy bar that smelled of cigarette smoke, but when we found our way upstairs, above the dropped ceiling, it was 1884 again. This was the kind of building that a town doesn’t throw away.”
Ten years and $5 million later, Anderson had a hit on his hands. Widespread support ranged from the business community, which recognized the economic impact of having a vibrant downtown theater for families, and Middlebury College, which valued the educational opportunities the theater offered to young people. “We have a terrific school of rock ‘n’ roll,” Anderson noted.
A Dayton, Ohio, native, Anderson earned degrees in theater and religion at Kenyon and a master’s in fine arts in directing from the University of Nebraska.
“The theater department did something right at Kenyon because there are three Kenyon grads in this area running theaters,” Anderson said, counting himself along with Steve Stettler ’74 at Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont, and Shami Jones McCormick ’75, who recently retired as director of The Depot Theatre in Westport, New York. “We get together, tell stories, and help each other. At Kenyon there was a lot of emphasis on doing your own thing. There was great joy in making theater in that department.”