Community organizers everywhere are trying to build what they like to call a “creative economy”—a term used to describe (or imagine) a place with a thriving, magnetic arts scene, to which artists and arts lovers are drawn and where beautiful things are fashioned, as it often seems, from the raw materials of darkened storefronts and cavernous old buildings.
Usually when we speak of creative economies in communities, we live in the hypothetical, the wishful, the someday.
But in Claremont, New Hampshire, something special—and wonderfully creative—is happening inside one particular cavernous old building.
As I went to suss out arts organizations who are doing cool things in Claremont, soon landing on Amplified Arts and its founder, Shelly Hudson, I knew I could suspend my search. Because it was clear I needed to meet her and find out more about this educationally focused, community-based theatre company.
So last week I made the trip to 31 Pleasant Street in Claremont and got the inside scoop.
Shelly, please tell me—what is Amplified Arts?
Amplified Arts is a collaborative arts venue in downtown Claremont, entering our third year of operation, which started off with an NH Theatre Awards win for our recent youth production of Hamlet, a neo-noir retelling of Shakespeare’s’ classic family tragedy.
We partner with different organizations to bring productions to the community that are poignant and timely. We want to be an active participant in the arts renaissance that is picking up momentum in Claremont and the region, and help to build a vibrant and creative community life and offer affordable, locally produced cultural experiences.
How did it become your mission to create Amplified Arts?
After I graduated from college, where I’d studied theatre, I came back to Claremont feeling gung-ho and ready to do all kinds of things but struggled to get much support at first. And the arts groups that were already here were mostly working within their own tight-knit groups, independently of each other.
So I started thinking of what it would be like for artists to have a collaborative space, to come together to create these moments, these events that can bring about conversation and arts enjoyment and fulfillment, and build the community as a place where you can go to have these experiences.
I began by going into the schools and started doing theatre there. I’ve worked at all the elementary schools here in Claremont, for a little bit at Stevens High School, but my big push was at Newport High School, which didn’t have a theatre program at all. I was there for three years and we built a program from the ground up, starting with 2 or 3 kids auditioning. In my second year, I started teaching a theatre class, and from there we started seeing 20, 30, 40 kids auditioning for a play. So you see, there was a real hunger we’d tapped into.
And then, well, school arts budgets got cut, even though we had these huge numbers and classes with waiting lists. Which is what led me to start Performer's Playground, a small-scale performance studio for youth to stay involved in theatre and where we put on programs with a lot of community engagement and with some educational tools involved.
After several years managing Performance Playground, which still exists, I had the skill set I needed to create and manage Amplified Arts.
And you just produced Hamlet (wow!) and have also done Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and a stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby. What’s next on the calendar?
Our next production, The Laramie Project, in partnership with Rural Outright, an LGBTQ program of TLC Family Resource Center, is being put on by our Academy, which is our education program for students age 13-18, who we call our Early Career Artists. A lot of the kids in the program are in it because of the intense training that’s involved, and they’re looking to study theatre beyond high school.
Say more about the Academy and the kinds of opportunities it gives kids.
Through the Academy, students learn and fine-tune a variety of skills in auditioning, character development, set and costume design, dramaturgy, script analysis, stage voice development, soundscape design and more.
For instance, with The Laramie Project (the story of Matthew Shepard and the town of Laramie, Wyoming, in the wake of his 1998 murder), we’re going to go see a production of it in Brattleboro so they can see it on stage before they put it on the stage. We’re also Skyping with the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, who was a personal friend of Matthew’s, so they can gauge and glean from him about the time period, the culture, what was going on, and relate that into their performance. So it’s much more immersive than just putting on a play.
When we did Hamlet, we had a professional fencer come in, and he did all the fencing choreography for the play. In our production of The Great Gatsby, there were lessons in 1920s style swing dancing.
And another big piece of the Academy is that we do a lot of in-depth work on character development. A lot of time is spent researching history and finding as much information as they can about the character so they can develop a strong backstory based on the facts of the time period and circumstances. This way their characters become three-dimensional.
It’s almost as if the play is a vehicle for the curriculum, riding along and making key stops to gather skills as you go, which feed into the production itself. But clearly your vision goes well beyond just producing plays.
Yes, definitely. And collaboration with others is another big key to our vision. There are a lot of art entities and groups in Claremont, and quite often they don’t have access to a performance space. And not always can they fill an entire opera house. But that shouldn’t mean they can’t put on a really amazing night of theatre. So we've been able to offer our space.
What’s amazed you most about Amplified’s development over the past two years?
That we’ve had so many local businesses and arts organizations step up to offer support. We recently had a generous benefactor donate projection equipment for the film screenings we’re going to begin offering in our flexible performance space.
And there’s so much more about the future of Amplified Arts that I’m excited about. Soon we’ll start doing Baby Theatre for young children and their caregivers, as well as Elder Arts to provide theatre programming experiences for seniors.
We’re excited about expanding to the third floor or our space, which includes rooms to house an art gallery and an enormous, gorgeous hall once used by the Odd Fellows organization that will become our new main performance space.
Honestly, I just love that we’re right in downtown Claremont, in this funky space, producing high-quality art. That’s what we’re all about.
And we've really only scratched the surface. Go to http://amplifiedartsnh.com to learn more, lend your support, and buy tickets for The Laramie Project (April 27 & 28)!