Chandler Center for the Arts was the envy of northern New England regional arts organizations as director Becky McMeekin retired after 14 years of leadership in 2014.
At that time, Jim Lowe, dean of Vermont performance art criticism opined, “In a state awash with high-quality arts, one tiny community stands as a beacon. Randolph, with a population nearing just 5,000 with no significant suburbs to augment it, has an extravagance of arts activities— even when not considered on a per-capita basis.”
That positive energy, however, seemed to evaporate with the turnover, in quick succession, of two directors in the next two years. Chandler continued to host amazing festivals: Vermont Chamber Music in August, and the New World on Labor Day weekend. Still, every July 4th, the summer musical brought a hundred and more children and youth to the stage before enthusiastic houses. Still, performers of unmatched artistry like Simone Dinnerstein and Natalie McMaster were being booked. But Chandler was showing fatigue. These were lean times. Able, sustained leadership was desperately needed.
Tom Ayres, executive director of Chandler Center for the Arts. (Herald / Bob Eddy)
Board Chair Janet Watton’s announcement last year of Tom Ayres as new director, was met with relief and cautious enthusiasm. Would this third new director in three years prove the charm?
A New Era Begins
On paper, and in person, Tom Ayres seemed the perfect fit. He’s a veteran in non-profit leadership, in arts marketing at the Flynn and with PCA in Portland, Maine, and in arts booking and management for Burlington’s First Night Celebration.
Expectations have been high as Ayres moved through the year, getting to know the organization and its people, the town, the region, preparing a calendar of performances for the new season.
Chandler’s 2018-19 calendar, announced this week, evidences renewed vigor and vision. Without question, it is the most ambitious and far-reaching season of performances in the 111-year history of the historic music hall and gallery. Plans for the new year were greeted with animated enthusiasm by Becky McMeekin this week: “I have so much respect for the work Tom has put into this. He’s bringing Chandler into the future; connecting with new audiences, younger audiences. His programming reflects that desire, and will make it possible.
“There’s superb classical music here, even opera, but also fabulous bluegrass, great jazz and gospel and blues. . . ! Tom is mixing it up, and God bless him for it!
“I am especially excited about Chandler’s new membership opportunities. We’re not simply putting our hand out, we’re offering meaningful ways for everyone to get involved, to be invested in what’s happening here!”
A Bigger Tent
The theme for the 2018-19 Chandler season is “A Time & A Place for Us,” an apt descriptor for a 40+-event season that will feature bluegrass legends The Del McCoury Band; world-renowned classical cellist Matt Haimovitz; the return of acknowledged piano master, Simone Dinnerstein; country and Americana superstars Lorrie Morgan and Rodney Crowell; blues icons Hot Tuna and Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters; National Heritage Award-winning gospel group The Campbell Brothers; celebrated singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III, Suzzy Roche, and Lucy Wainwright Roche; a captivating evening of family-friendly magic with master illusionist Vitaly; and The Telling Project – an extraordinary evening of theater spotlighting local storytellers to mark Veterans Day 2018.
Tom Ayres speaks eloquently of his compelling arts vision in a letter to the wider Chandler community this week.
“Chandler is a place for everyone in our community to gather together and share in the special experience of live music, theater, comedy, and dance. In a time when it’s all too common for us to sit solitarily at home, glued to streaming video or absorbed by social media, the live arts are more important than ever to our community and its sense of wellbeing and connectedness.
“Live performance puts us directly in touch with renowned artists and the powerful messages they have to share. It also connects us with the communal experience, bringing families, friends, and neighbors together to savor an extraordinary performer or bask in talents of those who live next door or in the next town.
“This is what Chandler is all about: bringing people together to honor our common humanity, celebrate the things we share, and build bridges to understanding about things that sometimes drive us apart.”
“The Telling Project” promises to embody this community bridge-building most eloquently. It will be an evening of storytelling and theater, presented on the eve of Veterans Day. Since 2008, The Telling Project has worked to deepen understanding between military veterans, their families, and their civilian neighbors, turning stories of military service into a stage play, through which veterans share their stories before a live theater audience.
The Chandler production of “The Telling Project” will feature nine central Vermonters sharing their own, personal narratives of service, spanning the years from the Vietnam War to the present-day conflicts in the Middle East.
These are challenging times when neighbors are often divided, and in Ayres’ vision, The Telling Project and indeed this entire Chandler season can foster “deeper understanding and empathy across the community.”
A Place For All of Us
Quoting lyrics from Sondheim and Bernstein’s, “West Side Story,” Tom Ayres envisions Chandler providing, “A time and place for us” where, “We’ll find a new way of living, We’ll find a new way of forgiving.”
It’s a bold audacious vision, and it permeates the big tent of programming in Chandler’s new season.
With huge enthusiasm, Tom Ayres has opened wide this venerable arts center’s doors and invited everyone in.
The full 2018-19 season is detailed in the annual Chandler season brochure, which is being mailed this week. A printable copy of the brochure will also be available on the Chandler website when tickets go on sale this coming Monday, July 30.
-- BOB EDDY