When the landmark General Store burned down in Putney, Vt., in 2008, the community was bereft, but immediately vowed to rebuild the beloved historic gathering place in the quiet village they called home.

But soon after they rebuilt it, the store burned down again, and was rebuilt once more. In 2010 a group of people in the village associated with the arts gathered to discuss the idea of starting a performance center as part of revitalizing the village. Then came Hurricane Irene and a national recession that hurt the village economy. At the same time, the village found itself with a vacant historic church. In the aftermath of these disasters, the community at large came together to renew their village as perhaps only New Englanders can.

As a result, the Next Stage Arts Project was born, providing a new space and cultural hub in which to come together, recover and work toward revitalizing the town. It quickly became abuzz with artistic activity and creative initiatives, offering events ranging from plays and musical performances to film series and spoken word readings.

Next Stage then began adding to its list of successes. For example, Next Stage worked on a multi-generational performance project in collaboration with a southern theater company, Race Peace, along with Sandglass Theater, an internationally recognized theater in Putney known for its puppetry. Together, they offered training workshops involving story circles designed to address the complexities of personal and institutional racism in a safe space. The training received rave reviews from participants, including the chief of police.

Now, Next Stage and other performing arts centers serve as a national model demonstrating how a small, local theater can foster social change and community cohesion through the performing arts.

Next Stage is housed in what was originally an 1841 Greek revival meetinghouse, now on the National Register of Historic Places. The house of worship, eventually acquired by the Putney Historical Society, became home to Next Stage, in 2010. To turn it into a performing art space required serious renovation.

ArtPlace America, recognizing Next Stage’s work “to advance the field of creative placemaking in which art and culture play an explicit and central role in shaping communities futures,” awarded the project a $370,000 grant for renovations. The grant, along with more than a million dollars in other grant money and financial support from the community, transformed the old church into a handicap-accessible, properly heated and lighted, beautiful theater with seating for 200 people.

Reflecting on the history and achievements of Next Stage, executive director Maria Basescu remembers being “awed by what this community did to make the Phoenix rise from the ashes” after the series of disasters struck. “Village residents were so generous with their time, energy and resources, I began to wonder what was happening at a deeper level.”

That question led Basescu to develop an idea called Legacy Putney: A Collaborative Celebration of Putney’s Arts History and Culture. The celebration, culminating in a two-week festival in May in Putney, included music, dance, film, food, storytelling, oral history and more.

The multi-faceted Legacy Putney project was awarded a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant as part of NEA’s Our Town program that recognizes “creative placemaking” and “strategic links” to community residents, businesses and cultural organizations, as well as local artists.

The project also received a $40,000 grant from the Fresh Sound Foundation, a supporter of Next Stage financially and technically since its inception. The foundation, dedicated to building “vibrant and viable communities” through the arts and economic development, also supports innovative initiatives and new models of community engagement. An additional grant of $5,000 was made by the Harman Family Foundation which supports arts, education and human rights.

A key component of the project was a two-day training workshop on storytelling in preparation for collecting and presenting oral histories, prominent in Legacy Putney events. The workshop was led by Murray Nossel, a community psychologist and co-founder of the New York-based organization Narativ.

Nossel, who began gathering legacy stories when he worked with dying AIDS patients in the 1990s, believes passionately that everyone has a meaningful story to tell, and that those stories can have deeper meaning for others. Their stories, he says, can foster institutional and individual partnerships that engage community members in social and political issues while encouraging an understanding of the role of art in that process.

Originally from South Africa where he trained as a clinical psychologist, Nossel came to New York where he earned a doctorate in social work and anthropology. His work with AIDS patients led to the storytelling method he developed and the work he now does internationally. He became involved in Legacy Putney largely because a friend introduced him to the village, which he found to be “an extraordinary place with a community that is galvanized and progressive. People think about things in extraordinary ways and they got the sacredness of storytelling.”

When Basescu asked him to design a storytelling project that would radiate into the community and beyond he jumped at the chance. “We started a movement in Putney!” he now says enthusiastically. That movement provides a model for “placemaking” and community building through the arts that has come to define Next Stage. It has been making its mark on the arts, locally and beyond ever since.

Barry Stockwell, a Next Stage Arts Project founder and board member, and Emily Zervas, library director of the Putney Public Library, were among the participants who attended Nossel’s training. Stockwell, a musician, event producer and founder of Twilight Music, has strong roots in Putney. He was born there and his home is on the Stockwell family property. “As a musician who tells stories through songs, it just made sense to be there,” he says.

Zervas saw an immediate connection with the library. “We were a natural partner for the Legacy Putney project,” she says. “We’re all about stories and the role of the library in the community is a place to gather and to share and preserve local stories. Legacy Putney belongs to everyone, just as a library does.”

Participants in the training learned how to tell their own stories so that they could interview other community members whose stories of Putney life are also worth telling. They were taught how to tell a four-minute story in a way that conveys to listeners the importance of sharing what happened in their own lives. A cadre of storytellers was developed allowing the legacy of Putney to live on. Their stories are archived at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, Vt., so that others can hear them.

The Vermont Folklife Center is a nationally known venue for folklife education that uses ethnography and oral history to strengthen the understanding of cultural experience and the social fabric of diverse communities. It was an appropriate partner for Next Stage Arts Project’s Legacy Putney project. The two organizations had collaborated with local public schools in an oral history project involving interviews with members of the community. Like the Legacy project, that effort culminated in public presentations at Next Stage.

Many collaborative partnerships established by Next Stage with local organizations and individuals helped make Legacy Putney possible. The Yellow Barn and the Vermont Jazz Center, among other music venues, were key, as were the Apron Theater Company, New England Youth Theatre and Sandglass Theater. Educational partners included The Putney School, Landmark College, Vermont Academy, and Marlboro College among others. Vermont Performance Lab, the Putney Historical Society and the town of Putney all got behind the project early and enthusiastically.

Each of the participating organizations and individuals who came together to make Legacy Putney possible and vibrant was deeply committed to engaging members of the community. “We sought to actively engage people in the community who may not have viewed themselves as having any connection to the arts. Many of them might have perceived culture as elitist. But their stories are an essential part of the fabric of our history as a community,” Basescu explains.

There seems no doubt that Next Stage Arts Program, through its exciting Legacy Putney project and future initiatives, will be a beacon of inspiration for communities everywhere as they build their own connections through the arts. Next Stage has become a successful model of placemaking, community building, and innovation via the performing arts, all catalysts for social change.

As Basescu put it when reflecting upon the upcoming festival, “We celebrate a community rich with an unparalleled spirit of collaboration, and the understanding that our wellbeing is fundamentally interconnected.”

It’s a gift she and everyone connected to Next Stage Arts Project are eager to share.

Information: www.nextstagearts.org.

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