America loves theater. The reason I say this isn’t because of Broadway or the quantity of professional theaters in every city, but because of the strength and vitality of the community theaters that exist and thrive in small towns all over the country. In 1968 Robert Gard, Martin Balch and Pauline Temkin wrote: “Community Theatre occupies a peculiarly important position in the American theater picture. It is the largest, by far, of the theater’s numerous segments… It engages more people in theatrical activity than all the rest of the American theatre put together, including schools and colleges.” That isn’t to say that other countries don’t have Community Theater, they do but, with some notable exceptions, it is usually amateur theater with a capital “A” happening in local church or community halls. In fact, in the UK, “Community Theater” usually means professional theater people coming into the community and working on particular projects. Whereas here, it is as likely to include, as a matter of course, professional actors alongside amateurs (“Pro-Am” ) in productions, and theaters tend to employ a professional for the role of artistic director, guaranteeing a good standard of production quality. We, in the Hudson Valley, are blessed to have the CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck —known simply as The CENTER to most —at our disposal which offers its audience a wide variety of fare from revivals of Broadway musicals to Shakespeare to modern classics. The organization also offers many educational opportunities including special matinées for local schools, classes in stage-craft, stage combat, and children’s theater including summer camps and Saturday morning magic shows. But last year the future of this jewel in the crown of our region was called into question by the ferocity of Hurricane Irene.
The CENTER, in its first incarnation as the Rhinebeck Theater Society (RTS), was started by Andy Weintraub in 1982 shortly after he moved to Rhinebeck from Pennsylvania. For many years RTS was an itinerant company moving from venue to venue. Then, in the 90s, two things happened in succession that allowed the group to realize their dream of a theater home of their own: Andy’s family donated funds to purchase some land, and in 1994 the arts philanthropist Samuel Scripps made a generous donation which kick-started a fund raising campaign to erect a building on the land. The dream was realized in 1998 when the building — designed to look like a red barn of the type common to the region — first opened its doors. Lou Trapani, with a master’s degree in public administration and years of experience in the theater world of New York City as an actor, director, and producer, and who was the then president of RTS, soon joined up as The CENTER’s Artistic and Managing Director. RTS continues to exist and is among the theater companies that regularly perform at The CENTER.
The theater itself is situated on the first floor over a full basement, it seats 165 and includes a lobby, bathrooms and, in back, a set-building shop. The second floor houses an office wing and a wing for props and furniture for use in productions. In the basement is the costume dock, sewing area, dressing rooms and rehearsal studios. In short, everything a professional theater, let alone a Community Theater, require. However, since its inception, the theater, its audience and, consequently, its needs have continued to grow and funds were raised for accommodate the growth – ambitious plans that were on the verge of fruition when, last year, disaster struck in the form of Hurricane Irene. What transpired can only be described, no pun intended, as a “perfect storm” of events. A nearby stream, usually shallow and slow-moving, burst its banks and flowed into The CENTER’s car-park. At the same time, because the ground was saturated with water from previous rain, the water table rose and ground water began coming up through the basement floor. The theater staff rushed into action pumping the water out into the parking lot. As they were doing this, the rain intensified, the parking lot filled up with the overflowing stream, rain water AND pumped out water. Eventually, the water pressure became too much; the water burst through the loading doors and filled the entire basement area. The damage was enormous — hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth — and the fallout from the loss of infrastructure, rehearsal space, costumes and vital equipment, would impact everyone involved in the theater over the course of the following year. Now, as we pass the anniversary of that awful day: August 28 2011, I thought it apt to revisit it, find out how the theater coped and where it is now in its mission. Andy Weintraub and Lou Trapani were kind enough to satisfy my curiosity.
CL: Last year was an “annus horribilis” for The CENTER with the devastation the building suffered with Hurricane Irene. What were your first thoughts when you arrived at the theater and saw the flood?
LT: Dave Popieluszko and I were in the building all morning, monitoring the rain. When we realized that the water would probably hit the circuit breakers in a matter of minutes we wisely scooted out of the hallway and up the stairs. From there, we watched the water fill the hallway and creep up the stairs. All I could do was keep advising everyone, via phone and e-mail, of the progress of the water.
AW: When I first arrived the water was about five feet up on the basement doors. I assumed it was that high inside (later confirmed) and my heart sank. It was pretty clear that we were going to have to spend a fortune to restore the basement and prevent such a thing from recurring. I could see all the money we raised to expand the theater’s auditorium and stage being re-routed to the basement.
CL: About how many costumes were irretrievably destroyed?
LT: I’d say that half the costume collection was directly destroyed or had to be thrown away – somewhere around $50,000 worth of costumes.
CL: How awful! There are a lot of people involved in The CENTER in one way or another including independent theater companies. How did people, and the community in general, react to the situation?
AW: The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. We had lots of people volunteering to help clean up and many who made financial contributions.
LT: Yes, we had no less than 85 volunteers for the entire week following the flood — the flood was Sunday, the “lake” of water in the parking lot and outside the loading doors remained in place on Monday, we pumped out on Tuesday, and from Tuesday through Sunday we triaged.
CL: What was the hardest thing you had to cope with during those days after the storm?
AW: There were just so many things to do! We had to clean up. We had to start the repairs and restoration at once, so as to return to our performance schedule as soon as possible. There was designing to do, money to find, grant applications to fill out. And, at the same time, we had to move two productions to off-site venues so that we could maintain our performance schedule while repairing and restoring the basement.
CL: The theater itself was unharmed, which was a blessing. Also the set building shop and the props room were above the flood level, but despite these bits of good fortune, did you at any point feel that the situation was hopeless?
AW: No. Never. The response of the community told me that. And there was no real structural damage inside — just water damage, but a lot of that!
CL: How long did it take before you were able to open the theater for business again?
LT: We didn’t rehearse in the theater until late September and on the stage only. We didn’t perform in the theater until early October and these performances were curtailed because of fire sprinkler and alarm issues (the entire support system for the theater had been compromised: no well, no filtration, no fire sprinklers, no alarms, no heat exchange, no hot water heaters, etc.).
CL: We are living in uncertain times, weather-wise. Scientists say that the kind of storms and tsunamis we have experienced in recent years may become more common than in the past. With that in mind, what safeguards have you put in to avoid or minimize this kind of disaster in the future?
LT: We are in the process of completing a HUGE flood system to handle both ground water and a water surge. This includes a series of trenches, channels, and pipes beneath the basement floor, expanded pumps, a holding tank, and a flood barrier which will be placed in front of the loading doors (this is a series of aluminum “logs” which are lowered in place to cover the doors in the event a flood may occur).
CL: How have you managed to finance the repairs aside from donations – did you get any help from FEMA or any other disaster relief agency?
AW: We were lucky, in a sense. We had raised considerable money for our theater expansion. We had about half of it in hand. We spent about four fifths of it to restore and repair the basement and install flood mitigation machinery, etc. to prevent this from recurring. We have applied to FEMA for flood relief funds, but we’re not holding our breath.
CL: It is said that every cloud has a silver lining – was there a silver lining in this case?
AW: Well, people who are unaware that we spent our capital money on the repairs and restoration think so. The basement is beautifully re-done. We now have two modern dressing rooms, two rehearsal studios, a green room and a costume shop/storage area.
CL: I know you are still fund-raising to pay for the losses and repairs, do you have anything planned to mark the anniversary of the storm?
AW: Anniversaries of births and weddings are nice. Anniversary of a storm? I personally don’t want to remember August 28, 2011 and the days that followed.
CL: There is always a packed schedule of events here at the Center – what are the highlights for the next few months now that the theater is fully operational again?
AW: On September 7, we open a full scale production of The Threepenny Opera, the musical by Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill.
LT: After that, from September 28 to October 4, we have John Patrick Shanley’s award winning play, Doubt. Then Plaza Suite by Neil Simon from October 19 to November 4; Night Mother by Marsha Norman runs from November 9 to November 18. And then an entire month and a half of holiday fare.
CL: Fantastic line-up! Last time I saw The Three Penny Opera was in 1993 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, with Marianne Faithfull as Pirate Jenny. So it is great to hear that you are back to theater business as usual. Andy, as the president and founding member of The CENTER, what are your hopes for the theater for the future?
AW: My hopes for The CENTER for the future are exactly those that I’ve had in the past — to serve as a center for the performing arts in the Northern Dutchess area. When we started The CENTER, in 1987, the idea was that it would be a place for many different theater groups, musical groups, dance companies, etc. to perform, to provide classes and educational opportunities in the performing arts, and to become an important part of the community. I think we’ve succeeded. Now performing on our stage are Up In One Productions, The Rhinebeck Theatre Society, The Woodstock Players, CENTERstage Productions, Castaway Players, and other dance and music performers from the area, including SOLAS AN LAE and David Temple.
CL: What about you Lou? What are your hopes for this new beginning?
LT: My hope is simple: that we continue to provide opportunities for theatrical artists of every variety to flourish and grow.
AW: One unrealized dream, of course, is to complete the original plan for The CENTER, which features an enlarged stage, 199 seats, and a bigger and more accommodating lobby, with larger bathrooms, so that we can shorten intermission times.
CL: Well, I wish you God speed with replenishing those coffers so that you can make that happen –Thank you both for talking to me.
People can make donations to The CENTER via their website, although I am sure that your presence in the theater would be as much or more appreciated —see the link to the website below for details of their upcoming productions. As mentioned in above The CENTER has always offered special weekday matinées at the theater to area schools but, as recent school budget cuts are severely curtailing opportunities for school field trips, The CENTER is now working on a new initiative to bring the theater to the schools. It is currently doing a fund raiser through Indiegogo to purchase necessary technical equipment to make this possible —see the link (2nd url below) to check that out and to find a brief video with Lou Trapani explaining the initiative.
Featured image; The Tempest photo by Jen Kiaba Photography
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Claire’s artwork can be seen at Hudson Valley Artists 2012 at the Dorsky Museum, SUNY New Paltz from June 23, 2012
In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company – as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design.
Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life around the World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.
Claire Lambe: Artworks