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Weston Theater Company still hopes to reopen playhouse after flooding, but the future is unclear

While there have been other floods in Weston, water reached the auditorium for the first time during the summer of 2023. The nonprofit organization that owns the building is working with an engineer to see if it can be reopened and safely used as climate change threatens to bring even more flooding in the future.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
While there have been other floods in Weston, including during Tropical Storm Irene, water reached the auditorium for the first time during the summer of 2023. The nonprofit organization that owns the building is working with an engineer to see if it can be reopened and safely used as climate change threatens to bring even more flooding in the future.

When the rain last summer caused widespread flooding in Weston, the Weston Playhouse took on more water than it did during Tropical Storm Irene.

A full year after the flooding, not only is the Weston Theater Company not yet back in their 300-seat theater, but the future is still uncertain.

The Weston Theater Company has been putting on theater productions in southern Windsor County for almost 90 years, and for most of that time, the theater company has been able to take care of business in town — with wardrobe and set construction, rehearsals and even housing revolving around the theater, which sits right on the West River.

More: New England summer theater faces climate challenges, but the show goes on

But Executive Artistic Director Susanna Gellert says since the flood, the company has been scrambling, with rehearsals this year taking part in Londonderry, the production crew building sets in Rutland and some actors spending the summer over in nearby Ludlow.

“Losing the playhouse, in addition to losing the theater space itself, we lost everything in the basement,” Gellert said one recent morning while leading a rehearsal at the company’s rented space in Londonderry. “So that’s our dressing rooms, our wardrobe space, our props workshop. So one thing had to move into another space, which moved something else out, which moved any number of things to other locations.”

More from Vermont Edition: After the floods, Vermont artists and arts groups salvage materials, work

Last year, the company was able to salvage their season by moving to a nearby secondary theater, which is about half the size of their main theater.

All of the productions this year will take place either in the smaller theater, or outdoors, in touring productions around the state.

The big question now, Gellert says, is figuring out how the theater company can move back into the playhouse with the West River running right outside the back porch.

“The extent of the flood meant that the building itself with the playhouse has an extensive number of not just repairs but improvements that need to be made to it before we can go back."
Susanna Gellert, Weston Theater Company executive artistic director

“The extent of the flood meant that the building itself with the playhouse has an extensive number of not just repairs but improvements that need to be made to it before we can go back,” she said.

The theater has been in Weston since 1937 and had survived other flooding events. But last year was the first time water ever entered the auditorium.

All of the mechanical systems in the basement were destroyed, and thirty dumpsters were filled and carted away during cleanup.

Gellert says they’ve hired an engineering firm to figure out if there is a way to coexist with the West River so close, and with climate change likely to bring even more flooding to Vermont in the future.

 A photo of a road that looks broken in half
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Lawrence Hill Road in Weston, pictured on July 11, 2023, after flooding impacted the area.

And while it is too early to know what that will look like, or how much it will cost, Gellert says the engineers have floated the idea of retrofitting the building to allow flood water to enter and then drain back out, like some buildings in Venice.

Because while they built back after Tropical Storm Irene, the world is a very different place now.

“Climate change has a huge impact on this,” Gellert said. “So we now know we can’t say it’s going to be 10, 15 or 20 years, we’re saying it’s going to be three, five, seven.”

More from Vermont Public: In Weston, locals decide between preserving downtown and preventing future flood damage

Staging their shows this season at the smaller theater means fewer ticket sales, and also fewer shows, because of the added complexity of working in a smaller theater.

All of these challenges are coming as theater companies across the country are struggling to just keep their doors open.

The pandemic, and then inflation and labor issues, have been challenging small theater companies, and there have been about 40% fewer shows staged across the country since the pandemic, according to American Theatre magazine.

Gellert says ticket sales this season have been as strong as ever, and the Weston Theater Company is raising money for the future — though what that future looks like is still up in the air.

 Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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