Westside story: West Rutland’s Town Hall Theater is the heartbeat of the community.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 6/2/10.] West Rutland is one of those sleepy Vermont towns whose streets tell of a rich history and proud heritage. Walking along Marble Street – with its wide sidewalks and striking architecture – you can almost see its former bustle during the heyday of the marble industry.

While the street may be notably less busy these days, and the buildings are not as full as town leaders would like, that feeling of community is still vibrant within the Town Hall Theater. Housed on the second floor of West Rutland Town Hall at the corner of Main Street (Route 4-A) and Marble Street, this is the heart of West Rutland.

“It’s the center of town,” said Mary Ann Goulette, town manager and Westside native. “It’s where people know see they’ll see their neighbors.”

With a population of approximately 2,500 people, most everyone is a neighbor here. It’s that close-knit feeling that has allowed the theater to thrive and be cared for and embraced by residents of all ages.

“People like to look out for it,” town bookkeeper and the theater’s events coordinator Chris Wener said. “If we leave a light on or a window open, someone will let us know.”

Indeed, it was that type of devotion that made the theater a reality. The current Town Hall building was originally a school. The theater on the second floor was always there, but the space fell into disrepair after years of neglect and inactivity. In the late 1980s, the Friends of Town Hall began raising money to repair the building. Twenty years and 1.2 million dollars later, the Town Hall Theater celebrated its grand opening in March of 2008.

Since then, the theater has been building its reputation as a destination for theater troupes, bands and community events. The Marble Valley Players and Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre have both produced a number of shows there. In addition to traditional theater, Town Hall has also hosted psychedelic country-rock legends New Riders of the Purple Sage as well as a live production of the classic cult film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

As Rutland’s Paramount Theatre has grown to become the region’s premier performance venue, it has become increasingly difficult for local theater troupes and bands to get on stage there. At a capacity of just around 500 people, Town Hall has become a popular, affordable and versatile alternative.

“In West Rutland, there is a huge need for community space,” said Goulette, who stressed that the town wants the theater to be accessible and open to everyone. “We want it to be versatile.”

According to Wener, the space is in use three to four nights a week. Uses range from play rehearsals and concerts to Town Meeting Day activities, movie nights and even Zumba classes. West Rutland High School, which purchased the theater’s lighting and sound systems, is also key partner.

“We’ve got a little bit of everything here,” Wener said.

Looking ahead, both Goulette and Wener would like to see the development of breakout rooms within the building to accommodate what is becoming an increasingly busy calendar.

However, there are other improvements that are more pressing. A number of energy efficiency initiatives with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission and Efficiency Vermont are currently being explored. New bathrooms are needed in the basement, and window treatments and much-desired air conditioning system are all on the short list. Goulette also mentioned the installation of a kitchen area that will make the space even more versatile with the added capacity of on-site food preparation.

“We’ve taken care of the big stuff, now we can work on the smaller things that will only make it nicer,” Goulette said.

From an economic development standpoint, the theater has had a noticeable impact in West Rutland. On the nights of shows, Westside restaurants like Sweet Caroline’s get a significant boost in business.

“It draws people to town,” Goueltte said. “There’s a definite economic benefit.”

Back out on Marble Street, you can see the potential yet to be tapped, simmering just under the surface, a ripple effect from the buzz created by Town Hall. The theater is the town’s destination for community and culture, a focal point and catalyst that speaks to the other opportunities waiting to be discovered in this sleepy Vermont town.

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