October 24, 2022

The Old Church Theater Sets Sights on its Next Production

  • By: Tim O'Donnell

When Scott Johnson moved to Bradford, Vermont—a rural town of just under 1,000 people—in the late 1990s to teach at a community college, some of his new neighbors told him about the local theater. Johnson had performed in plays going back to high school, so he went and checked out a show at the Old Church Theater, a theater located in, as its name suggests, an old white wood-framed church.

“I thought, wow, they’re a real community theater,” Johnson says. “They do a bang-up job. I was really pleasantly surprised.”

Later, one of the group’s founding members, the late Peter Richards, convinced him to join the group. Since then, Johnson says he’s performed in at least 15 shows over the last 20 years.

Johnson’s far from the only person who found a home away from home at the Old Church Theater. Another is current board member Robin Keith, who says she spent many years working backstage, doing makeup and setting up props, while her children performed. More recently, she’s tried her hand at acting.

The exterior of the Old Church Theater in Bradford, Vermont.

photo by: Scott Johnson/Old Church Theater

Bradford's local acting group had to move out of the Old Church Theater several years ago due to structural concerns.

The exterior of the Old Church Theater in Bradford, Vermont.

photo by: Scott Johnson

The Old Church Theater is still not back in its home yet, but the group was able to put on a fresh coat of paint earlier this year.

“Being involved in the theater has actually brought me from a behind-the-scenes person to the point of going on stage and doing some stage work,” Keith says.

She recalls a young girl who performed in a production of Alice in Wonderland. The other actors had to encourage her to project loudly enough so the audience could hear her. But, by the next year, she played one of the lead characters in the Old Church Theater’s telling of Sherlock Holmes.

The theater is open to anyone in Bradford who wants to give it a shot, helping folks find their voices as actors and writers. But it’s fallen on some hard times in recent years, mainly because the building’s structural problems forced them to move out in 2018. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed necessary repairs.

The theater productions have started back up again in the local Bradford Academy, a former school that’s now home to several municipal offices. They’ve done what they can in the new building, but Johnson and Keane admit it’s not the same without the old church. So they’re working as hard as they can to get back in their home and restore the site as a bastion of creativity in the small community.

A Lengthy History

The building dates to 1794, several years after Vermont passed a statute stipulating that each town support a local church. It went through some changes over the years, including an 1836 disassembly at its original location and reassembly at its current one.

In the latter half of the 19th century, a new church was built to accommodate a growing number of parishioners, and the old church was renamed Village Hall. In the ensuing decades, Village Hall functioned as a community space. Stage plays, concerts, and basketball games took place there. In the 1920s, it became a movie theater, showing films until 1948.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that two women who moved to Bradford from New York City, Maryalice Klammer and Dominique Buffair, rented the space from its owner, the local Congregational Church , and founded the Old Church Theater group. Their first production, Finian’s Rainbow, took place in 1984.

Since then, the Old Church Theater has put on multiple shows per year, with its biggest hit usually its annual family show, Johnson says.

Eventually, the theater became a registered nonprofit. It bought the building from the Congregational Church in 2021, giving the group an opportunity to take full control of the work that needs to be done.

First Things First

In the long run, Johnson and Keith hope to see a complete restoration transform the seasonal theater into a year-round, multi-use building. Recently, they put on a fresh coat of white paint.

“Our overarching goal is to revamp the lighting and the sound booth and make a different or better box office,” Keith says, adding that other important elements include adding a furnace and air conditioning and installing ADA-appropriate features.

But, first things first, the group wants to shore up the theater’s foundation so it can put on performances again.

“Once we get back in the building, I think that will help foster people to say, ‘Oh they’re getting back home,’” Johnson says. “Doing the painting, getting that advertised, that was a big plus for us.”

Keith agrees, explaining that while the Old Church Theater gets a lot of support from the Bradford community, she thinks it’s starting to wane the longer they remain out of the building. So, she says, the painting and other ancillary projects show that the group is out there raising money and doing what it can to expedite the process.

“...They’re doing it for the love of the theater. The enjoyment, the adrenaline rush, and the claps at the end. That’s quite a marvelous thing.”

Scott Johnson

Contractor Jesse Reed, whose company American Barn has a wealth of experience when it comes to saving old buildings, will lead the restoration process, though Johnson says he’s backed up due to the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, the Old Church Theater continues to fundraise and seek out grants. In July 2022 it received $14,000 to support the stabilization of the theater’s structural framing via the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation.

Johnson is optimistic that by the end of 2023, combining donations, grants, and revenue from the plays—shows cost $5 per ticket—the Old Church Theater will have accrued around $100,000 for the restoration, putting them in good position to get the work started once Reed and his team are ready to go.

Why Bradford?

The reason Johnson, Keith, and others are fighting so hard to save the theater has a lot to do with its location.

“Why do it in rural Vermont?” Keith asks. “We do not have the artistic outlets that you will find in Burlington [Vermont’s largest city], even. This is our outlet.”

Keith says it’s crucial for Bradford’s young people, in particular, since they don’t have the same options for after-school activities their counterparts in more populated areas might.

“I think finding a place like this and keeping this place going and expanding upon it so we can provide many other types of artistic events is incredibly important to this area,” Keith says.

In addition to preserving “one of the oldest public halls in America,” Johnson similarly thinks the restoration will help restart the culture of live theater in the town, plus the surrounding area. People sometimes come from 50 miles away to view the productions, he says, and a revived Old Church Theater could serve as inspiration for other community acting groups.

Plus, there’s a sense that they simply owe it to the folks who have put on the productions over the last few decades.

“There is a lot of dedication that goes into this, and it is quite a big sacrifice for people,” Johnson says. “The only payment someone involved with the production gets is two comp tickets. That’s all they get. So they’re doing it for the love of the theater. The enjoyment, the adrenaline rush, and the claps at the end. That’s quite a marvelous thing.”

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Tim O'Donnell is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. When not writing about historic places, he spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

todonnell@savingplaces.org @T_S_Odonnell

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