BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – Old-timers in town remember the storefront space in the Rockingham Town Hall on the Square in Bellows Falls as Fetchers, a sort of ’40s and ’50s version of what today is called a convenience store. More recent folks in town remember it as a series of restaurants, primarily a lunch place, most recently known as Cafe 7. A new restaurant was supposed to go in there, but that fell through. Now, for the past month or two, things have been going on there in full view of the big windows on the square, but it doesn’t seem to be a store. What in the world is going on in there?
In the last three years, Main Street Arts of Saxtons River has been putting on big stage musicals in the Bellows Falls Opera House, part of the same building, and they are doing their fourth, “Secret Garden,” which will open Oct. 25. This and the prior three shows all involve intricate sets and detailed costuming for large casts who fill the Opera House’s big stage. The set is constructed partly in place on the stage behind the big movie screen and in a shop next door to the Main Street Arts building.
For the last three productions, there really was no such space dedicated for use as a costume shop. Despite that fact, costumes for Victorian London, Jerusalem at the time of Christ, and Chicago in the roaring ‘20s were assembled where space could be found. Main Street Arts artistic director, David Stern, credits local artist and costume designer for the “Chicago” and now “Secret Garden” Liz Guzynski with the idea to look for an actual costume shop and Gina Cody with suggesting the old Cafe 7.
Stern went to the town, and an understanding was reached that when a paying tenant is found the costume shop will leave. In the meantime, late Victorian costumes for a cast of 35 are being assembled, and all the activity is there for all to see.
Guzynski notes that locals have dropped in to see what’s going on. Town Manager Wendy Harrison says, “When I understood the level of community engagement, met the volunteers, and saw for myself how visually appealing they’ve made the space, I think it’s a great use for the empty space.”
Guzynski says, “The town has been generous in letting us occupy this space to prepare for our production as well as invite the community into our process.” She says up to 50 volunteers have come to help from time to time. The musical is set in 1906, but it is not strictly a period piece. There are ghosts, all from 10 years before, and she has been called on to create an “otherworldly fantasy feel” needing lace, wool fiber, and vintage materials. Much lace and fabric has been donated from the community. Harrisonville Designs donated a large mount of felt, and Lorna McMaster has presented some felting workshops for people of all ages.
Tish Donth, production lead, says, “I love this space. It’s big, it’s open, it’s bright. A lot of people come in and want to know what we’re up to.”
And, Guzynski says for the volunteers, “The thrill of seeing your work on stage is part of the drama here.”
Singer-songwriter Dar Williams has played the Opera House a couple times. She also wrote a book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns.” In it, she discusses what makes a vibrant community. Two things are the arts and the use of empty spaces. Bellows Falls has definitely captured her ideas. Harrison says, “From an economic development perspective and particularly during the fall tourist season, it’s much better to have interesting windows with things happening than empty spaces.”
For more information on “Secret Garden,” go to www.mainstreetarts.org.