Greensboro Arts Alliance — a well kept secret

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Greensboro Arts Alliance Director Sabra Jones.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Greensboro Arts Alliance Director Sabra Jones. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — Secrets are notoriously hard to keep in small towns.  But Greensboro has managed to keep a thriving arts organization quiet for eight years.

With its tent theater set up on the green in front of the Town Hall in the middle of town, the Greensboro Arts Alliance’s days of flying under the radar have likely come to an end though.

That suits director Sabra Jones just fine.  The New York actor and acting teacher said in one of her increasingly rare free moments Sunday that her organization has been so busy trying to get its shows together that it’s had little time left for publicity.

Ms. Jones said she hopes this year is different.

She has been putting on staged readings and fully staged shows in Greensboro over the past eight years, she said.  In previous years the company performed in a barn near Caspian Lake and in a tent behind the Lakeview Inn on Breezy Avenue.

By moving to the lawn in front of the Town Hall the group is nearing its ultimate goal — renovating the building’s existing stage so it can be a permanent home for the company.  Greensboro selectmen have appointed a committee to study the idea.

With a new space and a pair of shows running the last two weeks of July into the first week of August, the arts alliance is looking to build its audience, she said.

At a recent rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Ms. Jones told her cast that even for professional actors repertory theater is challenging.  (The company will perform Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man on alternating nights.)  Her group has an advantage, Ms. Jones told them in that “our company is the whole town of Greensboro.”

Andrew King gestures in the direction he hopes his voice will go as he works with music director Justin Jacobs in a song from The Sound of Music.  Like all of the professionals who worked with Greensboro residents, Mr. Jacobs exhibited a genuine spirit of respect and collegiality in working with performers with less experience than those he has previously performed with in his native Australia.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Andrew King gestures in the direction he hopes his voice will go as he works with music director Justin Jacobs in a song from The Sound of Music. Like all of the professionals who worked with Greensboro residents, Mr. Jacobs exhibited a genuine spirit of respect and collegiality in working with performers with less experience than those he has previously performed with in his native Australia. Photo by Joseph Gresser

If that’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one.  While one group of actors worked on their lines at the Fellowship Hall of the Greensboro United Church of Christ, crews were working on turning an ordinary tent into a space for theater in the round.

The designer of the ingenious stage, Richard Alexander, is also a leading actor in The Music Man, playing an anvil salesman with a grudge against the hero, Harold Hill.  His son Elye, who was also a force in the construction of the temporary theater, performs in Our Town.

Wardrobe mistress Sonia Dunbar is also in the musical’s chorus.  On the Friday before the show’s opening, she received a delivery of band uniforms for the show’s final scene.

The man who brought them cautioned her that they were not to be altered.  Ms. Dunbar smiled serenely.

“No problem.  The stage directions describes them as ‘ill fitting.’” she said.

Ms. Jones has gotten some serious help in running the enterprise.  She is sharing directing chores with her son Charles McAteer, who is at the helm of Our Town, and local theater eminence Rosann Hickey Cook, who earlier in the season directed a reading of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.

In addition, the casts of the two fully staged shows include professional actors.  Marla Schaffel, who plays Marion the town librarian in Music Man, created the role of Jane Eyre in the Broadway musical of the same name and was rewarded for her performance with a Tony nomination.  Harold Hill is played by Anthony Wills Jr., whose long list of credits includes serving as artistic director of Artistic Pride Productions and an award-winning production of Master Harold… and the boys.

David Beck plays George Gibbs in Our Town.  He starred with Ms. Schaffel last year in the arts alliance’s production of The Sound Of Music.  In New York his credits include The More Loving One, a New York Fringe Festival award winning play, and The Long Ride Home, performed at the Cherry Lane Theater.

Amaryllis (Abigail Demers) rehearses a scene from The Music Man with Marion the librarian (Marla Schaffel).  The Tony-nominated Broadway actress is performing with the Greensboro Arts Alliance for the second summer in a row.  Last year she played Maria in The Sound of Music.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Amaryllis (Abigail Demers) rehearses a scene from The Music Man with Marion the librarian (Marla Schaffel). The Tony-nominated Broadway actress is performing with the Greensboro Arts Alliance for the second summer in a row. Last year she played Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo by Joseph Gresser

Ms. Jones considered more than just acting ability in choosing her guest performers.  In rehearsals she stresses the need for performers to “love each other.”  Watching the professionals work with the local performers, one can see that ethos in action.

One afternoon music director Justin Jacobs worked with Andrew King, one of two actors who will play the role of Winthrop Paroo, the lisping brother of Marion in Music Man.  The ten-year-old performer was having trouble with a difficult song, which was at the top of his singing range.

Mr. Jacobs explained what needed to be done and encouraged Andrew as he struggled to figure out how to hit the notes in the passage.  Mr. Jacobs’ patience brought forth a super human effort from the young singer, and the two shared an evident sense of triumph when Andrew mastered the song.

Similarly, Ms. Schaffel showed real tenderness while rehearsing a scene with Abigail Demers, who plays Amaryllis and yearns to be Winthrop’s love interest.

Ms. Jones said she believes that “everybody is famous, everybody has talent.”  She laughed delightedly when Krissie Ohlrogge, whose talent has hitherto been largely confined to her vast literary output, improvised a pratfall in Music Man.

Sporting a snappy boater hat, Professor Harold Hill (Anthony Wills Jr.) encounters an old friend in an unexpected place.  The part of Marcellus Washburn, the con man’s local contact, is played by Ed Donlan.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Sporting a snappy boater hat, Professor Harold Hill (Anthony Wills Jr.) encounters an old friend in an unexpected place. The part of Marcellus Washburn, the con man’s local contact, is played by Ed Donlan. Photo by Joseph Gresser

After making sure she hadn’t hurt herself, Ms. Jones whooped with laughter.

“This is so brilliant, we’ve got to keep it.  We have to practice it, but we’re certainly going to keep it,” Ms. Jones said.

The choice of plays was also clearly well thought out.  All three of the alliance’s main offerings are examinations of small town life.  Even though the smallest of the fictional communities depicted in the shows — Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire — is quite a bit bigger than Greensboro, aspects of the town’s life still ring true.

Ms. Jones has helped to bind the townspeople together in a common effort as much as Harold Hill in Music Man does with his boy’s band.

And the arts alliance makes much sweeter music.

Our Town opens on July 23 with performances on July 26, 28, and 30, and August 2 and 4.

The Music Man premieres on July 24 with shows on July 25, 27, and 31, and August 1 and 3.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Edward Hoagland: 23 books and still going

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Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre 

When writer Edward “Ted” Hoagland turned 80 in December, he had 22 books under his belt.  Today, he has one more and is working on another.  Of course there’s an essay in the works, from the man writer John Updike called “the best essayist of my generation.”  And then there’s a journal he’s been keeping that will be published posthumously.

Some people who come to the Northeast Kingdom think there is nothing to do.  Not Hoagland.  He bought a house on Wheeler Mountain in the early ’60s, and has been living there ever since as a summer resident.

To the extent it is in the boonies, the Northeast Kingdom has undoubtedly contributed to his impressive literary output.

“I’m doing very well on what is my sixth novel because, well there is no phone, no electricity, which is fine at this time of year,” says Hoagland, who sat for a taped interview at the Chronicle’s office last week.  “I don’t use all the daylight there is; I fall asleep before it’s dark.”

Hoagland came to Vermont to buy a house and land when he was about 35.  He had been introduced to the state by a college friend whose father, the eminent historian Henry Steele Commanger, had a house in Newfane.  Hoagland says the house was “crammed with books” and rural enough to take walks on dirt roads and see tracks from wildlife, “which, of course, I loved.”

A love of wildlife and wilderness landed Hoagland in southern California as a young, hotshot firefighter in the early ’50s.  Poking through the country on his off hours, he became so intrigued by mountain lions that he traveled to far-away places, such as the mountains of Alberta, Canada, to see one.  This obsession may account for his willingness to risk life and limb when he became a caretaker for MGM’s signature lions, who appeared to produce a loud roar at the beginning of every picture the movie company made.

The company had a retirement home in California for all the lions it had employed since the ’40s.  It was also keeping “a very sweet female mountain lion,” which happened to be in heat when Hoagland was there.  He says he would often sit next to her cage when no one else was around.  Until one day when he was struck with “the impulse to crawl into her cage.

“She was very surprised, and she went to the back of her cage, turned around and sprang at me,” he says.

But as she went to strike him in the face with a paw, she withdrew her claws.

“It was a love tap,” Hoagland says.

Hoagland doesn’t say whether the experience taught him to conquer his fears.  But to this day he strikes a fearless posture in the face of adversity.

“If I saw a black bear in the woods, I would say, ‘You are not a grizzly.’  I love animals.  I am not going to make you unhappy, but you are not going to scare me.”

Or when he encountered a potential mugger on the street he would say, “You are not a tiger,” and continue on his way.

When Hoagland came to Vermont looking for a place, he was living in New York City, a connection that appears to have helped him find what became his heart’s house.  From Avis Harper he got passed on to Em Hebard, who had lived in New York, Greenwich Village, Hoagland’s old neighborhood.  And together they found the place on Wheeler Mountain.

“I loved the house to start with,” he says.  “I knew it as soon as I saw it.  And it wasn’t just the house, it was also the cliffs.”

He figures he’s spent a third of his life there.

“When people ask me about it, I say I’m going to my heart’s home.”

Hoagland says he came to Vermont rather than Maine, New Hampshire, or the Adirondacks because of the people.  Prior to Hoagland’s purchase, the man who had lived in the house made corn whiskey and brewed bathtub beer.

“For a long time after I bought the house, old customers would periodically drive up and would be disappointed there was no white lightning,” he say.

From living in Barton, he got to know Phil Brooks, a taxidermist, and Paul Brochu, who owned an exceptionally clever hound dog.

“Paul could call the dog and point to the fox, and the dog would stop chasing the coon and follow the fox. And if they happen to come onto a bobcat track, which is much more valuable, the dog would just pick up the bobcat track.”

The state shared physical characteristics that he had seen elsewhere in his travels.  But there was something else.  The people.  And not just those who shared his interest in mountain lions or wildlife.

“Vermont combined the landscape of the West, I mean it looked like Idaho,” he says.  “But the people of the East I have always loved.  I’ve been to Alaska and British Columbia, too, nine times.  But I don’t like the people who live there as much as Vermont.”

Vermonters, he says, have “more of a sense of conservation.”

At the time he bought the house, he had written three books and was working on his fourth.  Although he’s a prolific writer, Hoagland writes with the concentration of a monk. He says it takes him three or four months to write an essay, and four to five years to write a book.  He routinely goes from fiction to non-fiction with the facility of a Northeast Kingdom native who can switch from English to speaking French.

If he becomes stymied while writing a novel, he picks up where he left off writing an essay.  And often, working on the essay, he figures out the next conversation or scene to use in the novel.

Since Hoagland only spends summers in Vermont, he had never written a book from beginning to end while residing in Barton.  But, perhaps not surprisingly, he was in residence at Wheeler Mountain when he wrote the essay, “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” which was published in 1971 by The New Yorker.

Other essays of Vermont origin include “Of Cows and Cambodia,” and the “War in the Woods,” after an outing with houndsman Paul Doyle.  During the ’70s, Hoagland also wrote “The Moose on the Wall,” which took its title from a head mount inside the Howard Bank and featured his taxidermist pal, Mr. Brooks.

But among Kingdom readers with long memories, Hoagland may best be known for the essay he wrote about the girlie shows at the fair, which caused the uproar that led to their early and premature demise.

“Unfortunately,” says Hoagland.  “It was not my intention.”

The shows continued for three or four years elsewhere before they were banned.  Hoagland says his essay took the church-going people of Barton by storm.  “Of course they stay away from that so didn’t know what happened inside until I wrote about it,” he says.  “But they found out why boys went to the fair as boys and came back men, which they had never known before.”

After his spate of Vermont essays, Hoagland traveled to Africa.  He went twice during the ’70s; once in 1976 and again in 1977.  He went during a time when there was a lull in the fighting.  On his return, he wrote African Calliope: A Trip to the Sudan, first published in 1979.

War had returned to central Africa and the Sudan — “that I love so much” — when Hoagland made a second round of visits, once in 1993 and again in 1995.  The war caused widespread famine and Hoagland says he had to be there.  Strafed by MiGs and living in a church compound close to the war zone, his experience this time around resulted in what some critics believe is his best book, Children are Diamonds.

“It took me 20 years to produce this novel because the experiences are based on my own experiences,” he says.  “I did do a couple of pieces for The Nation, but I couldn’t exorcize them through those pieces.”

Hoagland was working as a freelance journalist when he accompanied a transport of food into a relief workers’ compound where thousands and thousands of starving refugees had gathered.  It was the first shipment of food since the killing of four UN aid workers four months ago.  The scene beggars description.

“They had eaten all the insects, all the grasshoppers, all the song birds,” Hoagland says.  “All the area smelled of smoke for in order to smoke out the insects and the rodents, they had burned everything off.”

There were 58 trucks in the transport, carrying corn.  He recalls watching children running alongside the lorries, gathering spilled kernels that they would bring to their mothers after acquiring a handful.

It was that moment, he says, that he had the most powerful experience of his life.  Hoagland was in his sixties at the time and his hair had turned prematurely white.  The women and children equated white with power, and in Hoagland they saw someone they believed to be their deliverer.

“So, they asked me if I was the head of the United Nations,” says Hoagland, who after all these years still chokes up with the memory.

“Are we forgiven?” they asked him.

Hoagland told them he had just arrived from America, and he says they looked at his boots and asked if he had walked.

The most powerful emotion he experienced came moments later when he heard the mothers tell their children: “That white man can save your life.”

And, just like that, he remembers it happened.  “These wobbling, staggering children with huge bellies came up and touched me.”

Throughout his career, Hoagland focused on being the best American essayist he could be.  But it’s an attitude he’s extended to the very craft of writing, and one that leaves no regrets.  Every book he has written, he says, “was the very best I could do at the time.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For a review of Mr. Hoagland’s newest book, Children are Diamonds, click here.

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Rian Fried: a capitalist with a social conscience

One of Rian’s happiest moments was the wedding of his daughter Dorigen to Jon Hofmann.  To celebrate, Rian arranged for the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile to show up at the Stannard church.  Dr. Hofmann drove the classic rig as he worked his way through college.  My only photograph of Rian was of him making a self-portrait with the Wienermobile in the background.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

One of Rian’s happiest moments was the wedding of his daughter Dorigen to Jon Hofmann. To celebrate, Rian arranged for the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile to show up at the Stannard church. Dr. Hofmann drove the classic rig as he worked his way through college. My only photograph of Rian was of him making a self-portrait with the Wienermobile in the background. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

STANNARD — The new agricultural businesses that have flourished in the Northeast Kingdom over the past decade could not have grown so quickly without capital.  Many of the necessary resources were found by Rian Fried, a pioneer in the field of socially responsible investing who preferred to work quietly behind the scenes.

He was 65 years old when he died after a brief illness on July 3.

Rian, who I had the pleasure of knowing and with whom I served as selectman for many years, was instrumental in the success of many of the signature ventures of the Northeast Kingdom’s burgeoning agricultural renaissance.

I don’t remember when I first met Rian.  I do recall the first time I met Rachel Hexter, his wife.  That was the day I moved to Stannard about 40 years ago, when she was Town Clerk.

She left that job and went to work for the Orleans County Council of Social Agencies (OCCSA), an anti-poverty agency from the days when the federal government thought it could do something to help people who were struggling economically.

Rian also worked at OCCSA, an agency with an operatic history, and he turned up in Stannard one day.  OCCSA, whose director went out of his way to aggravate the powers that be, did not last much longer and Rachel and Rian went south to the Boston area.  He to get a master’s degree at the Kennedy Center for Government at Harvard and she to study law.

Rian ran an economic development agency in Brockton, Massachusetts, while he waited for Rachel to finish her schooling.  Wherever he set up his office after that he brought with him framed photographs of boxer Marvin Hagler, who hailed from Brockton and was undisputed middleweight champion of the world for seven years, including the time Rian spent in his hometown.

Soon after Rachel and Rian came home, he met Doug Fleer and the two took their mutual interest in stock trading and created a small investment company headquartered in an upstairs room at the house in Stannard.

In the early 1980s a dial-up connection was good enough to keep a couple of traders afloat, and they had the luxury of a dedicated telephone line.  Their specialty was what they called “ethical investing.”

Like any investment firm, Rian and Doug would check out companies to see if they were well run and were likely to make money.  Unlike almost any other firm, they also applied what they called social screens.

That is, they would see if a company produced armaments, did business with South Africa or discriminated against women or minorities.  Those companies were excluded from consideration no matter how profitable they might seem.

Nowadays that is called socially responsible investing and it is big business.  Even conventional mutual funds often have a socially responsible fund as one of their options.

In those days the two partners had to explain what they were doing to skeptical reporters and brokers who thought it strange to leave even dirty money on the table.

Rian and Doug were looking at the long term, and said an ethical company would not be as liable to lawsuits, strikes or other problems as unethical companies, and would eventually outperform them.  They also weren’t looking to get rich quickly.

I often found myself drifting over to their headquarters, which had some of the qualities of a tree house, only with a lot more paper.  At some point, Rian asked me to start writing editorials for their newsletter, a loss leader they called The Clean Yield.

Rian was a hard editor, but it was fun to write for the newsletter, and I really enjoyed the checks.

The newsletter became so successful that the company took its name.  It also outgrew the tree house and moved into downtown Greensboro.

Rian liked the Greensboro office, but was faced with a problem.  Clean Yield needed broadband Internet service to make its trades and none was available.  As an old community organizer he knew what to do, and got together a group of people who shared his need.

They combined resources and brought a high-capacity line into Greensboro.  The engineers set up an antenna that beamed a signal to a tower in Stannard that reflected it back to Greensboro.

It wasn’t long after that Verizon noticed that Greensboro had its own broadband service and brought a DSL connection to the town.

About 15 years ago Rian was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a serious form of blood cancer.  After a great deal of research he decided to seek treatment in Seattle, Washington, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

He received a bone marrow transplant, a harrowing procedure that was fatal to most of those who began treatment at the same time as Rian.

After that Rian spend countless hours talking with people who were in the same situation, answering questions, helping them to understand their options and calming their fears.  So quiet was his generosity that I only learned after his death that he had spent hours talking with my ex-wife, who remains a good friend, when her second husband faced a possible bone marrow transplant.

As the socially responsible investment movement grew, Rian saw new possibilities.

Tom Stearns, the founder of High Mowing Seeds, said “Rian for a long time realized that using money and investment to say ‘No’ to things like apartheid, armaments and discrimination was not the only possibility.”  By finding ways to put money into businesses that shared his values, Rian found a way for people’s resources to say ‘Yes,’ Mr. Stearns said.

Before Ryan figured out a different way to do it, businesses that needed capital to expand had to become publically traded companies.  Eventually those companies, like Ben and Jerry’s, faced irresistible pressure to sell the company to the highest bidder, regardless of the founders’ desires.

Mr. Stearns said that Rian figured out a way to allow his investors to put money into High Mowing while insulating the company from such pressures.  He said the company recently started sending those investors big checks in repayment.

He said that Rian counseled and supported many of the other businesses in the Hardwick area.

One of those was Claire’s, a restaurant that was financed by selling shares to community members.

Its owner, Linda Ramsdell, said, “His passion and love for what we were trying to do there was invaluable and really special.”

She recalled his visits to the restaurant.

“It was always fun to see him in Claire’s.  He was always having a good time, no matter who he was with.”

Rian’s enthusiasm also extended to his hometown.  He was the chairman of the town’s planning commission for many years, a body on which I serve.  I’ve stayed on the planning board through many rewrites of the zoning bylaws and the town plan, in large part because I enjoyed working with Rian.

He was a fount of information and a great talker.  We shared a love for the blues and constantly tried to top each other with obscure knowledge.

I never succeeded in getting the better of him in those conversations or — if I’m honest — in any others.

When I told him about seeing the great blues harmonica player Junior Wells at a small Chicago club in the 1970s, Rian responded with the story about spending a strange evening with the musician at a long-ago party.

Rian, along with his nearest neighbor Jan Lewandoski, spent years trying to persuade Stannard residents Harold and Mavis Nunn to allow the Vermont Land Trust to have a preservation easement on their farm — one of the oldest in town.

Shortly after the documents were signed, the Nunns died.  Today Tom Gilbert and his family live in the old farmhouse and are preparing to start growing vegetables and running a small school on the land.

Rian was recruited by Sterling College to serve as a trustee, an honor he cherished.  When I saw him at Sandor Katz’s lecture there a few months ago, he regaled me with an enthusiastic account of a day-long strategy meeting he and his fellow trustees had just finished.

Most of all Rian was devoted to his family.  He was happy beyond measure when his daughter Dorigen join Clean Yield.  He told anyone who would listen that she was much better at the job than he was.

Rian was raised in Vienna, where his father was a diplomat.  One of our odder connections was the discovery that we had the same high school principal, even though he went to school in Austria and I was in New York City.

He was the eldest of six brothers who, despite distance, remained extremely close.

After his bone marrow transplant Rian always said he was not going to live to be an old man.  He regarded that as a simple fact and dismissed any attempt to dissuade him as wishful thinking.

In his business he had the same clear sightedness.  Because he had moved into an area of investment that, in less ethical hands, could have been an invitation to fraud, Rian had to be punctilious about Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.

One of the reasons that so few other people ventured into his area of expertise was that most people were unwilling to invest the necessary hours of painstaking research.

Nevertheless, Tom Stearns recalled, Rian insisted that his investors were more radical than he and pushed him to find opportunities to put their money to work to create social change.

One of the last projects Rian was involved in was the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center now taking shape on Main Street in Newport.

Its director, Eleanor Leger, said Rian was dubious at first, but eventually came around.

She said Rian asked insightful questions and “never let you think he was saying it was a terrible idea, even when he was.”

Rian’s investors made the difference between success and failure for the center, she said.

Even now, after knowing Rian for 30 years, I’m not sure whether his path from the anti-poverty programs of the 1970s to a twenty-first century program of creating new sustainable businesses through socially conscious investing was planned.

My guess is that it wasn’t, but that Rian, guided by his innate decency, found a path for others to follow.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Circus Smirkus opens season with Oz theme

Jenny Ritchie, the Circus Smirkus rope coach, looks up at a pair of aerial performers.  At this rehearsal, her main focus was on the three troupers lying on their backs.  They had the job of spinning the ropes to which the acrobats clung.  Performers in the show often assist their fellows in this tightly knit company.  Photos by Joseph Gresser

Jenny Ritchie, the Circus Smirkus rope coach, looks up at a pair of aerial performers. At this rehearsal, her main focus was on the three troupers lying on their backs. They had the job of spinning the ropes to which the acrobats clung. Performers in the show often assist their fellows in this tightly knit company. Photos by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — A crowd of Circus Smirkus troupers moved around the ring here at choreographer Matt Williams’ instruction early Friday morning.  Dressed in rehearsal clothes, the performers looked much younger than they do in their flashy show outfits.  That is, they look their age, which is, for the vast majority of the 27 youngsters, between 15 and 17.

It was toward the end of the second of three weeks, and they and a crew of directors, coaches and technicians had to put together a show they will perform 69 times during a seven-week tour.

Two thirds of the way into the rehearsal period, there was no show.

There was no lack of skilled performers and carefully honed routines, but Circus Smirkus is more than a collection of acts.  The company has, over the course of 25 seasons, earned a reputation for presenting ensemble shows built around a central theme.

This year the theme is Oz Incorporated, a slightly jaundiced take on the world created by L. Frank Baum in a series of children’s books.  Ringmaster Troy Wunderle plays a cross between a bumbling wizard and a spaced-out tycoon.

Right now, though, Jesse Dryden, the company’s creative director, is working with Mr. Williams to get troupers properly arranged in the ring for the charivari.  That’s the opening act of the circus, in which the entire cast parades through the ring, performing feats of balance or acrobatics in rapid succession.

In this year’s circus the charivari also sets the stage for the story of Oz, the string on which all the separate acts are strung like beads.

Dorothy, the little girl from Kansas is to make her appearance from above, circling on a rope swing.

The choreography is complicated and needs to be performed energetically to sweep the audience into the show.  At this stage the main issue is getting performers to their assigned places in the available time.

In actual performance there will be music, but now the performers are moving to counts shouted out by Mr. Williams.

Mr. Dryden watches closely as the performers walk around the ring.  Some aren’t hitting their marks in time.  The question is whether they aren’t moving fast enough or if the distance is too much for them to travel.

Speed is the answer, and the portion of the dance is redone until everyone is getting to his or her place.

Mr. Dryden, who was in the same class at the Ringling Clown College as Mr. Wunderle, has the overall responsibility for getting the show ready to go on the road.  Once it’s finished he will hand the keys to Mr. Wunderle, who will be responsible for the show during the tour.

This year Mr. Dryden is struggling a bit.  The show isn’t jelling as he might expect it to.  The problem, he says during a break, is that a lot of the most experienced troupers graduated from the company last year — the company’s age limit is 18 — and the group of leaders isn’t as big as it usually is.

In fact, he says, the two youngest troupers are the most experienced.  These are Emily and Ariana Wunderle, the ringmaster’s daughters.  Despite years of performing, Ariana, nine, is technically a “trouper in training,” but 12-year-old Emily is a full member of the company.

For some years, Ariana mostly worked in acts with her father, but this year she is all over the show.

Mr. Wunderle says the fact that his children work with him in the ring and his wife, Sara, is part of the front office crew is one of the delights of his job.

In the ring, the troupers repeat the dance and get the feel of the space.

Acrobats just mark their stunts, running into the ring and wriggling slightly to indicate the place where a flip would start and dash off to the side to make way for the next performer’s move.

Cuban coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales instructs 13 Circus Smirkus troupers as they form a giant, spinning pyramid.

Cuban coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales instructs 13 Circus Smirkus troupers as they form a giant, spinning pyramid.

Similarly, the balancing acts, including a human pyramid, are indicated by the performers moving from the starting to the concluding position.  After an hour of this work the group divides.

A trio of flyers rehearse on the ropes in the circus tent, while a gaggle of troupers head over to another tent to practice spacing for their trapeze act.  An upstairs room in the circus barn is the destination for some clowns who need to polish their routines.

In the sunshine of what will turn out to be the last sunny day in June, tractors are thrumming in a nearby field as farmers work to get their hay in.  In a tent with its sides rolled up for ventilation, performers are running elaborate patterns on a gym mat.

They are putting together a chase scene in which the Wicked Witch of the West and her minions pursue Dorothy and the Scarecrow on a trampoline.  The equipment can’t be used until the rope rehearsal is done, so the trampoline crew is reduced to marking the act.

Over in the circus barn Sarah Tiffin, a third-year trouper with a strong clown personality, is working on her part of a duo act.  As Glinda the Good, she is to battle Sam Gurwitt, who plays the evil witch.

Ms. Tiffin goes through her paces under the watchful eye of clown coach Jay Stewart, while both wait for Mr. Gurwitt, who is off with the trampolinists.

Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire.

Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire.

When he shows up the pair mug as they fire bolts of magic power at each other.  The idea of the sketch involves a magic reversal that reveals itself when Mr. Gurwitt cracks his knuckles and hurts Ms. Tiffin’s hands.

This causes a comic escalation as Ms. Tiffin stamps on her foot and Mr. Gurwitt hops in agony; he holds his breath until she passes out.

Another exchange of magic causes the situation to return to normal without Mr. Gurwitt realizing it.  There the act has come to a standstill.

Something has to happen to Mr. Gurwitt to knock him out, but the clowns and Mr. Stewart are having a hard time figuring out what it should be.

The idea of something big and heavy falling from the sky on his noggin is proposed, but there is no way to hide anything of size from the audience.  Ms. Tiffin suggests that Mr. Gurwitt ask another clown, Chase Culp, who is known in the troupe as Mongo, to hit him on the head with a club.  Rather than hurting Glinda, the result would be a knockout of the Wicked Witch.

There is no resolution of the problem when the rehearsal breaks up.

Six days later, on Wednesday, June 26, the troupers are back in the ring working on the charivari.  It’s damp and cool, so Mr. Dryden warns the acrobats to hold off their tumbling to avoid injury.

The troupers go into the opening dance, but for the first time they are working to the music that will be in the show, not just Mr. Williams’ counts.

At one point in the routine, the dancers make sharp typewriting gestures, then swivel into the movement of pulling a lever.  The music includes mechanical sound effects that mimic the movements.

“I saw you smiling,” Mr. Dryden says, “now you know how the music fits.”

He is bubbling with energy, despite almost three weeks of sleep deprivation.  The energy will be needed, because the rehearsal is going to be slow with frequent stops for lighting designer Anthony Powers to create cues.

Mr. Dryden grabs a microphone and does the Smirkus version of stand-up comedy.

“That was very wonderful,” he says after a portion of the charivari has gone well. “I’m sure that somewhere, someone loves you.”

Today, the pyramids are tried out, including one three-level extravaganza made up of 13 troupers in a formation that stretches from one side of the ring to the other.

Slowly, the pyramid rotates around the ring as coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales watches.

Mr. Sensiales is one of three Cuban coaches who are with Circus Smirkus this year.  Mr. Wunderle said he and Mr. Dryden traveled to Cuba during the off season and worked with performers at a national circus school there.

The exchange is one result of that trip.

Two days later, Mr. Dryden is still working on the charivari.  A dress rehearsal has been put off, despite the fact that the show’s first performance is only a day away.

“If this is what it’s going to look like, we need another week of rehearsal,” Mr. Dryden tells the cast.  “Don’t think the audience is going to give us all this energy.  You give the energy, so the audience is blown away.”

The wear and tear on the troupers is showing a bit.  Mr. Sensiales is running a kind of ringside clinic, bandaging one performer, showing another a strengthening exercise.  Surrounding him is the pungent scent of Tiger Balm, a strong Chinese liniment.

Dorothy (Alyson Mattei), looks sympathetic as the Cowardly Lion (Chase Culp) showers a delighted crowd of children with tears.

Dorothy (Alyson Mattei), looks sympathetic as the Cowardly Lion (Chase Culp) showers a delighted crowd of children with tears.

Mr. Wunderle has a crew working on carrying him in and out of the ring.  He is up on stilts with a large animated face strapped to his back, but he can’t enter the tent standing upright.

He is borne into the tent on the backs of six or seven cast members and set up on his feet with his back facing the audience.  The huge face is that of Oz, the Great and Powerful, but the audience will be let in on the trick when Mr. Wunderle turns around.

Mr. Wunderle has crafted the mask himself, a reminder of his days as an art student.  In conversation, the ringmaster explains that he found the circus while in art school in Baltimore.

As an example of an advertising brochure, one of his classes was shown a flyer from the Ringling Clown College.

The year he attended, Smirkus founder Rob Mermin was co-directing the college and Mr. Wunderle discovered he could pursue his passion in Vermont, his native state.

Today, in addition to running the Circus Smirkus show, Mr. Wunderle is director of clowning for Ringling Brothers.

The Greensboro circus lot is soggy on Friday and a small bucket loader is spreading woodchips to keep patrons’ feet dry.

By Saturday afternoon, the time for the first show, the weather hasn’t improved and cars pulling in to park in a nearby field squeegee torrents of water from the earth with their tires.

It isn’t raining, though, and the crowds are lined up waiting to get into the tent for the first show of this year’s tour.  The aroma of popcorn wafts out of the concession tent and the candy butchers are doing good business.

Many of those waiting wear a plastic card with their name on it hanging from a lanyard around their neck.  These are troupers’ parents.

One, whose card says Greg, announces that he is from the Upper Valley.  Rumor has it that his son has been cast as the Scarecrow, he says.

When the tent is packed full, the crowd begins to clap slowly as if to bring forth the show.  Sure enough, Mr. Wunderle strides into the ring in his wizard regalia and they’re off.

The charivari goes smoothly and the audience oohs and aahs, especially at the spinning pyramid.  Dorothy comes down from the sky, dons her ruby slippers and sets out.

The audience is with the players, but the performance isn’t pinning them to their seats, yet.

A few acts draw strong reaction, including the duel between Glinda and the Wicked Witch.  They’ve added a bit of business in which Ms. Tiffin does a split and Mr. Gurwitt reacts by clutching his groin, bending in his knees and letting forth a long, high screech.  This brings down the house.

Mongo isn’t available to slug Mr. Gurwitt — he’s engaged playing the Cowardly Lion — but Alyssa Kim, as the head flying monkey arrives at the end of the battle.

She punches Mr. Gurwitt and flings his unconscious form over her shoulder and carries him out of the ring.

The trampoline act is properly frenetic, but at intermission the show still has the feel of a collection of disparate acts.

Something has happened when the show starts back up.  Maybe, Mr. Dryden has given a half-time pep talk, or maybe the troupers have realized the show’s possibilities for the first time.

At any rate, the energy level is much higher when they return for the second half of the show.

The acts race by and the audience reacts to the story more strongly.  By the time the Wicked Witch has been dispatched with a bucket of water and Dorothy has flown back to Kansas, swinging high above the ring, the audience is fully with the performers.

The final dance finds the crowd applauding and cheering from beginning to end.

Asked afterward when he knew he had a show, Mr. Dryden replies, “By the middle of the second half.”  He is, perhaps, a little ungenerous.

From here, Mr. Dryden turns over the vehicle he has created to Mr. Wunderle.

He will have the entire tour to polish the show, rearranging acts, if need be, or even cutting those that don’t work.

Mr. Wunderle says it’s important for the show to breathe.  While in the ring, he says, he can tell how things are going by listening to the crowd.

While out of the audience’s view, he watches from one of the three entrances.

By the time the troupe returns to Greensboro for its final performances on August 17, Oz Incorporated will be a finely tuned machine roaring through the ring.

And then the company will be gone, its performers scattered to high schools around the country, while Mr. Dryden and Mr. Wunderle dream up ways to top themselves in next year’s show.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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In Newport: Scott performs everyday job at country club

Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott helps a grounds crew at the Newport Country Club clear grass and spread new sand in a bunker between the ninth and eighteenth fairways.  “He knows how to use a shovel,” joked head golf professional Kim O’Neil.  “You can tell he’s done this before.” Photos by Micaela Bedell.

Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott helps a grounds crew at the Newport Country Club clear grass and spread new sand in a bunker between the ninth and eighteenth fairways. “He knows how to use a shovel,” joked head golf professional Kim O’Neil. “You can tell he’s done this before.” Photos by Micaela Bedell.

by Micaela Bedell

NEWPORT — Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott continued his tour of “everyday” Vermont jobs on Wednesday, June 19, by working alongside the grounds crew at the Newport Country Club (NCC).

Mr. Scott helped the crew from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., focusing primarily on spreading new sand and cleaning unwanted grass from the sand bunker between the ninth and eighteenth fairways.

When NCC board treasurer Sharon Booth first invited the lieutenant governor at the annual North Country Chamber of Commerce meeting in late May, she was half-joking.

“When he said, sure!  I didn’t think he was serious,” Ms. Booth said.  “But then he called and we were setting things up.”

Head golf professional Kim O’Neil said it was refreshing to have a politician pull through on something like this.

“Very rarely do you see this from a politician,” he said.  “He’s here for a full four hours today.  I offered to let him work in the pro shop, and he said he’d rather work outside.  You can trust we’ll put him to work.”

Good news for Lieutenant Governor Scott, because work is exactly the point of his “Vermont Everyday Jobs Tour.”  He described it as “taking a pulse of Vermont” by seeing different aspects of multiple industries, all the while learning what people are feeling and what pressures they do — or don’t — have.

“I’m a bit of a hands-on learner,” he said with a laugh.  “Always have been.”

The lieutenant governor has also installed utility lines with Green Mountain Power, made rounds at the emergency room in Porter Hospital in Middlebury, and taught spelling and reading comprehension to Union Memorial Elementary School second-graders in Colchester.

Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott (far right) listens to Newport Country Club Superintendent Ryan McCaffrey (center) explain how to clear a sand bunker as his co-workers for the day get started.  Pictured, from left, are Dylan Bohlman, Denis Comeau, Mr. McCaffrey, Laurent Leblanc Jr. and Lieutenant Governor Scott.

Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott (far right) listens to Newport Country Club Superintendent Ryan McCaffrey (center) explain how to clear a sand bunker as his co-workers for the day get started. Pictured, from left, are Dylan Bohlman, Denis Comeau, Mr. McCaffrey, Laurent Leblanc Jr. and Lieutenant Governor Scott.

Lieutenant Governor Scott said he thinks it should be easier for everyday Vermonters to feel represented by their politicians, and by working beside them he hopes to also hear them. The consensus from the crew and staff was that he did.

“He’s a guy that listens, and listens to both sides,” said four-year crew member and four-hour co-worker Denis Comeau.  “I like that.”

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Gold panning and bingo help a good cause

Joanne Warner of Green Mountain Prospectors demonstrates how to pan for gold.  Bryce Donahue, who said he's panned for gold dozens of times, looks on.  Photos by Tena Starr

Joanne Warner of Green Mountain Prospectors demonstrates how to pan for gold. Bryce Donahue, who said he’s panned for gold dozens of times, looks on. Photos by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

WESTFIELD — Terrie Davis-Perry has long supported cancer research, maybe more than most people.  She’s regularly donated to the American Cancer Society and fund-raising events, and she sponsors a Relay for Life team member.  But when the disease hit home last winter with her brother-in-law’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, she was inspired to do a little more aggressive fund-raising than she’d done in the past.

So on Saturday, Ms. Davis-Perry and her husband, Mark Perry, put together a special day of events and camping at their Barrewood Campground in Westfield.  Proceeds from the $5 fee ($2 for children) for daytime activities went to Paul Perry for out-of-pocket costs for his treatment: camping fees throughout the weekend — three nights — will go to Relay for Life.

barrewood boy

Five-year-old Ryan Nathan Rice of North Troy was one of the few who decided to go swimming Saturday at Barrewood Campground’s cancer benefit.

Saturday turned out to be a rare sunny day, although the wind was brisk enough to knock over some of the tents that vendors had set up on the big green at the campground to sell jewelry, crafts, baked goods, books, clothing, and other items.  Inside the pavilion, a rousing game of bingo was in progress called by Debbie Lucas, who donated her time, and Mary Lee Daigle was serving a hot lunch.  Pauline Couture of Couture’s Maple was on hand with a variety of maple products, and several members of Green Mountain Prospectors demonstrated how to pan for gold.

There was plenty of interest in that activity — nearly as much as in the bingo game.

The first thing you learn about panning for gold is you’re not likely to get rich.  The second is that it isn’t nearly as easy as it looks when an expert is handling the pans.  My own efforts netted one tiny flake that I might not have recognized were it not for Joanne Warner’s careful eyes, although gold is quite striking and definitely stands out if you know what you’re looking for.

Ms. Warner and Donald and Tracie Cassady were on hand to demonstrate the skill of panning and had small vials of gold, as well as garnets, to show for their own efforts.  Mr. and Ms. Cassady are from New Hampshire and said the river near Littleton is “loaded with garnets,” a deep red, semi-precious gemstone that, like gold, is heavy and settles in the bottom of the pan.

Ms. Warner offered up a small vial of startlingly bright gold flecks that she’d gathered. They were worth about $30 or $40 — not a huge take for a tedious job.

“Most of the gold in Vermont is glacial, you won’t find big nuggets,” Ms. Warner said.  That means glaciers ground the gold down to fine particles, as opposed to out West where actual nuggets are more likely to be found,

These three Green Mountain Prospectors don’t sell the gold they find, although they know some who do.  Foundries will buy it, as well as jewelers and some collectors, they said. The garnets also have some value.

Mark Perry and Terrie Davis-Perry, owners of Barrewood Campground in Westfield, held a special day of activities Saturday to help their brother Paul Perry with out-of-pocket expenses for pancreatic cancer treatment.  Proceeds from camping for three nights went to Relay for Life.

Mark Perry and Terrie Davis-Perry, owners of Barrewood Campground in Westfield, held a special day of activities Saturday to help their brother Paul Perry with out-of-pocket expenses for pancreatic cancer treatment. Proceeds from camping for three nights went to Relay for Life.

At this point, I have to admit that my notes kind of vanished on me because I gave panning a shot under Ms. Warner’s able guidance.  I was decidedly inept and soaked myself and my notebook, ending up with a runny blue blur instead of careful notes.

So — winging it.  We started with a shovel full of material from the bottom of the nearby brook, and Mr. Cassady did a sift to filter out the biggest stones.  Those bigger stones are worth looking at, he said, because there’s lots of quartz among them, and that’s where gold comes from.  But keeping in mind that chunks of gold the size of white quartz aren’t likely to appear in Vermont, the next step is to get to the littler stuff that looks mostly like sand.  And that’s when it gets tricky.

The prospectors used green pans with ridged openings on one side.  The idea is that you mix the sand and its potentially valuable contents with water, then slur it around, constantly dumping off the top layer through the pan’s openings.  You trust that the heavier stuff, the valuable stuff, will stay at the bottom, and what you’re sloughing off is just sand and tiny worthless pebbles.

The equipment is neither complicated nor expensive.  Most any kind of filter works up to a point.  Mr. Cassady said his wife is always telling him to leave her flour sifter alone.

If you’re not too overzealous, or just sloppy, it works.  The heavy stuff does stay in the bottom of the pan, and after a while the dirt changes color.  It darkens as the lighter, and lighter colored, sand goes out the pan’s slots, and what remains is what’s of possible value.  “Tap it, and the gold goes to the bottom,” Ms. Warner advised me.

Pauline Couture of Couture’s Maple in Westfield was on hand at the fund-raiser with a variety of maple products.

Pauline Couture of Couture’s Maple in Westfield was on hand at the fund-raiser with a variety of maple products.

Gold is 19 times heavier than water, someone said as I slopped muddy water all over myself. Trust it.

I sloshed the pan around in the water, then sifted out the sand and did see the color eventually darkening, but it wasn’t easy, and I was clumsy, and I soon appreciated Ms. Warner’s skill.  She said she’d won an award in a panning contest, which didn’t surprise me once I’d tried it myself.  She makes panning look easy.  It isn’t.

At the end, I had one flake of gold.  It didn’t look real, and, nope, I wasn’t going home rich.  Ms. Warner had planted it, and it went back into her vial via a special little bottle that sucked it up and returned it to where it came from.

But there are entirely worse things to do with one’s time than wade around in a brook in the hope of finding gold.

“It’s like fishing,” Ms. Warner said. “You can be out all day and you may not get a fish.  But you enjoy being out there.”

barrewood don

Don Cassady of Green Mountain Prospectors sets up some of the gear used to pan for gold.

Green Mountain Prospectors has members from all over New England, as well as New York State, and many of them are members of a national prospecting club, as well.

Meanwhile, back in the pavilion, my 13-year-old son had settled in with a couple of his great-aunts and was avidly playing bingo.

Bingo used to be a game I understood, but apparently no longer.  There’s still the traditional way of playing, where you win if you get straight hits in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line, but there are “specials” I’ve never heard of, like a check mark.  Colton and his great-aunts were each playing eight cards.

The last game was something I’d never heard of, a coverall.  My aunts, being the experienced bingo players they are, knew just what that meant — the winner would be the first person to fill up an entire card.

Prizes for the bingo winners were donated by local businesses and others and included gift certificates, homemade pies, and jewelry.

Later in the day, there was a potluck dinner at the campground, as well as live music, and a bonfire.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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In Newport: New gallery features art reflecting social concerns

Artists Sam Thurston and Abigail Meredith check out the artwork at the opening of the 99 Gallery Sunday afternoon.  The gallery will also serve as a meeting place for NEK 99%, a grassroots organization for social change.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Artists Sam Thurston and Abigail Meredith check out the artwork at the opening of the 99 Gallery Sunday afternoon. The gallery will also serve as a meeting place for NEK 99%, a grassroots organization for social change. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — A new addition to Newport’s art scene opened Sunday, offering an exhibit with a title — “Politically Incorrect” — that pointed out the path the gallery means to follow.

According to Diane Peel, its founder, the 99 Gallery is an outgrowth of NEK 99 %, an organization inspired by the Occupy protests of 2011 and made up of local activists.  The gallery is tucked into a lovely old carriage house on School Street, just off Main Street.

On Sunday the space was filled with artists — some of high school age — and visitors.  On the walls, a variety of works was displayed, most of them reflecting social concerns.

Abigail Meredith’s acrylic “Shockwave” shows a woman with her hair blowing back in a blast of intense white light.  The North Country Union High School junior said the painting was meant to remind viewers that the peril of nuclear weapons remains.

She said she came up with the image when she heard that the energy of an atomic bomb can burn the silhouette of a figure into a nearby wall.

In Ms. Meredith’s image, though, the figure is not the result of a catastrophe.

“I put it in the middle of the explosion rather than the aftermath,” she said.  “Movement is very interesting to me.”

Ms. Meredith, along with North Country freshman Ryland Brown, whose intricate pen and ink drawing of a skull and guitar also graced the new art space, is studying at the school’s Arts and Communications Academy.

One of their teachers, Natalie Guillette, also contributed a painting to the show, an eerie image of a face shrouded in a mask.  According to her artist’s statement, Ms. Guillette was moved to create a series of similar paintings by a visit to a World War II museum where gas masks were on exhibit.

Other artists from the community also brought their works for the initial show.  Jack Rogers showed a trio of pencil drawings, which included an image of a hand blocking the lens of a camera and Rodney King being menaced by the baton of a police officer.

In a very different vein, Sam Thurston of Lowell offered a drawing of a street life under a New York elevated train and a watercolor illustration of a verse by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

An improptu manifesto was chalked on the sidewalk in front of the 99 Gallery Sunday afternoon.  In addition to presenting art shows, the gallery will also provide a home for NEK 99 %, according to its founder, Diane Peel.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

An improptu manifesto was chalked on the sidewalk in front of the 99 Gallery Sunday afternoon. In addition to presenting art shows, the gallery will also provide a home for NEK 99 %, according to its founder, Diane Peel. Photo by Joseph Gresser

The 99 Gallery, while it offers a home to artists living in and around Newport, was created in large part to display the work of a painter and sculptor who spent very little of his life in the area.

Ms. Peel’s father, Donald William Peel, was an active artist for most of his 89 years.  He started making paintings in the magic realist style in the 1950s, moved on to abstract sculpture, and finally back to surrealist paintings in his final years.

Mr. Peel achieved recognition, especially on the West Coast, where he lived most of his life.  His work is represented in museums and university collections in the Pacific Northwest.

Ms. Peel said that after her mother, a fashion designer, died in 2001 she wanted her father to move to Vermont and build a home and a studio that could handle the big painting he was making.  Sadly, Mr. Peel died in 2010.

Left with a large collection of her father’s works, Ms. Peel said she had to make a choice.  She could store the big surrealist paintings, but then they wouldn’t be seen and, without climate control, would suffer permanent damage.  She decided on the alternative of creating a space in which her father’s work can be shown and, she hopes, purchased by collectors.

Her plans call for interspersing shows by living artists with displays of her father’s paintings.

Ms. Peel said she wants the new gallery to serve as a home for work that might not fit in at the MAC Center.  Her gallery is not intended to compete with the more established art space, Ms. Peel said, but is meant to broaden the options available to artists and art lovers in Newport.

She said she hopes to offer “edgier” art than might be possible for a space that relies on sales to keep its doors open.  The 99 Gallery, Ms. Peel said, is paid for out of her earnings as a nurse and can keep going whether or not any paintings are sold.

The gallery, like the NEK 99 % organization is nonpolitical, Ms. Peel said.

“We’re not involved with the political process,” Ms. Peel declared.  “We’re involved with the people process.”

Pointing to Mr. Rogers’ drawing of the blocked camera, she said the image depicts the “surveillance state.”  Government intrusion into the private affairs of citizens is not a political issue, but a people issue, Ms. Peel said.

She recalled criticisms of the original Occupy protests, which questioned the movement’s lack of leadership and formal structure.  Those objections, she said, were based on a misunderstanding of the movement’s intentions.

“Occupy was trying to organize a horizontal system at the grassroots level,” she said.  The 99 Gallery, Ms. Peel will embody the same principles.

Those who want to see how these principles look on the walls of a gallery can see “Politically Incorrect” through the end of July.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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At NCUHS: Choral director receives surprise send-off

Retiring North Country choral director Anne Hamilton reacts to a musical tribute from present and former students.  New words to the song “’Til There Was You,” were written by Adam (left) and Matt Podd, who have gone on to professional music careers in New York City.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Retiring North Country choral director Anne Hamilton reacts to a musical tribute from present and former students. New words to the song “’Til There Was You,” were written by Adam (left) and Matt Podd, who have gone on to professional music careers in New York City. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle June 5, 2013

NEWPORT — The choral program at North Country Union High School has been successful long enough to have established traditions.  For instance, the Christmas concert always ends with a performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” in which alumni of North Country are invited to participate.  Similarly, the second part of the annual pops concert always features solos by graduating seniors set amid choral performances.

At this year’s concert, on May 29, the traditions were unexpectedly mingled.  Anne Hamilton, retiring after serving as the school’s choral director for the past 13 years, planned a medley of Beatles songs for her final North Country concert.

During the performance, Ms. Hamilton said a few days later, she looked out into the audience and noticed that many of her former students were present.

“I didn’t want them to leave without getting to say hello to them,” Ms. Hamilton said.  So shortly before the final selection, “Hey Jude,” she invited alumni in the audience to come down to the front of the auditorium and join in the final section of the song.

Ms. Hamilton couldn’t have prevented them from doing so.  Unbeknownst to her, a conspiracy had been hatched by present and former students.

When the final strains of “Hey Jude,” were sung, accompanist Vivian Spates turned over the piano to Mark Violette.

“When I saw Mark at the piano, I felt things were spiraling out of control,” Ms. Hamilton said.

They were, perhaps, but not in a bad way.  Sheets of music were distributed as Mr. Violette played the opening bars of “’Til There Was You,” a song from the musical The Music Man, that was actually covered by The Beatles.

“There were notes on the page

But we never knew their meaning

No, we never knew it at all

’Til there was you,” sang students past and present.  Meredith Wilson’s original words had been replaced with ones written for the occasion by brothers Adam and Matt Podd.

“You put songs in our lives

And you taught us all sight-reading

Do Re Mi Fa

Ti Ti Ta La

’Til There Was You!”

Ms. Hamilton, seated next to Ms. Spates in the front row, seemed overcome by what was happening before her eyes and ears.  At the next verse…

“And there was All-State!

And other logistical nightmares

The drama of high notes and hormones,”

Ms. Hamilton burst into laughter.  She kept smiling as the chorus concluded their serenade.

“So we thank you

For the time that we had

And the joy we found in singing

We’re so grateful for all those years

Singing with you.”

After their first time through the song, North Country graduate Phil Gosselin, an actor who usually resides in New York City, took the microphone and thanked Ms. Hamilton on behalf of his fellow alumni.

ann hamilton spates

Ms. Hamilton and long-time accompanist Vivian Spates enjoy the witty lyrics and the enthusiastic performance. Photo by Joseph Gresser

He was followed by Joseph Cornelius who said he was taught by Ms. Hamilton in pre-school, a claim she later denied.  Mr. Cornelius was one of Ms. Hamilton’s students when he attended elementary school in Island Pond and at North Country.

“I hoped that my two daughters would get to study with her,” Mr. Cornelius said, “but it was not to be.”  He urged present North Country students to appreciate their good fortune in having the experience of Ms. Hamilton as their teacher.

After another chorus of “’Til There Was You,” the concert ended as present and former students surrounded and embraced Ms. Hamilton.

A couple of days after the concert, Ms. Hamilton reflected on the event and her time at North Country.

She said an all-Beatles concert was not a random choice.

“That’s the pops concert I wanted to go out on,” Ms. Hamilton said.  The quality of the music and the opportunities it gave for her students to shine made for an ideal final concert, she said.

“I want the students to feel they can be successful, and that means to be truly successful,” Ms. Hamilton said. “Everyone’s a winner, doesn’t work.”

Ms. Hamilton said she was very pleased that the seniors who chose to perform solos all rose to the challenge of performing such familiar and beloved music.

She said she was caught completely by surprise by the tribute organized by her former students.  The Podd brothers, she said, were at North Country giving a presentation to students on Tuesday.

“They were very coy about whether they would be able to make it to the concert,” Ms. Hamilton said.  After the workshop with the students, she took them out to dinner and invited Mr. Gosselin, one of their former classmates, whom she knew was in town working with QNEK.

At dinner, the Podd brothers told Ms. Hamilton that Mr. Gosselin would be delayed by a rehearsal.

“They didn’t tell me that it was a rehearsal for their surprise,” she said.

Ms. Hamilton said she herself followed a popular choral teacher, Glory Douglass, when she arrived at North Country after six years teaching at North Country Union Junior High School and nine years cruising between Brighton, Morgan, Holland and Charleston teaching music to elementary school students.

Ms. Hamilton said she had 11 years between graduating college and beginning her teaching career.  Although she was certified as a music teacher, Ms. Hamilton said, she felt she needed more training.

One of the benefits of going back to school, she said, was making the acquaintance of Sandi MacLeod, who today directs Music-Comp, a program that helps students learn to write music.  Ms. Hamilton has been involved in the program since its inception and she said she plans to continue working with the organization after she leaves North Country.

Ms. Hamilton said she also plans to continue leading Northsong, a locally based chamber choir that performs around the Northeast Kingdom.  Northsong will allow Ms. Hamilton to continue her collaboration with Ms. Spates, whose musicianship and generosity she praised.

Aside from that, Ms. Hamilton said she plans to take some time to think.  She said she is “50 percent committed” to learning the violin.  Her husband, Amos, after retiring from the Customs service, took up the clarinet seriously and frequently plays chamber music with friends.

After 13 years teaching at the school, Ms. Hamilton still has much good to say about North Country and the Newport community.

She said that the Rotary Club’s steadfast support of the annual music festival has translated into a general support for student artistic achievement.

“This community has always been supportive of the arts, it’s legend.  People around the state can’t believe it,” Ms. Hamilton said.

She said that she has been very well supported by the administration and her colleagues at North Country.

“This is a very nice job,” Ms. Hamilton mused, “This is a very nice job.”

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Young composers get a chance to hear their works

North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the chronicle 05-08-13

by Joseph Gresser

DERBY LINE — At noon on a fine spring Wednesday, a stream of youngsters from elementary to high school age poured into the doors of the Haskell Opera House.  In front of the entrance to the Haskell Free Library a man sat gazing intently at sheets of paper in his lap as he conducted an invisible orchestra.

That man, Eric Nielsen, is a distinguished Vermont composer and one of many who work behind the scenes as part of Music-Comp.  That organization, once known as the Vermont Midi Project, encourages students in their efforts to compose music by having professionals mentor them through the Internet.

On May 1, preparations were nearing completion for the twenty-sixth in a series of concerts which allow student composers to hear their works performed by professional musicians.

Among the 26 composers whose pieces were to be featured on the evening’s bill were three from North Country Union High School — Adele Woodmansee, Erin Spoerl and Bradley Dopp.  Their teacher, Anne Hamilton, has been involved with Music-Comp since it began in 1995, and has heard many of her students’ compositions played over that time.

She guided her students through the rehearsal process, sitting with Adele Woodmansee on the stage of the Haskell as four players from the Burlington Ensemble ran through her String Quartet in D Minor.

First violinist Michael Dabrowski asked Ms. Hamilton, “Is our goal to learn the piece?”

“The goal is to have a conversation with the composer,” Ms. Hamilton replied.

Her response reflected an attitude of respect that permeates the program.

The musicians immediately got it, and began asking Ms. Woodmansee technical questions about how she thought the piece should be performed.

Ms. Woodmansee, herself an accomplished violinist, answered easily in a manner that revealed that she had given the questions a great deal of thought during the compositional process.

That she did so is in part due to the work of Mr. Nielsen and his fellow composer mentors, who look over compositions e-mailed to them by the young composers and make suggestions for ways the pieces might be developed.

The exchanges often grow lengthy as compositions change and new possibilities open up.

One astounding aspect of the concerts is that young composers are afforded instrumental possibilities that a professional would envy.  For the Opus 26 performance, composers had a string quartet plus a contra bass at their beck and call, as well as the forces of the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, a wind consort that includes flute, oboe or English horn, bassoon and clarinet.

Mr. Dopp’s composition Frosk, a Norwegian word meaning frog, he explained, brought together bass clarinet, contra bass and bassoon.

He, the musicians, Ms. Hamilton and some classmates squeezed themselves into a tiny dressing room for his rehearsal.

Bassist Evan Premo mentioned in an offhand way that Mr. Dopp had marked the tempo for his piece in a way that was difficult for the musicians to understand.  He took a moment to explain the math needed to figure how fast Mr. Dopp wished the piece to be performed, and made a suggestion about how to handle the matter in the future.

Clarinet player Steve Klimowski asked Mr. Dopp how he wanted a very quiet entrance performed.

The trio performed Mr. Dopp’s piece once and Mr. Klimowski made a major error, finishing long after the other two musicians.  A second attempt corrected that mistake.

Afterward, Mr. Klimowski explained to a curious onlooker that, although musicians receive the pieces well in advance of the concert, it is hard to know how an ensemble will sound without playing together.  He said there is time to work through any technical challenges an individual player might face, but only about ten minutes to play each work together.

The musicians worked through the afternoon until all trooped off to the Universalist Church for dinner.

As part of its Opus 25 concert, Music-Comp produced an e-book reviewing the organization’s history.  Executive Director Sandi MacLeod said the book will be available on the organization’s website in the middle of May.

Ms. MacLeod said the book was part of a fund-raising effort.  Grants that were available in the program’s early days are drying up, she said, and the organization is seeking new revenues.

One way they are going about it is by expanding Music-Comp’s horizons.  Ms. MacLeod said the organization changed its name in part because midi is old technology and in part because it is now a national organization working with students in many other states, including New York, Indiana and California.

Among those testifying to the effect the organization has had on them are a number of students from Orleans County, many of whom are now pursuing music as a career in one way or another.

Twins Matt and Adam Podd graduated from North Country and are living in New York City working as freelance pianists, arrangers and composers.  Matt Podd still maintains his connection with Music-Comp and works as a composer mentor.

Sam Schiavone of Greensboro, whose work was performed in four Opus concerts, is a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Vermont.  Another Greensboro participant, Mavis McNeil studies music at Skidmore College.

When students returned to the auditorium, and the audience filtered in, there was a moment not usually seen in the concert hall as composers, musicians and teachers crowded the stage for a group photo.  The performance began with a work by Susie Francy, a ninth grader from Leland and Gray High School.

Ms. Francy, who was the first from her school to have a work chosen for performance, was accompanied by her parents and her music teacher, Ronald Kelley.  She stood when her piece, called Child, was introduced and again at the conclusion stood for the applause.

Two composers, Ivan Voinov and Ms. Spoerl took turns introducing the pieces and reading statements from the artists. Ms. Francy said her composition, written for flute, oboe, cello, bassoon and clarinet, was a depiction of a child’s growth to adolescence.

Ms. Francy received a good round of applause, and the concert continued with pieces by younger composers, all of which belied their years.  It was only when a young composer stood to be recognized and was little taller than when seated, that his or her youth was apparent.

The younger composers took up the first part of the concert.  After an intermission the program was to continue with works by older students.

Instead, Ms. MacLeod stood and announced that the musicians were not satisfied with the performance they had given of Ms. Francy’s piece.

The five players returned to their places and performed the work again as a gesture of simple respect.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Gardeners asked to watch out for rare bumblebee

home Bee rare

Bombus terricola, the yellow-banded bumblebee, is found in parts of Vermont but it is so rare it is being considered for the endangered species list. Photo by Larry Clarfeld, courtesy of the North Branch Nature Center.

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 4-24-2013

NEWPORT — Home gardeners rely on wild pollinators to help their gardens grow, but one species of bumblebee is in big trouble.
Others have already gone extinct, leaving the remaining species to fill in the gaps.
Larry Clarfeld, an educator for the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, studies Vermont’s bumblebees. He told a group at Newport Natural Foods and Montgomery Café on April 10 that while there are still lots of bees, biodiversity of the pollinators has dropped dramatically.
The meeting was part of a master gardener lecture series.
Mr. Clarfeld said there are, in all, 33 species of bumblebees in this country. Of those, there are 19 or 20 in Vermont.
“Why is biodiversity important?” he asked rhetorically. Without it, he added, “We’re making our ecosystem more and more fragile.”
He said each bumblebee species has a different lifestyle and niche. Some have long tongues to reach into deep-throated flowers. Others are active earlier or later in the season. Some are most attracted to one particular flower or do better in warmer or cooler climates. The more types there are, the more chance that various plants will get pollinated.
“Certain types of orchids are only pollinated by bumblebees,” he said.
Bumblebees are not the same as honeybees. He said honeybees can be compared to cows. They are domestic animals, useful to people, but not native to the places where they live now.
Honeybees have suffered recently due to a problem known as colony collapse disorder.
An article in the New York Times on March 28 says colony collapse disorder was first discovered around 2005, and the past year saw 40 to 50 percent losses. The article talked about California almond growers, where honeybees pollinate 800,000 acres, using two-thirds of all the commercial hives.home bee guy
Mr. Clarfeld said some of the theories about what is causing problems for both wild and domestic bees include pesticide and herbicide use, habitat destruction and climate change, and viruses. Between 1994 and 1996 bees were taken to Europe and brought back, and a disease came with them.
Mr. Clarfeld said researchers really don’t know what is causing all the problems but are starting to try to find out.
“It’s hard to protect and conserve something if you don’t understand it and don’t know where it is,” he said. As it happens, some work had been done in Vermont by author Bernd Heinrich, who wrote a book called Bumblebee Economics in 1979.
New research has started to find and map all the bee species in Vermont, and Mr. Clarfeld decided to help as a volunteer.
So last summer he adopted six areas specified by researchers and systematically looked for bees.
“All my free time was spent chasing around bumblebees,” he said. He would drive around a particular quadrant, stop at a specific location and go catch bees. In most cases he killed the bugs he caught, rinsed them, blow dried them, and pinned and labeled them. The one exception was the species that is so rare, bombus terricola. He did not kill any of that species. Over the course of the summer he caught 700 bees.
“As a result, I saw almost every species of bee,” Mr. Clarfield said. Differences in markings are sometimes so small that it can be difficult to tell what species one is looking at until a precise measurement of jaw length is made, for example.
Bombus terricola, the yellow-banded bumblebee, still exists in Vermont even though it has died out elsewhere.
“It seems to have a stronghold in Vermont,” he said. “Something in Vermont is allowing them to survive.”
“This is a bee that is being proposed to be an endangered species,” he said, along with two or three others.
Bombus terricola can be distinguished from other bumblebees by its black body and wide yellow double band in the middle and two narrow yellow bands at the front and back. Mr. Clarfeld said these are sometimes hard to see on the back.
Gardeners who think they might have a bombus terricola in their garden are asked to take a photo and post it to a website about insects called The Xerces Society for Invetebrate Conservation. www.xerces.org.
Another website with good information is bugguide.net. Mr. Clarfeld said if you can’t figure out what bug you have seen, you can post a photo and a naturalist will identify it for you, sometimes in minutes.
More information about the Vermont bee study can be found at this website:
www.vtecostudies.org/vtbees/
Gardeners who want to encourage and help bumblebees can plant some of their favorite flowers. Mr. Clarfeld said these include red clover, purple vetch, milkweed and bee balm.
“Pollinators are important, and they’re in trouble,” he said.
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital  editions.

 

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