Oldcastle Theatre & Sage City Symphony
Bennington’s cultural collaborations create a hotbed for arts in the community by Heather DiLeo
Situated between two other major cultural hubs—the Berkshires and New York’s Capital Region—Bennington has often been defined by its neighboring draws and less often by its own creative pull. In 2017 that changed when the National Center for the Arts ranked Bennington the third most vibrant arts community in the U.S. for its size.
Bennington’s artistic vitality owes considerably to the way area arts organizations share objects from their respective collections, synchronize shows, and think about how their programming can complement one another’s. Then, there’s the symbiotic relationship these organizations have with the College.
When you pair College faculty and student artists, the start and stop of these collaborations between institutions can be difficult to distinguish. Members of the College community curate for, perform, exhibit, volunteer, and intern with nearly all of the cultural organizations in the area. The history of specific College-institutional collaborations would fill several volumes. Underlying all of them is a common vision of the vital role the arts play in the community.
Anne Thompson, inaugural director and curator of Bennington College’s Suzanne Lumberg Usdan Gallery, came to Bennington drawn to the local/campus permeability. She sees her role as curator inside and outside of the Usdan Gallery—one that will build on the myriad of developing partnerships with arts organizations locally, regionally, and globally.
“Bennington has a rich history and stunning landscape,” Thompson says. “I’m talking with a lot of people, looking at campus, looking at the region, seeing what opportunities there are to work in a context-specific way here in Vermont. The College’s history of innovation lends itself really well to thinking in an experimental way about how art gets exhibited on and off campus and in collaboration with institutions in the region and around the country,” she says.
While the area is saturated with a growing art scene, here are some of the current cultural exchanges between arts organizations and the Bennington College community.
331 Main St., Bennington, VT 05201
Founding artistic director Eric Peterson started Oldcastle as a touring theater out of New York City and decided to bring the theatre to Bennington’s Main Street during Oldcastle’s 45th season.
Peterson, a Bennington native, was inspired by the area’s wealth of artistic influences and wanted to continue that legacy. “Bennington is so connected to the arts and I want to be able to pass that on to future generations,” Peterson says. “To know that Shirley Jackson, and [former Bennington College faculty members] Nick Delbanco, John Gardner, and Jules Olitski, and on and on have lived and worked here is remarkable.”
Oldcastle brings in actors from New York and also works with many local actors (including staff member, Meredith Meurs), writers, designers, and directors to program a full 52-week year. The Theatre spent two summers at VAPA’s Lester Martin Theater, with the College and the Theatre having mounted several joint productions, including George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. Currently, the Oldcastle is staging numerous faculty and student music concerts.
Sage City Symphony
Community orchestra Sage City Symphony plays the traditional repertoire and contemporary music, and also commissions and premieres new pieces each season. Founded in 1972 as a “community/college orchestra with close ties to Bennington College,” Sage presents ambitious programs that offer challenging playing opportunities for musicians and rewarding experiences for audiences
—drawing from amateur and professional players from New York, Southern Vermont, and Western Massachusetts.
Music director Michael Finckel trained at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and Bennington College—where he studied with former Bennington College faculty member and Sage’s founder Louis Calabro. Finckel is interested in tackling unique, “large-scale works that community orchestras in the outlying areas are not equipped to take on.” Finckel’s vision for the orchestra tends to make it primely suited for Bennington collaborations.
The College’s music faculty members frequently solo with and compose for the Symphony. Currently, faculty member Nick Brooke is teaching an orchestration class in which students write pieces they will audition for Sage to perform—something other faculty and students have also done in years past.
In addition to performance collaborations, Sage’s Young Composers Project pairs mentors with student musicians to prepare works for orchestral performance, alternating each year between area high school and college age students primarily drawn from Bennington College.