Vermont's Weston Playhouse Plans to Re-open Just Days After Massive Flooding

Community pulls together to put on a performance in the wake of Irene.

August 31, 2011, 4:21 PM

September 2, 2011— -- When more than 8 feet of water poured into the basement of the Weston Playhouse in Vermont, everything in the bottom floor was destroyed. The newly renovated dressing rooms, the restaurant, and the orchestra pit, which included a $20,000 grand piano, were all under water.

The playhouse, celebrating its 75th season, was in the midst of a run of its new, much-buzzed-about musical, "Saint-Ex," when the storm arrived. While Managing Director Stuart Duke and his staff were expecting to be out of commission for the weekend as a result of high winds and power outages, none of them expected the massive amounts of damage.

"Our worst case scenario was wind, power outages, maybe a little bit of water in the basement," said Duke. "We hadn't counted on 8 feet in the basement."

The day of the hurricane he went house to house in Weston to check on the playhouse's staff and crew after witnessing the nearby West River's water reach the building. There, instead of seeing defeat, he saw strength.

"In the midst of this torrential rain, saying 'what can we do, how can we help, how can we get the playhouse cleaned up,'" Duke said. "That's when I started welling up about the whole thing, seeing the passion and good will in people was as humbling as the fury of Mother Nature."

But the fact that a clean-up this extensive could take months was completely unacceptable to the company. The staff wanted to finish "Saint-Ex's" run, starting with this Friday's performance...less than a week after the storm hit.

"This is the first world premiere of a musical that we've ever done," said Malcolm Ewen, producing director. "We only did four performances...we want to honor that commitment to put this piece on."

It wasn't just for the staff. Ewen said that they wanted to do something to lift up the community, too.

"Vermont needs something to go right," he said. "They have given so much to help us get back on our feet. Now it's our turn to pay back the community for that help they have given us."

The staff agreed to rally the company in a clean-up effort.

"If we could get the building to a place where it could be occupied we could try to remount our show by the weekend," said Duke.

But before they even went inside of the building, Duke turned the company's attention to the playhouse's neighbors who had also been deeply affected by the flooding. He sent volunteers from his staff to a nearby local store that had severe damage, and to the volunteer fire department where two feet of water had pooled.

"Let's get some of our people who can get to work right away. Let's get them up there and help out some of our other neighbors, because I know some of them will be back down here helping us later in the day," he said. "Vermont just espouses that kind of community culture."

While they were expecting some help from the locals, Duke said within two hours of beginning the clean-up volunteers were coming by to help. Since Monday, 20-25 volunteers, on top of the staff, have been showing up each day to help sift through the damage. The fire department that the playhouse helped pumped thousands of gallons from the theater's basement. Housewives, retirees and other locals just came by to ask what they could do to help. Some local store owners even brought by supplies.

"Our friends at the Vermont Country Store and some of his team just showed up with sandwiches and beverages and just started handing them out," Duke said. "They have been here every day. They brought a grill and cooler over and grilled hot dogs for everyone who is cleaning up."

One unnamed volunteer who was camping in the National Forest just showed up one morning and asked if there was anything he could do.

"He said he had a good back and asked if he could help," said Ewen. "We didn't know anything about him, but he's helping us."

"We had neighbors and supporters and donors and local contractors just lining up," said Duke. "They just showed up and said put me to work. It was all very humbling."

Because of all of the hard work the group has put in, there has been extraordinary progress. The playhouse was largely decluttered on Day One, and is on schedule to re-open at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

"They got almost everything out of the restaurant and cabaret shop and dressing rooms and went through the really odious process of mucking out the basement," said Duke. "By the end of yesterday, almost all of those spaces had been very well shoveled and [they] peeled up the carpets."

Power was restored to the building on Wednesday, and a local electrician named Mike Savage worked tirelessly to get the building ready for an electrical inspection. They passed. Now Duke is working closely with the fire department to ensure they will pass inspection today.

"We're in really great shape," he said.

While the company is staying positive throughout the ordeal, damages are estimated at $200,000. The playhouse just finished a $700,000 renovation of the entire bottom floor in May -- most of which has to be redone. Ewen and Duke aren't worried about finding the money to rebuild though, knowing that the community is standing behind them.

"It's in these cases you learn that people are more important than the stuff," said Ewen. "We'll find the money. We'll do what we need to do to rebuild."

Duke agrees. While the figures are daunting, he thinks that with the support of the community they can make it to show time and go on to make the necessary repairs.

"We're very, very deeply rooted in our community," he said. "I sort of think of it as the higher you spread your branches, the deeper you need to spread your roots."

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