We’re still here: Northampton Center for the Arts getting ready to roll at new home on Hawley Street

Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2014
It doesn’t yet have an official name — either 33 Hawley Street or The Arts Trust Building will do — but the building that once housed a lumber company and, most recently, a health club, is the new home for the Northampton Center for the Arts.

The center is not fully moved in yet — that might not happen until the fall — but classes are up and running and now, the first performances are about to take place in the new space. In fact, programming never stopped, says Penny Burke, the center’s executive director.

“People wonder if we’re still here,” Burke said. “We’ve been here all along.”

As the lease expired last year on the center’s longtime home in the former D.A. Sullivan School in Northampton, Burke was still searching for new digs, a process that she had begun in 2006.

Then, last October, the Center for the Arts became the first new tenant at the sprawling Hawley Street building, which is now owned by the Northampton Community Arts Trust, of which the center is a founding member.

The trust is a non-profit organization, formed in 2010, that aims to provide affordable and accessible space for arts programming. The center leases space from the trust.

New Century Theatre and A.P.E. are also considering utilizing the space, which is envisioned by the trust as a new home for community arts in Northampton.

‘Blank canvas’

Although the treadmills and other equipment from the health club have been moved out of the 25,000-square-foot space, Burke said, there’s much work to do before.

“It’s kind of like a glorified tin can — it needs work,” she said. “It’s a blank canvas.”

Burke, who also serves on the board of directors of the Northampton Community Arts Trust, and her colleagues, are entrenched in the planning stages of transforming that blank canvas into their masterpiece — a community arts center for the city.

“This really has been the long cold winter in more ways than one,” Burke said.

Alongside architect Tom Douglas, the members of the trust are in the process of drafting plans for the building. When complete, the space will house a dedicated flexible performance and events space, a black box theater, a dance studio, two flexible studio classrooms, offices, ancillary space for the theater, a box office, lobby and concession area. In the meantime, the Center for the Arts’ administrative offices are located in a temporary space on Strong Avenue.

But, classes are already offered in the Hawley Street space, including dance instruction in hip-hop; toddler dance; fusion, body structure fundamentals; and ballroom partner dance. Omulu Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, is also offered, along with figure drawing.

“I think we’ll be able to offer more ongoing classes than we were at the [former home of] Center for the Arts,” Burke said.


While renovations to the building have yet to begin in earnest, a few creative minds have managed to make use of the space during this transitional period. And now, the doors to the building will open for performances by two resident companies.

“Skyscraper,” a play by Tony and Pulitzer winner David Auburn, is set atop a skyscraper scheduled to be razed to make way for new development. Director Chris Rohmann has staged his production on the very floor that is set to be demolished to make way for the Hawley Street building’s black box theater.

“I’m really pleased with that coincidence — but it’s totally a coincidence,” Rohmann said in a recent phone interview.

Rohmann, who has directed productions for the Hampshire Shakespeare Company for the past 13 years, said he was looking for a small-cast show when he stumbled across “Skyscraper.”

While the play is categorized as a black comedy, Rohmann says that it’s not all fun and games.

“I think any comedy worth its salt is about something besides tickling your funny bone,” he said. “It’s funny and charming and quirky and mysterious. It has very interesting characters and yet is so compact as well.”

Much of the humor, he says, is derived from the quirkiness of its characters and their relationships — and there’s no “happily ever after.”

Rohmann says staging a play in the raw space of the new building is an unusual, but welcome change. “Most of the other plays I’ve staged have been in normal theaters,” he said. “Or places where at least people have done plays before.”

In this project, Rohmann has considered British director Peter Brook’s idea that staging theater is creating a reality in “empty space.” That is, the words spoken by the actors whose bodies fill an otherwise empty theater create a mystical reality for an audience.

“It’s kind of cool that this empty space really is an empty space,” he said.

Another unique facet of this production is the model on which it is based. The group is an ad-hoc assembly of actors, a lighting designer and Rohmann that is operating on a profit-sharing model, with at least 10 percent of profits going toward a future collaborative production in the Valley.

The cast includes Carissa Dagenais, Troy David Mercier, R. Steve Pierce, John Sheldon, Katelyn Tsukada and Pam Victor, with lighting design by Reilly Horan.

The play runs from May 15 through 17 at 8 p.m. at the Arts Trust Building. On opening night, patrons are encouraged to pay what they can. Other nights, general admission is $15 and $12 for students in advance at www.nohoarts.org. At the door, tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.

Dance and dinner

A 14-year resident of the Center for the Arts, the Lisa Leizman Dance Company will hold its annual celebratory spring concert on May 10 at 7:30 p.m. The performance will take place in the lower level of the Hawley Street building, in an existing studio that was used during the tenancy of Universal Health & Fitness.

Planning for the show began after the building was purchased, though Burke offered to find another location for it.

“I said nope, I want to be in the building, just as it is,” Leizman said in a phone interview. “I spent a lot of time looking at the character of this space. I love that it has this history of work,” she added, referring to the building’s beginnings as a lumber yard.

At the concert, those familiar with the company might recognize “All Blues,” a piece set to the music of Miles Davis, as well as “the secret that bamboo guards,” set to the music of resident company composer, Andrew Kwapien. A new dance, “some bird, perhaps,” featuring music by Arvo Pärt, will also be performed.

After the show, audience members will be invited across the hall to enjoy dinner prepared by the company members.

Burke says she feels lucky that the Center for the Arts is connected to such a unique and innovative group.

“This is the $10 dance concert where the company makes you dinner,” she said.

For her part, Leizman says, she believes that sharing a meal is a natural part of sharing art between performers and audiences.

“I think it’s valuable for both audiences and performers to get to know each other beyond the performance,” she said.

Tickets are available at the door and are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Proceeds benefit the Northampton Community Arts Trust.

Guitar Orchestra

Another resident company, the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra, began rehearsing in the new building, even before the sale was complete.

Under the leadership of founder and creative director and virtuoso, Peter Blanchette, the orchestra will perform at Smith College’s Sweeney Hall on May 9 at 7:30 p.m.

The avant-garde orchestra is made up of 30 musicians, including Blanchette, who leads with his own creation — the 11-string archguitar. Seven of the members play electric guitar, four play bass, three play acoustic guitar, two play acoustic-electric guitar and four play nylon string guitar.

Many members play a variety of instruments, including the oud — an early ancestor to the guitar — and the banjo. The beat is kept by a lone percussionist.

On the program are works by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, as well as the 18th-century Scottish dance music of Nathanial Gow and popular tunes by Wilco and The Smiths.

This will be the orchestra’s fifth annual spring concert, and Burke advises music lovers to purchase their tickets ahead of time.

“We probably turned 100 people away,” she said, speaking about the first performance at the Sullivan School. “Fortunately, because they’re so loud, we had people lined up in the galleries and in the halls outside just trying to hear this music.”

Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for children and are available in advance at www.nohoarts.org and at the door starting at 6 p.m. on the day of the performance.

For more information on the Center for the Arts, visit www.nohoarts.org.

For more information on the Northampton Community Arts Trust, visit www.northamptonartstrust.org.