Lights, camera, action — and more: Black box theater at Holyoke Media becomes a forum for the arts and other events

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 09-08-2023 7:29 PM

Musicians are always looking for another venue to play. Actors and playwrights search for a new place to stage a show. Dancers want another floor to move on.

At Holyoke Media, they all can find room.

The independent, nonprofit organization, funded through the local cable TV franchise, moved into a new, completely refurbished building in downtown Holyoke in spring, a site that had first opened in 1918 as a restaurant and had had a number of other tenants over the years.

Today, a centerpiece of Holyoke Media’s 8,200-square foot, two-story facility is a black box theater, a space that Scott MacPherson says has been purposely designed “to be a really good performance space and TV studio.”

“It’s not retrofitting an older space, doing the best you can to make it serviceable for music or other events,” said MacPherson, Holyoke Media’s executive director. “We had a very clear idea of what we wanted this room to be.”

As such, the theater, a little over 1,000 square feet and equipped to seat up to 120 people — a standing room crowd of 150-plus can also be accommodated, MacPherson says — is specifically wired for sound and video production.

All events, including public meetings, are filmed and available for online viewing, MacPherson notes.

“We’re here for the community,” he said. “Our goal is to be a forum for a whole range of content producers, for public events, for exchanging ideas and information, for both Holyoke and the larger Valley community.”

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Promoting and supporting the arts, he added, is a big part of that mission, and over the summer a growing number of artists and groups have been using the theater.

For instance, Flywheel, the arts collective that lost its own space in Easthampton during the worst of the pandemic, has staged some shows in the theater. Attack Bear Press, also of Easthampton, hosts poetry readings and open mics in the space, and the Holyoke dance collective LOCOLUS staged a recital there in June.

The New Music Alliance, the nonprofit group that promotes music in western Massachusetts, has hosted two shows this summer featuring up-and-coming singer/songwriters. Mark Sherry, a co-founder of the group, calls the Holyoke theater a “state-of-the-art facility that is just a great place to hear acoustic music.”

And now Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, the member-supported music collective, has scheduled three shows there for its 2023-2024 season.

“We’re fully booked right into October,” said MacPherson.

He says he and his small staff had thought they might have to solicit events there themselves when they first opened their new headquarters in spring — and he wondered how they might go about doing that.

That hasn’t been the case. “There’s definitely been a lot of interest” from groups wanting to stage events and that have contacted the multimedia center, MacPherson noted.

There’s no fee for using the space, though MacPherson said there could conceivably be some special circumstances in which Holyoke Media might need to work out a user payment with a group requesting the space.

Learning and doing

Interest in the black box theater has been a huge plus to Holyoke Media’s overall mission, he says. The organization wants to encourage community use of the space, including having artists and other users handle all aspects of their events, from ticket sales to production.

Staff at the multimedia company have worked the sound for shows so far, MacPherson said, but they’re also available to help people learn to use the equipment themselves, located in a control room just off the entrance to the theater.

“The idea is to make this all easy-peasy,” he said.

There’s much more afoot at Holyoke Media. The center has a large area on the second floor devoted to producing podcasts, and several different groups of people now put together such programs there.

The facility’s design also encourages collaboration: There are shared work areas that have built-in recording equipment, including for musicians.

“We want members to have a range of access for recording, producing and distributing their own content, whether that’s music, podcasts, or videos,” said MacPherson.

He notes that Holyoke Media is in fact reserved for members of the organization. But there’s no fee for becoming a member, and filling out the simple online form to be one “shouldn’t take more than about 60 seconds,” MacPherson added.

Members are not allowed to produce commercial content or obscene programming. Membership also provides access to training for equipment use and other classes on media production.

Just having a central location to do all this work is a blessing, says MacPherson, who came to Holyoke Media in 2017 after previously directing Greenfield Community Television. His first office was a small annex at nearby City Hall with “spotty internet service,” while other staff worked out of a separate building.

“And during the pandemic, we were all just working from home,” he said with a laugh.

The new facility, which cost $2 million-plus, was funded through a number of sources, including the Beveridge Family Foundation and grants from the state’s Cultural Facilities Fund, via the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Keeping tabs on city government remains a key part of Holyoke Media’s mission, from videotaping City Council meetings and other functions to hosting press conferences. (The group has also been doing live translations of City Council meetings into Spanish for the last two years.)

But the black box theater will now be a key part of the group’s operations, MacPherson notes. And he says he and his staff haven’t ruled out hosting any particular kind of event, hard as it might be to imagine, say, a heavy metal band playing in such an intimate space.

“We want to be open to a wide range of events,” he said.

Two more arts events are on tap in the next two-plus weeks. Attack Bear Press hosts a poetry open mic Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.; the featured poet at the reading, which will be recorded, is Rachel Tanaka.

And running Sept. 26 through 30 at 7 p.m. each night is “Portrait of Ludmilla as Nina Simone,” presented by MiFA Victory Theatre. It’s a one-woman show by Senegalese-Cameroonian singer and actor Ludmilla Dabo, now based in France.

Dabo appears as Simone, the legendary African-American singer, composer and pianist whose music broke through racial barriers in the mid 20th century; the performance examines Simone’s journey from musical prodigy to becoming a key figure in the civil rights movement.

David Lescot supports the performance on guitar.

For more information on Holyoke Media and upcoming public events, visit holyokemedia.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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