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Some say Shea Theater needs new blood

  • The Shea Theater in Turners Falls.<br/>Recorder file photo
  • TURNERS FALLS (December 8, 2013) — Young cast members of Welcome Yule spontaneously surround musical director Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy during a dance number being rehearsed at the Shea Theater on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Lisa Davol

TURNERS FALLS — Two weeks ago the Shea Theater board of directors drew a crowd of supporters, but this week drew an opposite and nearly equal reaction, with the institution painted as insular and out of touch.

On the agenda for the Montague selectmen’s meeting was an update on the legal process required to maintain the Shea Board as tenant of the venerable Avenue A theater or to put the property out to bid by other entertainment groups.

Town Administrator Frank Abbondanzio reported the town lawyer said the Shea lease must be put out to open bid, if the value of the use exceeds $35,000 over the course of the 10-year lease.

The selectmen approved Abbondanzio’s request to spend up to $700 to hire an outside expert to make that determination.

Abbondanzio also suggested reviving the Civic Center Commission, which once dealt with the property, as the selection committee.

Several in the audience called for a change of Shea tenants.

Lisa Davol, former director of the village arts booster group called Turners Falls RiverCulture, said the issue wasn’t whether the lease is worth $35,000, and urged an open bid. “It seems like the Shea’s lease is up and they’re not really serving the needs of the community,” Davol said.

Davol said the board was very hard to work with during her time as RiverCulture director — she left in 2013 — with a former president once calling her up to say her organization was doing a horrible thing for the town and taking money from the Shea, and a cooperative board member was mysteriously let go.

Downtown business owners Jamie Berger and John McNamara both said they were upset over the loss of the Upper Valley Music Festival.

McNamara said he watched the earlier selectmen’s meeting online and was concerned about the trajectory. The July 14 meeting was filled with Shea supporters calling for a renewal of the lease. The Board of Selectmen ultimately voted for an interim lease to the end of next year.

“The Shea has been a lot of things over the years, done a great job keeping the lights on, keeping things going, but I also think there has been a lot of neglect on the part of the Shea,” McNamara said.

“We lost the Upper Valley Music Festival, and that was a big blow to the town,” McNamara said, adding that hopefully Greenfield’s paid parking will drive the festival back to Turners Falls. McNamara said he believed the board knew the festival was returning, but chose to stick with the Ja’Duke entertainment group and didn’t notify the festival director. “That’s pretty neglectful. I don’t know how far that extends into the organization,” McNamara said.

Local theater and preschool company Ja’Duke had booked the same day for a production of the musical “42nd Street.” The Shea Theater was among the Upper Valley Music Festival’s multiple venues in the past, with other institutions and businesses throughout the small downtown including The Rendezvous on Third Street.

Berger, a co-owner of The Rendezvous, said he had watched a recording of the earlier meeting, and objected to what he described as the impassioned and hyperbolic defence of the theater board, quoting Ja’Duke owner Nick Waynelovich.

“While there were great people here involved with great events who stood up last time, The Shea isn’t the ‘gem of Franklin County’ to me. I’ve lived here nine years. I’ve gone to eight shows,” Berger said.

Berger said he doesn’t have children and doesn’t do community theater, so he isn’t interested.

“I’d just like to see the board be more open to literary events, to outside and avant-garde touring music and theater and art,” Berger said. “I would root for them having an oversight committee.”

Jillian Morgan of the Shea board of directors and the New Renaissance Players theater company said she was filling in for board president Michael Glazier. Morgan said the idea that the board was run by the theater companies is wrong, with only the NRP, designed to support and raise money for the Shea, represented. Morgan said the board does target family-oriented events because that is traditionally who has shown interest in renting.

“In the next few years we do want more music,” Morgan said. “There are a lot of plans on the horizon and this lease is holding that up.”

Morgan said she understands a lot of people have problems with the former board. “I’ve been on for three years. I can’t really speak to those issues,” Morgan said.

David Detmold, former editor of the Montague Reporter weekly newspaper, said the board has too often over the past 20 years circled the wagons around its resident community theater companies and a model that works very well to draw the parents and grandparents of children performing, but not the broader community.

Detmold also praised the New Renaissance Players, a resident theater company built to help fund the Shea, saying they have brought a breath of fresh air to the board. “I’m glad there’s new blood on the board, and I think we need to nourish that,” Detmold said. “We also need to ask them in a strong manner to open up.”

Abbondanzio said he will have an estimate from the contractor in two weeks. “At that time we will know if we have to put out a (request for proposals),” he said. Selectman Mark Fairbrother said the Shea issue will doubtless be on the agenda for the next meeting, Aug. 11, in some fashion.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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