By STEVE PFARRER

In its nearly 25 years in Ashfield, Double Edge Theatre has been slowly refashioning its footprint on a former 105-acre dairy farm, renovating and adapting older buildings and adding a few new structures that are in keeping with the ensemble’s mission of making the land an integral part of its performances.

Now, with a recently awarded $275,000 grant on hand, the theater group is embarking on perhaps its most ambitious project yet, one that’s designed both to improve some facilities on its grounds and to strengthen its bonds with the community, including the construction of a center in Ashfield for Native American programming as well as studio space for emerging artists.

What’s known as a National Creative Placemaking grant comes from ArtPlace America, a coalition of foundations, federal agencies and financial institutions that aims to make arts and culture a central part of community planning and development. The Double Edge Theatre grant was one of just 23 made nationally, from almost 1,000 applications, according to Matthew Glassman, co-artistic director for the Ashfield theater program.

And, Glassman said with a laugh during an interview in Double Edge’s conference room — in a farmhouse that dates to the late 1700s — it was a gift no one in the organization was really counting on.

“We’d been trying to get this for five years, without ever getting past the first round,” he said. “It seemed like [applying] was just an exercise in frustration — there were a lot of swings and misses. But this year the zeitgeist caught up with us.”

The difference this time, Glassman noted, might have been the video the theater program produced that showed not only its dramatic and highly physical performances, but also the training and internships it offers to other actors and performers (in January, more than 20 young people from as far away as Israel and California were taking part in a week-long “intensive” training).

More importantly, Glassman noted, the video highlighted the close bonds Double Edge has built with the town of Ashfield over the years, such as through last summer’s Town Spectacle and Culture Fair, an immersive project involving storytelling, art exhibits, a parade and other events in the community and on the theater program’s grounds.

“I think when [ArtPlace America] saw that video, they understood what we were about,” said Glassman. Later, representatives “came out here, they saw what we do, they met members of the community, store owners, some of the craftspeople and builders we’re worked with over the years, and they realized this is all about community and sustainability.” 

The $275,000 grant will only cover about half of the expected cost of the theater’s upcoming renovation and building projects, Glassman notes — Double Edge is now mapping out a fundraising campaign to look for more financing — but as he sees it, it’s a big first step in insuring a rural arts program can thrive, helping Ashfield, in turn, present itself as a strong arts destination. 

 

The projects

 

Double Edge has long had its own staff, visiting actors and student trainees immersed in the day-to-day life of the farm, including raising some of the program’s own food. With the ArtPlace grant, the theater will expand that work, says Associate Producer Cariel Klein, by building a larger community garden and adding a “hoop house,” essentially a simplified greenhouse that allows for three-season growing through solar energy.

Food will also be at the center of another part of the upcoming changes. The farm’s kitchen, where staff in summer sometimes have to provide three meals a day for to up to 50 people at a time (including theater volunteers), will be moved to what’s currently garage/storage space in another building. 

Robert Carlton, a musician and actor who’s also a cook — like most staff at Double Edge, he wears a number of hats — says the existing kitchen has served the program well, but he notes things can sometimes get a little hectic because of some circulation issues: the stoves, cabinets and counter spaces of the kitchen are accessed via a fairly narrow passageway.

“It’s not that we struggle to get [meals] done, but it could be easier,” he said.

The new space — construction is aimed to be finished this fall — is larger and more open, Klein says, and will make it easier for staff to prepare food. There will also be room for dining, unlike in the current kitchen area (meals are typically taken in an adjacent space or outside if weather permits).

“And once we’ve made that change, the existing kitchen will be turned into an archive room, with displays of our history, old posters and photos, things like that, as well as gallery space,” added Klein. She notes that many of those older materials are currently stored in the farm’s music room “and trying to look at them when people are practicing their instruments doesn’t really work.”

“Off campus,” so to speak, Double Edge has three other projects planned or underway. A design and visual-arts building located less than a mile down the road (Route 116), where many puppets, stage props, costumes and other materials are created and stored, will have a second floor added. The extra space will also be made available for local artists who are working in conjunction with Double Edge, or on their own, Klein said.

 In town, meanwhile, a barn at the edge of downtown will be converted into the Native American center, with studio space upstairs for young and visiting artists (the theater also owns and operates boarding in town for visiting students).

Klein said Double Edge is currently working with Rhonda Anderson, an area resident who is Inupiaq-Athabaskan, on potential uses for the Native American center; the theater is also talking to several other regional and national native groups about the project.

And in keeping with its tradition of working with community members on its performances and other events, Double Edge’s operations director, Michael Fitzgerald — he grew up on the farm before the theater bought it in 1994 — is overseeing the building projects but using several outside contractors from the area to assist in the work. 

For his part, Fitzgerald says sustainability and energy efficiency will be a key part of the work, such as reusing existing wood and other materials on the farm as much as possible. 

Glassman notes that the ArtPlace grant will also help the theater expand its scholarships, internships and other training programs, especially those aimed at historically underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged rural and urban populations.

“We’ve always looked to be a part of the community, to be a part of this land, this beautiful part of the world we’re in, and I think [the grant] will just give us a better opportunity to do that,” he said.

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