Officials cite optimism in growing Worcester art scene
WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Worcester’s cultural and artistic history involves many stories of openings and closings, restorations, revivals, re-closings, re-openings, reinventions and remakings.
Opportunities for performers and artists have been both there for the taking and taken away.
The rise and opening 10 years ago of The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts is seen by some as an important milestone, both artistically and psychologically. The theater has brought in Broadway shows ranging from “The King and I” to “Kinky Boots” and star names and acts such as Jay Leno, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Diana Ross and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“There’s so much positive momentum now,” said Troy Siebels, president and CEO of The Hanover Theatre in an interview earlier this year. “I do think we kicked off a new optimism in Worcester.”
Frederick H. Eppinger Jr. was president and CEO of The Hanover Insurance Group from 2003 to 2016 before retiring. His company’s acquisition of naming rights is considered a key in the theater’s development.
Mr. Eppinger talks about an “optimism quotient” that seemed to bring people in Worcester together for the theater project.
“For me the vision was always a catalyst for the development of downtown,” Mr. Eppinger said.
Over the past 160 years, optimism quotients have risen, and sometimes fallen.
The Worcester Music Festival had been held at Mechanics Hall from the festival’s beginnings in 1858. But in 1933 the prestige musical event left the hall for the then-modern trappings of the Worcester Memorial Auditorium, which opened to considerable fanfare in 1933 as a gleaming 3,500-seat source of local pride. By 1966 Sixten Ehrling, conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, at the time the festival’s resident orchestra, was saying “what Worcester needs is a really good hall. ... We have to fight the acoustics ...” In 1978, the festival was back at a newly restored and “acoustically magnificent” Mechanics Hall with a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Around the same time the new and highly touted Center for the Performing Arts on Chatham Street would eventually become home to Forum Theatre, the Performing Arts School of Worcester, radio station WICN and other cultural organizations — all deliberately in one place. On Sept. 2, 1982, Frank Sinatra performed the inaugural concert at the Worcester Centrum (now the DCU Center). Worcester Foothills Theatre Co., which had been without its own permanent performance space since 1982, moved into the remodeled Worcester Common Fashion Outlets (originally the Galleria at Worcester Center) as a full-time professional theater company in 1987.
“I’m not certain I’d call it an earlier attempt at remaking Worcester,” said Susan L. Smith, Foothills co-founder with her husband, the late Marc P. Smith. “The decision to utilize a part of the Outlets mall as a new theater home for Foothills Theatre came about as an instance of wonderful serendipity.”
The DCU Center still stands tall, with fewer big-name concerts than its early years but a lot of Worcester Railers ice hockey games and convention center business. Mechanics Hall hosted more than 270 events in its most recently reported fiscal year.
But Foothills and Worcester Common Fashion Outlets are no more, and the Worcester Auditorium is closed. The Center for the Performing Arts is in virtual disuse, all the previously mentioned organizations that it housed are either no longer in existence or relocated.
History shows, however, that Worcester has a way of ultimately getting performers back on the stage again.
In 2018, “Worcester’s creative community is exploding on all levels,” said Erin L. Williams, cultural development officer for the city of Worcester.
What comes first in the artistic and cultural remaking or renaissance of a city? Is it the presence of artists? Or is it the city itself and other organizations as well as businesses providing the opportunity for artists to create, perform and be seen? Or is it a combination?
“I believe it is a combination of the two,” said local actor and storyteller Tina E. Gaffney, who has seen theater from the ground up.
“Consider: The constant stream of artists such as myself (and others) will seek out venues elsewhere if we have no support from the groups in the city that look to arts organizations for the very support we need to flourish, survive and thrive in the Worcester arts scene,” she said.
Ms. Williams said, “I think it takes visionaries, not only artists. It really requires a lot of collaboration.”
Then there’s the uniqueness of Worcester itself. “I ultimately think that Worcester’s sense of collaboration and its history of being a city of innovation is in our DNA,” Ms. Williams said.
Perhaps ironically, it was the dismantling of most of the Galleria, once seen as a boon to downtown, to reopen Front Street that might have also considerably helped change the situation once more for the better.
“In this past decade we’ve seen the demise of barriers such as the Galleria, which essentially divided the city and cut the downtown off from its transportation hub, Union Station. The reconnecting of the downtown to the eastern part of the city has been a game changer,” Ms. Williams said.
Worcester is working on an $11 million reconstruction of Main Street from Highland Street/Belmont Street in the north to Chandler/Madison Street in the south. Developers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in core residential and retail/commercial projects.
The opening of The Hanover Theatre in 2008 represented “the first very visible collaborative effort,” Mr. Eppinger said. “I like to believe that it had a huge impact on the investment decisions of a number of people.”
Asked what advice he would give an artist or artist group trying to establish a foothold in Worcester right now, Mr. Eppinger said, “I would collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. ... It’s a very welcoming community.”
That optimism quotient has changed “dramatically” here in 15 or so years, Mr. Eppinger said. “People can walk from the DCU Center to the (Hanover) theater and feel the difference.”
Others have also noticed a change of attitude.
“There was a lot of gloom and doom when I first came to Worcester. Now it’s optimistic and vibrant and energetic — and that’s the way it has to be, and I love that,” said Kathleen M. Gagne, who has been at Mechanics Hall 24 years, most recently as vice president and chief development officer, and who will become executive director on Sept. 26.
“So much has changed here in Worcester, and especially in the downtown corridor, since I started at Music Worcester in 2012,” said Adrien C. Finlay, executive director of Music Worcester Inc., which among many activities organizes the Worcester Music Festival. “Our operating budget in the upcoming fiscal year will be almost double what it was five years ago.”
Matthias Waschek became director of the Worcester Art Museum in November 2011. By that time, “the city had turned the corner already, I saw that. But what is often termed a renaissance, I think you can now really feel (it),” he said.
Asked how the Worcester Art Museum is doing, Mr. Waschek said, “We’re doing very well. ... That question has many layers. You can do very well in one moment. Whatever we do, it has to be sustainable. We’ve worked our way to become sustainable in many ways.” One “benchmark” to determining success is the number of visitors to the museum, which is now at over 100,000 annually compared to just over 40,000 eight years ago, Mr. Waschek said.
The momentum of attendance at events at The Hanover Theater has steadily increased, Mr. Siebels said. “The trend is definitely up — over 200,000 a year, 215,000 in financial 2017.”
In the heady 10 years that The Hanover Theatre has been open, however, there have also been a few disappointments and closings.
Foothills shut down in 2009 amid what was called a “perfect storm” of financial perils, including declining attendance and contributions, and economic recession.
“I don’t know if I had realized how tenuous Foothills was,” Mr. Siebels said. “I hope we can find another company to fill that need here. I should think that’s something Worcester needs.”
Barbara Guertin — actor, director, and managing director of the 4th Wall Stage Company who was also a member of the Foothills board of directors — said, “When Foothills went under, it ended professional legitimate theater. I get approached by many people who miss plays, who don’t like musicals and want something more substantive.”
“It’s my view that Foothills, over its several decades, helped create an environment in Central Mass. that was hospitable to the performing arts,” Susan Smith said. “This leads me to feel that a return of live professional theater will prove to be a positive step for the region,” she said.
In that regard, the eyes of many have been focused on a proposed “black box” theater at the Worcester PopUp at 20 Franklin St. The idea has been around for a while and there are some questions in the theater community and elsewhere.
Ms. Guertin said, “The black box has been in utero for several years. If this project ever does get off the ground, how can theater companies afford to produce shows there with no local funding?”
Mel Cobb Jr., producing artistic director of the Worcester Shakespeare Company, said, “We’ve been talking about this black box theater for a long time. Everybody said we need a space we can perform theater that we can afford to go into on a short-term basis. The will is there, I know that. Lots of good folks want it to happen. It’s the practicalities that break our backs every time.”
The Worcester Cultural Coalition is now developing the new performance space, Ms. Williams said.
It will be “a state-of-the-art 287-seat performing arts space that serves the needs of the cultural community, and brings professional theater back into the city for all of our creative community to perform in or book for conferences, events, etc.,” she said. The theater will be owned by the Worcester Cultural Coalition and partner with The Hanover Theatre in managing and programming the space, she said. The goal is to open the theater in 2019.
“The black box theater is a step in the right direction,” said Ms. Gaffney. “But it has to be a two-way street (for artists).”
Mr. Eppinger sees the black box theater as “a ripe situation for people to come in and do their thing. It’s all set up for that. You’ve got a built-in potential audience that you didn’t have before. It’s all there for the taking.”
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com