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    Posted November 2, 2011

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Tropical Storm Irene Floods Vermont's Weston Playhouse

By Malcolm Ewen
Central Regional Councillor

The end of August was shaping up to be a good finale for the 75th Anniversary Season at Vermont's Weston Playhouse. Two shows were running: the world premiere of SAINT-EX (about Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and the final weekend of THE ALIENS, by Annie Baker. But Tropical Storm Irene changed that as it approached. Irene caused the cancellation of all performances on Sunday August 28.

I have worked at the Playhouse for many years, principally as a director. During that time there have been a couple of minor floods as the West River runs directly behind the Playhouse. Normally this makes for a beautiful view, but that Sunday was different. Heavy rain started overnight and it kept raining for 14-15 hours. When I first saw the river on Sunday morning, I knew we were in trouble. It had already risen about halfway up the bank - about four or five feet.

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At about 10:15 am, the Weston Volunteer Fire Department arrived at the Playhouse to tell us to evacuate. In the next 30 to 45 minutes the water surged over the banks and started coming into the Playhouse fast. By 11 am most of the basement was flooded. The good news was that the flooding never reached the auditorium or stage.

The basement of the Playhouse has two levels. On the upper level is a restaurant (run by others), a cabaret, bathrooms, green room, wardrobe and prop office. The lower level, about three to four feet lower, contains dressing rooms, orchestra pit and prop shop. At the height of the flood, almost nine feet of muddy floodwater was in the lower level. Sadly, the theatre had just spent $700,000 to create two new dressing rooms and the orchestra pit. That made it especially hard to watch the water rising up. We all felt completely helpless. At one point I looked down through the orchestra pit opening in the house and saw that the baby grand piano was not only under water but had somehow flipped over.

The severity of the flood clearly caught us, and much of Vermont, off guard. We had prepared for a minor flood by getting everything off of the floor but we were not ready for floodwater to reach the basement ceiling in places. Almost all the SAINT-EX show props, costumes and wigs were completely submerged.

That's the basic story, but the most heartening things were about to happen. Every company member I saw on Sunday, from Equity actor to production intern, wanted to know what time they should come to the Playhouse on Monday to start cleaning up. Alumni and friends filled the company's Facebook page with love and we all started getting a lot of supportive messages/calls.

On Monday, the Playhouse management decided that SAINT-EX would reopen in a modified version on Friday night - only four and a half days away. Those next few days were a blur of activity as the Equity actors, Equity stage managers, musicians, box office staff, production staff, administrative staff and close to 100 community volunteers shoveled mud, ripped out soaked carpeting, discarded trash, mopped floors and tried to salvage all they could. Everything that was in the basement was brought out into the sun to dry. The wardrobe staff took on the giant task of hand washing all the muddy costumes before they were sent to the dry cleaner. Wigs were washed three or four times and then restyled. Props were salvaged or replaced. Makeshift dressing rooms were prepared. Amazingly, SAINT-EX reopened on Friday to a rousing welcome from the audience.

The greatest lesson that I have taken from all of this is that live theatre can matter even in the digital age. Community members made lunch for the company every day that week; the Fire Department came back and pumped thousands of gallons of water out of the building; townspeople came in to help; local electricians replaced hundreds of circuit breakers; several grand pianos were offered as a replacement for the ruined one; Boston's Huntington Theatre solicited their audiences to help us; Playhouse alums organized a NYC benefit; donors just started sending checks without being solicited. The outpouring of generosity from people all over the country was, and still is, overwhelming to me.

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