Saturday July 7, 2012

LEE -- A local businessman is ready to raise the curtain on a new visual and performing arts venue, a possible first step toward making downtown a cultural destination.

This afternoon, Michael Mc Man mon will unveil The Spectrum Play house and Joyous Studios in the former St. George’s Episcopal Church on Franklin Street.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for 12:15 p.m.

The $635,000 project comes a year after McManmon, through his Lee-based College Internship Program, completed a $3.7 million refurbishing of the Baird/Benton block. CIP occupies the upper two floors with three businesses, along with an art gallery that is located at street level of the 132-year-old building.

Through CIP, McManmon in May 2011 purchased St. George’s for $260,000 and spent another $375,000 in order to convert the historic church into a theater and student art studios.

The two investments are among several completed or current public and private projects that are revitalizing Lee’s Main Street business district.

"It can only enhance what we’re doing downtown, and that’s to bring more people to Lee," said Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Patricia Carlino.

Today’s official opening of The Spectrum Playhouse kicks off the first full season for the community-based theater that McManmon has been experimenting with for the past year.

Since last July, the playhouse, while undergoing renovations, has hosted occasional regular and special events in an effort to determine how best to fill the 190-seat theater.

"We found it’s best to establish regular events such as our Family First Saturdays and comedy improvisation every third Friday of the month," McManmon said.

In addition to those mainstays, playhouse coordinator Kyle Goldman says the schedule is booked solid for July and starting to fill up for August with plenty of local and regional talent. The ultimate goal is to phase in a larger, year-round schedule at the playhouse.

"We want Lee to become a cultural destination," Gold man said. "We want people to have another reason to stop and stay -- rather than just pass through -- the downtown."

The Spectrum Playhouse is under the umbrella of the Berkshire Visual and Per forming Arts Center, which also includes the Good Pur pose Gallery on Main Street. BVPAC is under the auspices of CIP, which provides college, vocational and creative arts training for college-age students with Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism. CIP serves about 50 students in Lee and has similar educational facilities in five other states and in England.

On Friday night, The Good Purpose Gallery began a weekend-long celebration of its first anniversary. It opened a year ago in the Baird/Benton block, next to the Starving Artist Café and Creperie that is operated by McManmon’s daughter, Emmy Davis.

McManmon said the eatery has helped first-year attendance at the visual arts venue.

"Our gallery has four times the flow of people than a normal gallery because the crep erie opens into the gallery," he said.

While the playhouse and gallery are open to the public, they also provide a forum for students in CIP’s creative arts program. Both venues will display student art. CIP’s student drama troupe this morning will debut "Alice’s Adven tures," a play based on Lewis Carroll’s book "Alice’s Adven tures in Wonderland" at 11 a.m.

McManmon views the student production as a stepping stone to having more theatrical productions at the playhouse.

"As we develop the small venue, it could house a small theater group looking for space, and maybe it can include the students," he said.

The Spectrum Playhouse also hopes to partner with Berkshire Gateway Preser vation Inc., the newly formed cultural arm of the First Congregation Church that is located directly behind the playhouse.

The two organizations are expected to collaborate on a weekend jazz festival in September, the church group’s first foray into live entertainment.

Garth Story, chair of Berk shire Gateway Preser vation, believes the 500-seat First Congregational Church will eventually complement -- not compete -- with what The Spectrum Playhouse has to offer.

"We have a much larger space and would be happy to use our facility for larger events to attract people to the downtown," Story said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.