At Hubbard Hall, a new director with a new sense of mission

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CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — At the age of 44, David Andrew Snider is a man on a mission. Mission-driven work, he says, is his "heart and soul." It's why he moved his family from Washington, D.C. to Washington County in New York State to succeed Benji White as executive director of Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education.

"My wife was born in the White Mountains in New Hampshire," Snider said in a telephone interview from his office at Hubbard Hall. "We'd been looking for an opportunity to come back to new england but all the job openings I saw were for season-driven theater companies and that's not what I was looking for.

"When I saw the (listing) for Hubbard Hall, my eyes popped wide open. Here was a community based organization that was stable and deeply respected in the community.

Snider's ultimate goal is to make the lovingly restored 1878 opera house on the main street of this village of roughly 2,000 a center for the creation of new work, chiefly for the stage; something along the lines of Sundance Institute in Utah — a place where artists can come, settle in for a residency, develop work and have it performed before it moves on into the greater world beyond.

"Wayward Home," a new musical opening tonight in the hall's main stage at 25 E, Main St., where it is scheduled to run weekends through Nov. 29, is a perfect example.

The creation of Maizy Broderick Scarpa Sand Clara Straub, who are joined in performance by Abigail Wahl, "Wayward Home" was first seen in a developmental presentation at Hubbard Hall's first Winter Carnival of New Work in January.

Audience reaction was the tip-off, Snider said in a telephone interview from his office at the hall.

"People were leaning forward to hear everything that was happening," Snider said. "The power of the music also drew me in.

"I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to take a work that was developed in a workshop and residency and then give it a full production. I think this speaks to our strength. It sends out a message to artists to come here to this beautiful setting and create work."

Inspired by Noah's Ark, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 and tales of the American West, "Wayward Home" — in which the performers sing, play their own instruments and portray a variety of characters — is described as a musical folktale about a family's quest for a home.

"I really admire Maizy, Clara and Abigail's artistry," Snider said. "As a work for the stage, this piece speaks to how narrative shapes how we tell a story. There is something about the way this story is told that is very new."

For Snider, mission is more than shaping a national reputation for Hubbard Hall. His more pressing concerns are striking the right balance at the hall; and, even more important, strengthen the center's bond to the community.

That is why Snider, his wife and their two children — one of them, a son, a third grader; the other, a daughter, a kindergartner, both in Cambridge public schools — bought a house in Cambridge that is well within walking distance of Hubbard Hall.

By his own plan, Snider has moved slowly but deliberately.

"When I came here, I found a 37-year-old organization that was relatively healthy," Snider said, "but activities operated as different camps. Anyone who wanted to teach a class could. We had different pied pipers for different things.

"I felt we needed to unite our activities and get rid of those silos."

Outreach is another goal, especially to the public schools and the more than 50 retirement communities within an hour's drive of Cambridge. Between weekend performances, for example, "Wayward Home" will be touring area schools and those retirement communities. "I feel we need to reach people who can't get to our campus."

Overall, he says, he is looking at ways to "lower the barrier to access to our campus and our programs." The new community garden behind the hall is one element. using the neighboring country store as the box office and as a new access to the theater that bypasses the formidable staircase that leads directly from Main Street into the theater, is another. Theatergoers who arrive early not only can browse, they also can participate, if they wish, in some easy creative art projects lined up just inside the store's entrance.

"I want people to feel our mission; to have a whole feeling of the hall; to feel that anyone can create," Snider said.

He also is in the process of professionalizing the administrative staff. When Snider arrived at Hubbard hall, he was the only full-time paid staffer. He now has a full-time paid production manager and communications director.

He wants teachers who are more skilled in the subjects they are teaching — which range from tai chi and yoga to music, poetry, various crafts, art, dance and theater — and who will come with a sense of planning and purpose. He also is looking at ways in which to make better use of the Hall's volunteers.

Armed with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, Snider now has the equipment to use the Freight Depot black box as a tech theater lab, in addition to its use for performances, art exhibits, special events and yoga and tai chi classes.

There are signs that Snider's early moves are meeting with some success. The budget when Snider came was $410,000; this year it's $514,000. Income grew by $110,000, expenses by $105,000 "and we still were in the black."

One of the reasons for the boost in income was last November's production of the musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." The show brought in families in greater numbers than Hubbard Hall has seen. "It was a game-changer for us in many ways," Snider said.

There is more in the works — a theater pass program through the community public library; linkages with two nearby colleges — Bennington in Vermont and Skidmore in Saratoga Springs.

Small steps but necessary ones.

"I've really spent my first year learning what Hubbard Hall has been." Now, he thinks about what Hubbard Hall can be — today and tomorrow.

Short term, that means finding the right balance in staffing and programming. Long term, Snider says, "my dream is to create an incubator for the arts that is known nationally as well as respected locally; that is known as a place where artists can come, retreat, develop work but always keeping and developing ties to the community."

IN THE GALLERIES

What: "Wayward Home." A musical folktale by Maizy Broderick Scarpa and Clara Strauch. Consulting directors, David Andrew Snider and John Hadden

When: Tonight through Nov. 29 (press opening this weekend's performances). Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2

Where: Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge, N.Y.

Tickets: $25; ($10 students)

How: (518) 677-2495; hubbardhall.org


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