Labor of love continues at Hubbard Hall
CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- When Benjie White describes his 37 years as director of Hubbard Hall, the theater and arts center in Cambridge, N.Y., it sounds like a long renovation project. He had a bell tower to repair, stenciling in the main hall to preserve, and several feet of clay to remove from the cellar to create the right amount of head room.
In addition to the challenges of running a small arts nonprofit in a town of just over 2,000 people -- like organizing programming and making payroll -- he faced things he didn't expect, like finding a way to fund a new septic system for the center and its surrounding businesses.
It was a mission of love for White, who at 70 is ready to step down this summer. He said through it all, he remembered the goal of the arts organization he founded.
"The process of struggling to find how to communicate something excites me," he said. "It's just as noble to facilitate the passion and talent of others. I've been incredibly lucky to have known a string of people I could help gather resources to support."
White's successor, David Snider, is director of artistic programming at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. He will join Hubbard Hall in May, and White will officially depart at the end of June.
White is a native of Cambridge. His father owned a seed-packing company in town, at a time when he said nearly half the students he went to school with lived on farms.
White said his interest in theater developed in school, fueled by school performances and trips to events, like the then-new Williamstown Theater Festival.
"I was interested in how people handle the grief, fear, love, and how they try to articulate it," he said. "Theater was doing it much better for me than religion."
From there, he went to Wesleyan University, where he studied acting and directing, and stayed around after he graduated to teach. As he put it, he realized he knew more about the technical aspects of theater, as he still worked as a carpenter's apprentice on his summers. "I was a builder," he said.
Then he heard that Hubbard Hall -- the town's "opera house" built in 1878 -- was up for sale. The theater had fallen hard from its heyday in the late 19th century, when it was a vital part of the touring circuit tied to the railroad. Since the 1920s, the large hall had been no more than the attic for the shops on the ground floor. And White felt a clear change of mission.
The price of the building was $20,000 -- $21,700 eventually to account for a new furnace. And that's when the hard work began, as the community coalesced around the facility. There were events to get the ball rolling -- a chamber opera performance at the Presbyterian church, a concert at the school, a contra dance at the Town Hall.
The early decades saw a string of renovations. Asked if he would do it again, knowing now just what kind of work would go into the project, White thought for a few moments.
"I have a tendency to dream really big and recognize that's what it is: dreaming," he said. "It wasn't unenvisioned ... but it wasn't unexpected either."
For many years, the hall hosted concerts, but its ambitions grew in the early 2000s. The nonprofit bought the nearby freight yard -- which now houses dance studios, a black-box theater and offices. In response to the need for more waste treatment, they put in a new septic system.
White said he told the board he was ready to retire three years ago. "It would be better for the organization to make the change before it needed to make the change," he said.
Reached by phone, Snider said the area appeals to him. He has two small children and his wife is originally from New Hampshire. They are interested in trying life in a small town.
"I've come to understand community-based work is important to me," he said. "This is a lot of what we were looking for."
He praised what is happening in Cambridge, where he finds "a strong commitment to the center" and "a great arts ecology."
He said he has talked with White frequently, and the two will overlap for a few weeks before White's departure. He said his first priority will be to listen to the community's wants, but he foresees specific things he'd like explore. More community outreach -- especially in the schools -- is one, as well as finding more ways to tell local stories and to bring outside artists to the area through residencies.
White said they were lucky to find someone like Snider, and he looks forward to what the future holds.
"Hubbard Hall 10 years from now could be very different," he said. "And appropriately so, if [the next director] finds in the community the passion that wants to lead it in another direction."
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