Envisioning a Highland arts center

The entrance to Boughton Place Theater. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Four established Ulster County arts groups have come together for preliminary discussions of whether they can join creative forces and create a home for the arts at the three-acre Boughton Place campus in Highland. The four groups include Boughton Place, 90 Miles Off Broadway, the New Paltz Arts Community and Potential Unlimited.

The four hope their combined forces could provide them greater funding potential and an arts campus, a single place that would draw in people who want to participate in or high-quality local theatre. To this end, representatives from the four not-for-profit arts organizations have held two meetings. They are working with Joe Bugliono from Alfandre Architects, who is contributing his services pro bono on the assessment of the feasibility and on the estimated costs of turning the Boughton Place grounds into a functioning arts center that could meet the needs of each group.

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Boughton Place, just off Route 299 in Highland, is home to both Community Playback Theater and the Hudson Valley Psychodrama Institute. The Moreno Theater hosts 65 seats for audience and participants. The Homestead, which is an unoccupied adjacent residential building, was once a communal living residence, a shelter, a soup kitchen, a respite for artists and “a wonderful, spirited, dynamic place that was the vision of Claire Danielsson,” said Boughton board member JoyAnn Savino. “I truly think that we could re-energize the Homestead, work together and create something special and positive that could service this entire area from one central location.”

Members of the four arts organizations toured the Homestead with Bugliono. The two-story building, which needs a lot of work, consists of seven bedrooms, three kitchens and four bathrooms.

The Cottage is used to store props and equipments and provides an extra space for Boughton Place members and actors to rehearse. “I would love to see it as our future box office,” said Cassandra Beam.

The Cottage is used to store props and equipments and provides an extra space for Boughton Place members and actors to rehearse.

After the tour, representatives from each organization talked about their vision.

90 Miles Off Broadway, a theater group based in New Paltz for the past 47 years, would like to combine forces and create a theatre space at Boughton Place that could seat at least 100 audience members. That theatre space would be utilized by the other groups.

“Forty-seven years is a long time to be homeless,” said Shawn Clark, a board member of 90 Miles. Like the Arts Community, 90 Miles enjoyed glory days with great access to SUNY New Paltz theaters. Gradually these doors were shut to community and youth theater groups.

“We do our plays and rehearsals at the schools, but they’re getting harder and harder to get into, and it costs money,” said Kim Lupinacci of 90 Miles. “We still do a big production at the New Paltz High School. We’ve done some at the Highland schools, in church basements…We make theater wherever we can. It’s not easy. But we do it because there is such a desire for all ages in our community and the surrounding areas to be involved in theater as well as audiences, who can’t afford the $140 tickets to Broadway, but can travel a short distance and spend $15 to see a high-quality show.”

“I’m very excited about the potential,” said Tom Cornell Jr., president of the Boughton Place board. “I think that we can accommodate everyone and become a nexus of the arts. We have to dream as big as we need to and it can happen.”

Barbara Wurtz of Potential Unlimited Productions, a small organization dedicated to providing quality performing-arts education to those with developmental disabilities, is based in West Hurley. She too was enthusiastic about the potential. “We’re financially solid right now,” she said. “But we can see the writing on the wall and the way arts funding is shrinking. By collaborating with each other we can help one another stay solvent and expand our programming.” Potential Unlimited is “not the Special Olympics of the arts,” she noted. “We are a very diverse group with incredible performers.”

Peggy Paparone of The Arts Community said her organization had recently gotten more space at the New Paltz Community Center to provide its vast array of classes for children and adults, including youth theatre, gymnastics, yoga and dance. But she said The Arts Community had been “limping along for years, ever since we lost access to SUNY New Paltz facilities. We hold classes in Gardiner, Wallkill, New Paltz and serve as an umbrella group for many fantastic ideas.”

Steve Casa, a member of the 90 Miles Off Broadway board and an educator with a background in teaching, coaching and grantswriting, said that he’s excited about this collaboration because he’s kid-centric. “Our kids are losing more and more right-brain activity,” said Casa. “They’re sitting in front of TVs, getting driven everywhere, with the mandates for testing focusing more and more on left-brain functions. They’re losing their creativity, their ability to succeed in life and be dynamic and creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, which is what this society needs.”

Casa wants a place for all children to be able to be involved in the performing arts. Casa said he was willing “to work hard to help make this happen.”

“I’m fortunate. I can drive my daughter to Westchester to be part of a theater group,” Casa said. “But most people don’t have that luxury, and I want to ensure that all kids, regardless of their socioeconomic background have access to the arts. It’s about kids and equity. My vision is to come together and expose as many kids and people as possible to the beauty of the performing arts. There is nothing that can’t be done.”

Offices in the current Boughton Place could be moved to the Homestead, and all the arts organizations could have their offices and classroom/rehearsal space. Or the Homestead could be torn down and a new, eco-friendly, dynamic theater hall could be built.

Bugliono said that the four groups under one umbrella would have more lobbying power. “We wouldn’t be competing against each other but with each other for dwindling arts funds,” said one member from Potential Unlimited.

The first step from a planning and design point of view was for the separate groups to consider coming under one name, Bugliono declared. A parallel step would be to discuss how a list of needs from each group could best be configured in the physical setting.

The architect suggested that after that the groups would be ready to let the town government of Lloyd what they’re thinking at the conceptual level. “If you’re talking 100 seats or more, expanding the theater and the spaces, rehabilitating the Homestead or building new, you’re talking about a site plan that would need adequate parking, lighting, stormwater runoff management and handicapped accessibility just for starters.”

The group left on an energetic note. Something big was possible. But it would take a lot of work, planning and collaboration to make it happen.

The next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. next Monday, Sept. 26. ++

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