Over the last few years, the City of Peabody has focused on revitalizing its downtown area. Multiple surveys were conducted, in conjunction with Salem State’s Center for Economic Development and Sustainability, to find out what residents and businesses wanted to see happen in the area. Results continued to show a coffee shop as the number one response. A popular retail chain was second. An increase in “arts and culture attractions” to draw people to downtown Peabody at night was the number three response.
“As we worked together to execute our shared vision for downtown Peabody, an already strong partnership became even stronger,” says mayor Edward A. Bettencourt, Jr. “Our survey respondents identified the need for a downtown coffee shop, and the Northeast Arc sought a food service training ground for the individuals they serve. It seemed like a great opportunity for both the city and the Arc, and Breaking Grounds was born.”
While Breaking Grounds on Main Street was a success, how could this innovative nonprofit possibly help increase arts and culture as part of the master plan for downtown Peabody?
Tom Gould, a Peabody city councilor and owner of the popular Treadwell’s ice cream shop in Peabody, thought he had the answer to that question. Gould approached the Northeast Arc to see if they had space in the ArcWorks Community Art Center on Foster Street in Peabody that might fit the need. Seeing possibility where others saw an empty warehouse (in which the Arc used to house its shredding business before it moved to Danvers), Gould, along with the Northeast Arc’s recently retired chief development officer, Susan Ring Brown, and director of innovation and strategy, Tim Brown, focused on the building’s incredible potential.
Taking the lead as the chair of the Friends of the Peabody Black Box Committee, Gould headed fundraising and volunteering with partners including the Peabody Cultural Collaborative, Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce, Peabody Main Streets, Opportunity Peabody, and city leaders, working with the Northeast Arc to reinvent the space into the new theatre. The completely renovated space will provide employment opportunities for local actors, musicians, set builders, ticket sellers, and concessions workers. The space will provide educational and recreational opportunities for as many as 7,800 youths annually.
“The addition of the Black Box Theater builds on the incredible momentum downtown, making Peabody Square a destination,” says Bettencourt. “The Black Box Theater will help us raise the visibility of all of our cultural assets, from ArcWorks to the Elizabeth Cassidy Folk Art Museum, the George Peabody House and Peabody Leatherworkers Museum, the International Festival, the Peabody Institute Library (home of the Creativity Lab!), Peabody Access Telecommunications, the Wiggin Auditorium, and many others.”
“Many people don’t know what a black box theater is,” notes Tim Brown, director of innovation and strategy at Northeast Arc. “A black box theatre is a bare, raw space. The only limit to what happens in the theatre is your own imagination.” He adds: “The theater provides another avenue for creative expression for the people we serve. We have an improv troupe, a drumming circle, and we are developing some small theatre programs.”
The theater space is flexible and is able to meet the needs of any group or organization that rents it. The occupancy permit allows for 155 people in a theater-style set up, 113 people for seated dinners, and 238 people for standing events.
Since opening in late April, the theater has already hosted a Broadway revue, an improv troupe, stand-up comedians, and other community events. It is an ideal space for theatre, music, poetry readings, comedy, film events, dance parties, and unique special events. The space is also available to rent for private family events or life celebrations.
The hope is that the theater will become an anchor in the city’s downtown cultural district. The addition of performing arts to the Art Center will complement existing visual arts activities. Revenue from space rental will ensure the long-term sustainability of the Center. “Because the Black Box Theater is located in the Northeast Arc’s ArcWorks Community Art Center, we hope more people will view the center as a community cultural resource, with free exhibits open to the public year-round,” says Brown.
In addition to the new theater, the ArcWorks Community Art Center is home to the Arc’s Shine Jewelry and Heritage Caning, crafts-focused enterprises employing people with disabilities, as well as a gallery shop featuring the handmade work of 50 local artists of all abilities.
“The Black Box Theater will be instrumental in attracting more shops, restaurants, and entertainment options to downtown Peabody,” says Bettencourt.
He reflects, “The Northeast Arc has been a true partner as we continue to work to bring more life and more business to the downtown area. With the ArcWorks Art Center, Breaking Grounds, and now the new Black Box Theater, who knows what we can do together next.”