By all accounts, the pandemic hit arts organizations especially hard. And The Actors Studio of Newburyport (TASN) was no exception. When executive director Marc Clopton should have been touting the 30th anniversary of his black box theater at the Tannery in Newburyport, he was instead moving out of the intimate 50-seat space, retaining only the office next door.
“When the [COVID-19 reopening] guidelines were put out, it became clear that our space was no longer usable,” Clopton says. “We have a small intimate theater, which is our brand.” So he shifted to Zoom for as many performances as he could, and also partnered with local churches to use their space when available.
Just down the hall, Deirdre and John Budzyna found themselves in a similar predicament. Acting Out, their 15-year-old children’s theater company, had always operated out of a cozy studio in the Tannery, stacked with props and a stand-up piano for rehearsing everything from Annie to Shrek the Musical. But after the financial hit of canceling a slate of live performances and refunding countless tuitions for spring and summer programs, holding onto the space just wasn’t possible.
TASN and Acting Out had collaborated in the past—they had even cut a doorway between the Acting Out studio and TASN’s theater so they could share space as needed. Evaluating their respective situations during the pandemic, they realized formalizing their collaborative arrangement could be a way to keep both efforts going. Acting Out now operates under the TASN umbrella—an arrangement that makes sense for both parties.
“It made sense to join forces and, as one organization, work together to make the Actors Studio, Acting Out and The Performing Project all a success,” Deirdre Budzyna says, referring to her daughter Maggie’s nonprofit that provides acting and singing opportunities to kids in Lawrence.
If there is one advantage to having your theater space shut down, it is having the time to finally pursue big-picture projects. Clopton had a vision well beyond joining up with the Budzynas, involving deepening the connections among the many arts organizations that call Newburyport home. Over the years, he had spoken to members of Newburyport’s arts community, like Edward Speck, artistic director of Theater in the Open, and Fontaine Dubus, artistic director of The Dance Place and Exit Dance Theater, many times about the challenges they all faced and how they could help one another. “Everybody felt like it was a great idea to band together, but we were all too busy,” he recalls, adding that COVID brought all those challenges into stark focus, while giving them the time to lay the groundwork.
With the help of Deirdre Girard, a longtime supporter of the arts in Newburyport and a marketing entrepreneur turned award-winning playwright, they launched the Newburyport Arts Collective, a membership organization dedicated to supporting the arts in Newburyport through collaborative advocacy, shared resources, and marketing.
“The city of Newburyport is an artistic gem,” Girard says. “The number of arts organizations that thrive here really define the city. Because my background is business and marketing, I could see all of the opportunities for these small organizations to band together.”
Clearly they were onto something—in less than a year, the group, which is free to join for any cultural organization that works or performs in Newburyport, has grown to 26 members representing music, dance, theater, visual arts, film, literary events, and history. Speaking with one voice has gotten the ear of city hall, and the collective has started seeing members’ events attract audiences from outside the immediate community.
Beyond that, especially in these difficult times, NAC ties members together in important ways. “It’s inspiring to see what everyone is doing and where we might be able to collaborate,” says Dubus, who has always offered up her studio space to cultural groups in need.
NAC launched its first major collaboration in October 2021, when members came together to hold more than a dozen Halloween-themed events, including a pumpkin-painting craft sponsored by Tinkerhaus Makerspace in conjunction with an Acting Out children’s theater performance, and an event that found The Dance Place and Anna Smulowitz Productions performing in a local cemetery. Those events, part of what will be an annual push to brand Newburyport as a family-friendly Halloween destination, attracted attention and attendance from the North Shore and beyond.
Next up for the NAC is a partnership with the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry, relaunching the city’s annual Spring Fest with a new spotlight on the city’s arts and cultural offerings. The festival, to be held May 14 and 15, will feature artists from the Newburyport Arts Association painting en plein air, award-winning singers from the Performing Project, a film and artwork collaboration between the Screening Room and PEG Center, and theater presentations from many of the town’s troupes. All the members hope that unifying their efforts into a larger, more visible group will attract increased attention and broader appreciation of all the city has to offer, at times overlooked as individual members struggled to get noticed.
“Newburyport has this deep artistic energy … I can’t even explain it,” Dubus says. “But it’s just full of talented painters and musicians and actors and dancers.”
For more information about Newburyport Arts Collective or the Spring Festival, visit newburyportartscollective.org