For much of its run, Easthampton's PACE (Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton) seemed like a scrappy contender on the brink of solidifying its presence on the Valley's arts scene.
It's hard to believe that, in fact, PACE's 10th anniversary arrives this October, an anniversary undoubtedly marred by the outcome of co-founder David Fried-Oppenheim's recent criminal trial.
When David and Sonia Fried Oppenheim first opened the doors of PACE, they were embarking on a risky and ambitious endeavor. The pair relocated to Easthampton from New York City, where David had worked with computers at Barclay's expressly in order to fund the couple's passion to start a community theater project. Sonia knew the Valley well—she attended Smith—and the pair, she told the Advocate (in "Easthampton Unplugged," Oct. 17, 2002), kept saying their community theater should be in "a place just like the Pioneer Valley." They decided, of course, that the Valley was in fact the answer.
At first, Sonia Fried Oppenheim said, they looked at Northampton, but found the high rent daunting. They looked in Holyoke as well, and finally focused on the town in between. They proposed that their theater inhabit the old Easthampton Town Hall, which, though it still housed the town government, was likely to be vacated soon. Though the response to their proposal was positive, said David Oppenheim, he and Sonia jumped at the chance when a large space on Union Street became available.
That storefront quickly turned into a good home for theater and musical performances, with a café at the front and a big back room for large-scale performances. The organization struggled some, toying with different kinds of programming and different kinds of food and drink in the café. PACE hosted open mics and even the Valley Idol singing contest, and oversaw a steady stream of shows featuring local and regional musical acts. David Fried Oppenheim oversaw PACE's theater offerings, focusing on in-house productions with local actors. Local businesses, some of them quite new to Easthampton also, signed on as supporters of the newcomers.
The Fried Oppenheims were realizing the vision that had driven them, a vision of community theater as a useful template for life that would help educate young students. As David Fried Oppenheim put it then, "Theater is a microcosm of any work situation... In six weeks, you have the full structure of any organization. I love people coming in and not knowing what they're capable of, and helping them to realize their unfulfilled potential—on all levels."
Things seemed to be humming along, growing at a steady rate, when the organization encountered a major problem with its Union Street location. In the wake of a fatal Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003, laws changed and building inspectors region-wide seemed to take more of a hard-line stance on fire code inspections. Easthampton inspector Richard Oleksak shut PACE down for fire code violations. Many of the newly installed seats in the large performance space were removed, PACE reopened, and Oleksak apologized for an apparent mistake. Still, the shutdown hurt the organization.
"This was really just a mistake," David Fried Oppenheim told the Advocate in 2005. "Unfortunately it was a mistake with great financial consequences. ... It's not just the loss of revenues, but the loss of advertising, and it also hurts people's long-term support of the space because they feel as if you're not keeping it up. It's a PR disaster."
The organization did rebound, eventually mounting some big productions, including shows at Northampton's Academy of Music, but it wasn't the last struggle PACE faced. The Fried Oppenheims wanted a permanent home for their organization, one they could own instead of rent. They eventually left the Union Street space and planned, thanks to a successful 2009 bid for an old mill building at 15 Cottage Street, to undertake a massive expansion.
David Fried Oppenheim seemed profoundly excited by the possibilities at the time. He told the Advocate, "We've faced some heavy obstacles on the way. We lost some big productions, and found creative ways to keep ourselves afloat—productions such as Godspell and Westside Story, and Swimming to Cambodia, the first non-Spalding Gray production of it. We've been able to put ourselves on the larger map of the arts in the region and establish ourselves as serious players, even for a young organization."
The plan was certainly ambitious. "We're looking at turning 25,000 square feet into an arts complex—a 350-seat theater with a 2,000-square-foot stage; a black box, multi-use room which will be usable for everything from concerts and theatrical production to dance and film production; classrooms, studios for dance and music, costume and prop shops, dressing rooms, green rooms," said Fried Oppenheim. "We're looking to be an incubator for new works—if we don't have to generate income, we can develop work without the same concern."
PACE had to come up with the money to complete the purchase—no small matter. "It's still a struggle," Fried Oppenheim said. "But I would not say it's akin to Sisyphus—the boulder doesn't slide all the way back down."
The building PACE had bid on turned out to need expensive repairs, and the transaction was never completed. With its Union Street location vacated, PACE seemed to exist primarily as a paper entity.
PACE's future seemed like a question mark, though, as a nonprofit, it had a board of directors and a vision statement. It had, too, an impressive track record of making the most of its resources and mounting impressive productions.
Then the boulder really did slide to the bottom of the hill in when, in mid-2010, David Fried Oppenheim was arrested on charges that he had sex with a 14-year-old student.
Fried Oppenheim's trial played out in very public fashion. The allegations were grim: Oppenheim had committed statutory rape, going beyond legal limits in an acting method called "primitives" in which students examined their reactions to various physical stimuli. The particulars of the trial hinged on much that might qualify as "he-said, she-said," with instant messages and accounts of Fried Oppenheim's admission of wrongdoing figuring prominently. Other former PACE students came forward with allegations of their own. Fried Oppenheim was found guilty of statutory rape.
PACE, dealt a near-fatal blow, does still exist, however, housed on the off-street side of a building on Easthampton's Pleasant Street, facing the Manhan Rail Trail. In the wake of his arrest, Fried Oppenheim took a leave of absence from the organization, then resigned completely.
Though the Luthier's Co-op on Easthampton's Cottage Street has long hosted an open mic event whose proceeds go to PACE, much bigger plans for the organization's future, independent of Fried Oppenheim, are underway. PACE's acting artistic director Mark Vecchio filled the Advocate in on what happens next. Though the shadow of Fried Oppenheim's conviction must loom large, Vecchio seemed, more than anything, excited by what the future could bring for what he jokingly calls "TOFKAP—the organization formerly known as PACE."
"We're taking a good mission, finding the best place for it, and reinventing ourselves," Vecchio says. "Performance transcends the individual and affects people at their core. It goes well beyond any one personality."
In taking on a new name—Metacomet Stage—the organization is clearly signalling the break from its past and from Fried Oppenheim. It may seem easier for Vecchio and the PACE board to have disbanded PACE entirely, to bring some of its players together as an entirely new organization, but Vecchio explains that it's perhaps more accurate to think of the transformation as a way to preserve what PACE has in terms of assets like organizational infrastructure and equipment.
Vecchio also talks about a review of PACE he conducted as a board member, pulling out the study's results. "The mission," says Vecchio," is still good, needed and wanted."
He points to the top of the page.
The mission is to: "Provide a home for creating and presenting quality performing art that makes you think, laugh and feel. Inspire and encourage community participation in the whole life cycle of production, from performance and tech to business and management."
"We think people want a place to play music, do theater and dance, and see professional performances," says Vecchio.
It seems certain that, in the wake of Fried Oppenheim's conviction, parents of aspiring young actors will be close observers of the working methods not only of Metacomet Stage, but of many another Valley arts group. Metacomet seems likely to be intensely aware that such scrutiny will abound as it attempts to deliver what it sees as the best elements of PACE.
Metacomet Stage will also, he says, make one significant break from PACE's model: "The PACE Theater [company] section of the organization is not going to continue."
Rather than training and employing its own acting company, he explains, Metacomet will help other companies mount their productions. (Vecchio heads up his own company as well, Scheherazade Theatre.)
For all its travails under the guidance of the Fried Oppenheims, the organization they started now finds itself, oddly, headed for the very space that, 10 years ago, the pair proposed as a home for the fledgling PACE: the second story of the old Easthampton Town Hall, just upstairs from Flywheel. Vecchio says Metacomet's proposal has been positively received, and the organization is now hoping to raise the funds that could make it a reality.
For Vecchio, the overriding reason to carry the torch for the revamped PACE, and indeed to carry on with community arts in general, is his view of the importance of the arts: "The arts are as far north, south, east and west as you can go in humanity."
He talks for a minute about the remarkable reduction to pure elements that's accomplished in the works of Samuel Beckett, and, with a smile, says, "Good God, what else is worth doing?!?"