By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
LITTLETON – The town-owned Littleton Opera House, its future as a community theatre performance venue, and what LGBTQ expression would be allowed are expected to be discussed Monday Oct. 23 at 5 p.m. as the community clashes for the second time this fall on issues of inclusion with the three-member Board of Selectmen.
This time, instead of the issue being about public murals with an LGBTQ theme on a private building, it is about the local Theatre Up community group and its future in the Opera House as the board waits on a legal opinion on whether they can limit public expression on public property.
It also, coincidentally, comes in advance of the group’s November production of La Cage Aux Folles, a Broadway musical about a gay couple set in St. Tropez, which will be performed in the city-owned structure Nov. 3-12.
The meeting follows another with selectmen Sept. 11 which drew more than 300 following Selectman and Republican State Senator Carrie Gendreau’s public comments saying she did not support LGBTQ+ art on Main Street.
She has stood by those comments.
Lynne Grigelevich, executive director of the 44-year-old theatre group, said it has a $1 million grant for a new venue and was exploring the extension of its lease, which ends in May, 2024 when she was told by Town Manager Jim Gleason, that it was unlikely to be supported by the current board.
He said on Friday he spoke with each of the three selectmen individually prior to the meeting with Theatre Up, who expressed varying degrees of concern about its upcoming production choice and noted the legal opinion being sought.
The decision on La Cage Aux Folles was made last spring long before Gendreau expressed concern about the murals, Grigelevich said and not as a reaction to Gendreau’s comments.
But, “Given the uncertainty surrounding the future as it relates to a potential ban on art in public places in Littleton, Theatre UP is holding off on any plans to move forward at this time,” with efforts to extend the lease at the Opera House, a venue it has used over the past 10 years, the group’s statement reads.
Grigelevich said unfortunately, the theatre group cannot work with the town, with “The ability to censor anything we do…so yes, we have to look elsewhere,” for a more permanent venue.
“We were told that a public art ban is still a possibility, and the Board of Selectman is seeking counsel from an attorney on this matter. If such a ban was passed, we would most certainly be impacted as an organization doing performance art in a public space.”
Gendreau, who is also a Republican State Senator, has maintained her public statements about three murals on private downtown buildings which she said do not belong in her town because of their LGBTQ+ theme.
Grigelevich said she expects supporters of the organization, who were outspoken in opposition to Gendreau’s previous comments on LGBTQ+ murals will attend the meeting, and others who support Gendreau’s position are likely to also attend.
But the show, selected last spring following a spate of issues nationally and within the state about opposition to drag queen shows, will go on as planned.
Theatre UP has received a federal $1 million Northern Borders Regional Commission grant to build a theatre of its own.
Grigelevich said her organization received the grant, which is contingent on a still to be completed environmental assessment of the Masonic Temple building on Main Street, owned by a private company and if approved, while the construction was occurring, Grigelevich said they needed an alternative venue.
“We decided to explore the possibility of a long-term lease with the Town of Littleton as primary tenants and caretakers of the Littleton Opera House. This beloved historic building is of great importance to the community, and our goal was to see if we could utilize that space before considering a new construction,” an Oct. 14 Theatre Up statement reads.
“We were prepared to fund the updates necessary to serve the needs of our organization, with guidance from the NH State Historical Society and NH State Historic Preservation Office, who accompanied us at a preliminary walk-through of the Opera House on October 2,” it read.
On Oct 10, representatives from Theatre UP met with Town Manager Jim Gleason, Selectman and Vice Chair Linda MacNeil, and Opera House Manager Rilee Clark to explore the possibility of revisiting a long-term lease with the Town of Littleton for use of the Opera House.
“We asked for support from the town for the exploration of renovating the building and long-term partnership and asked if the town would consider sharing the cost of a study that would provide detailed information re: the specifics of what can and cannot be modified based on its status as an historic building.
“We were told that, given the current climate and affiliation of UP and the LGBTQ+ community, the Town Manager felt we would not be able to get BOS support for a $2500 investment in the building study or a long-term partnership.
“We were told there have been complaints from community and Selectboard members about La Cage aux Folles ….We discussed that our lease is currently what is protecting us and this show, but our lease ends in May. We are thankful Jim and Linda took the time to meet with us and be transparent.
We are grateful for our working relationship with Rilee Clark and the opportunity to use the space for as long as we are allowed to do so.
“We are saddened that the current climate and personal beliefs of those in office have resulted in conditions that may not allow us to move forward with plans to revitalize this beloved and iconic building. We are also concerned for our many friends, neighbors, and fellow organizations & businesses, as the Selectmen’s quest to ban art in public places could greatly damage this community,” the statement reads.
The Littleton selectboard meeting is open to the public but may be limited by capacity issues.