details SKY STAGE EVENTS Where: 59 S. Carroll St., Frederick Info: skystagefrederick.com/project/calendar Lit readings, 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 22. Free. Open Mic Night, 7 to 10 p.m. Sept. 24. Free. Austin & Olivia, Rooster & The Renegades with guests, 7 to 10 p.m. Oct. 1. Free.
Sky Stage rose from the ashes.
The outdoor performance space and art installment opened Sept. 17 in the pre-revolutionary war building that survived a two-alarm fire in 2010. Instead of seeing a defunct building with boarded up windows, artist Heather Clark, who specializes in environmentally responsible renovations, saw a handmade stone structure that could be her canvas.
“My immediate vision, as soon as I walked into the building, [was to] have something going in and out of the windows.”
The building’s empty space on South Carroll Street now has a two-story double helix sculpture with drought-resistant plants spiraling throughout the venue. Nearby, trees provide shade for the bleachers below. Plant life is self-sustained by an irrigation system that distributes water from a 400-gallon rainwater barrel.
Sky Stage was the site of bustling activity during Frederick News-Post’s tour of the venue the week before it opened. Jackhammers frequently drowned out Clark’s voice. Long cords and carpentry workstations had to be stepped over or around.
Clark and her crew raced against the clock until 15 minutes before the opening to ready the venue. After a hot, steaming summer of construction, Lee Jones & the C.B. Pickers and Craggy Island Band of Frederick Acoustic Music Enterprise (FAME) were Sky Stage’s first performers last weekend. A multigenerational audience packed Sky Stage and overflowed on the entrance ramp. Many had alcohol in their hands, and one even had a baby carrier. Inviting the Frederick community who wouldn’t otherwise attend an arts event was Clark’s dream.
Using just her sketches and a phone, Clark was able to unite Frederick organizations for the project. “I’m not shy. I just call people and ask them if they would like to participate.” Clark’s designs were so impressive, her phone calls led to sponsorships. Ausherman Family Foundation was an early supporter that sparked others to follow. Anthony Owens Remodeling and Repair helped install the wooden lattice structure, a nod to Clark’s love for wooden rollercoasters. Frederick Arts Council stepped in to assist with planning and event booking.
And for Rusty Hauver, owner of the General Engineering Company, a sewer pipe manufacturer located next door, he was so amazed by Clark’s ideas that he donated his building. “She showed me a picture of it [her Sky Stage vision], and I thought it was beautiful. I was excited with the thought that something can be finally done with the building.”
Clark found that losing her original plans for a South Market site, due to building deterioration, was Sky Stage’s biggest gain. “It was a bad thing to switch sites, or a disappointing thing to switch sites, but it’s so much better. And the building is just gorgeous,” Clark said. “[Rusty is] not just a guy who let us use his site; he’s a partner. He’s helping us. It’s him driving the forklift when we put the trees in place. ... He’s there a lot, so if I just need someone to bounce ideas off of, I’m bouncing them off of Rusty.”
Hauver chose to downplay his contributions in a separate interview. “It’s just my nature. I can’t just stand and watch someone work. I need to jump in and help.”
The historic structure that was once a site of contention has been almost universally accepted among downtown Frederick. “Early on, Gabrielle Collard in [city] planning organized a big meeting with all the key players to figure out how do you do this. This is so unusual. They all [sat] down in a room with me and I shared what I wanted to do. And they all troubleshooted and figured out how to do it,” Clark said. “That’s unique to Frederick.”
Sky Stage represents a strategic step forward for the Frederick Arts Council. “Instead of drop and plop, you think about what communities need the most,” said Louise Kennelly, executive director of the Frederick Arts Council. She imagines Frederick as an amalgamation of creative zones, where art programming can cater to the unique needs of each region. “Is it in a place that is unsafe without more lighting and activity? And engagement? You start identifying as a community what those [art activities] would look like.”
Once Clark had the city’s approval, it was time for the sketches to come alive. She approached MIT professor Caitlin Mueller so that computer programming could make Clark’s design structurally feasible. “When I was with the MIT people in the summer, creating the design, we went back and forth a lot about how to actually design it so it can be built. ... We created a scenario where it wouldn’t be impossible to build but it was really hard. On day one, we started putting it together,” Clark explained. “Maybe 6,000 pieces of wood, and they all had numbers on them. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle.” Even with support from other sponsors, like Rockwell Construction Company and 84 Lumber, Clark had a huge workload. “I would say the sculpture has taken three weeks to put together and it’s three weeks of us working seven days a week from seven in the morning to six at night. And that’s a crew of four to five people. So it’s been quite a process.”
Clark and her volunteer team made this sacrifice for the Frederick community. She wanted to create the project to inspire the community, she said, showing that everyday spaces can be made magical, in both their aesthetic and their creative use of urban space.
She also wants to see it as a community gathering space. “There’s more opportunity to add more programs if the public has a desire to do that. We’re looking for children’s story time. I’d love to have that happen there, I would love to see classes happening there: theater, music. I’d love to see yoga exercise classes there. I’ve been talking to Mike Spurrier at the Community Action Program. Next year, we’ll probably do the free lunch program. I think that would be really neat. And we’d also have art classes at the same time.”
There are also plans for a poetry/jazz series, and interest from Equinox Dance Company. But Kennelly wants to clarify that there are no plans to turn Sky Stage into another Weinberg Center. “It’s not a new thing that is in competition with other theaters. This is for the other theaters and all our [Frederick Arts Council] members. Everyone can have a sample of the upcoming season. They can use it as a marketing vehicle to get the word out across the creek about what they’re doing. It can be a one-act play, maybe it can be some of their arts education work that they feel doesn’t have enough visibility.”
The opening kickoff was designed to highlight what is to come. Clark equated it to an art opening, where people could come say hello, meet the sponsors, meet the people who built it, and listen to some music. “You come, you look, you see a building that’s been transformed. You see the two-story sculpture,” she said.
Kennelly commented that Sky Stage’s fall launch will be a pilot run. “The performances will be mostly volunteer performances but we would like to get to a position where we have a budget for performances in the spring. We’ll figure out in this test run in the fall, what’s the demand, what’s the most popular performances we’re offering.” Kennelly expects to ramp up events in the spring that are in high demand and charge a door fee for future packed lineups. However, the goal will be the same. “We’re keeping it as open and free to the public as possible.”
To ensure affordable arts programming, a GoFundMe page was set up for the Frederick community to bring Sky Stage to its fullest potential. With a $10,000 goal, Kennelly hopes people give what they can because every bit helps, even $5 and $10 donations.
AmeriCorps volunteer Andrea Zona and comic book artist Jake Warrenfeltz were both responsible for booking acts for Sky Stage. Warrenfeltz, a Frederick transplant, quickly dove into the city’s art scene. “One of the things that helped me out is that I got to see so much local music at Artomatic. I made a lot of great connections so as soon as I got involved with Sky Stage, I was able to reach back out. ‘Hey, you guys were great back in May, come play here.’ It seems like the local music scene is really hungry for venues.”
Warrenfeltz is also a bass guitarist in a D.C.-based country band. He knows firsthand about the unique sound in open air venues. “The volume is a tremendous difference. We just played a show this past week at The Wonderland Ballroom in D.C. A little shotgun room probably like twice this space here,” said Warrenfeltz, who referenced a small brick encased lawn at Carroll Creek. “It’s loud in [Wonderland]. As soon as you start playing, it bounces off the back walls. You really can’t hear each other that well. But outside, it’s clear as as a bell. It’s so much nicer.”
Sky Stage, despite its place as a performance arts venue, should be seen more as an art installation. The space is temporary, but the template of having a soft launch as a public art space may continue. “I guess you call her a visionary,” Hauver said of Clark. “Hopefully we’ll see other [projects] through her or others like hers.”
Sky Stage has steel beams to not only secure the walls but to prepare the building for a second and third floor once the site is fully developed. “I’ve always heard,” Hauver said of Frederick stakeholders, “Oh yeah, we envision that to be the premiere restaurant in downtown Frederick. Whether that happens, or an architect might go in, or retail shops, we’re waiting. I’ve been told that the key to our finishing is the hotel conference center. That once that progresses, then some people will be interested in our building. So that’s what we’re waiting for.” If the right developer comes along, Sky Stage may be open for a year with a winter hiatus. “I can guarantee until the end of next summer, October, November of next fall. After that, during that period, if we get someone interested, then the lease will end next October, November. If I don’t have anyone interested in something, she’ll go into the next year. We’ll see what happens.”
This temporary arrangement may surprise some people who wonder what all the hard work was for. But this is exactly what Clark imagined. “When I first started talking to people about that — ‘Wait that doesn’t make sense, why would you do it so short?’ But when you do a project that’s less than a year, there’s a burst of energy that happens. The synergy of all these people coming together that wouldn’t necessarily happen if it would happen over the next 30 years.”