It's fitting that one of the most innovative speakers' series around has the most unusual slogan you'll ever hear: "Mind candy for the curious. More fun than paying bills or shoveling snow. Healthier than contemplating the Zombie Apocalypse." Our state is famously home to a wealth of cultural programs, but central Vermont's Town Braintap appears to be the only one whose marketing invokes zombies.
"I felt it was a consumer promise we could make without fear of overstatement," explains Ricka McNaughton, one of the program's founders. "It also tells you a little about the light tone we strive to set. Super casual. Unstuffy."
Its tone isn't the only thing that distinguishes the nonprofit from other such community series. There's the fact that its speakers are not out-of-state touring lecturers but folks you might bump into on any given day at the Plainfield Post Office: ordinary people with extraordinary talents and areas of expertise.
Town Braintap is the brainchild of McNaughton, Emily Johansen and Jeanne Haskell and is loosely based on community education programs that Johansen came across in travels around the country. In late 2013, the three friends began building the concept for their own purpose.
"It so happens I love to hear people talk about what they do," McNaughton says, "whether it's academic or technical, making fine art or artfully grading the town roads. We wondered, How could you entice people around here to share their knowledge, talents and skills with others? And how could you structure it in a way that didn't feel socially intimidating or downright peculiar?"
The answers took form in a debut season of events in March 2014, and it was an instant hit with the community. Highlights included the workshop "Empower Yourself at Home: Handling Common Power Tools," presented by local high school teacher Trevor Tait.
The series specializes in what its creators have dubbed "edu-tainment," and which McNaughton defines as "a recreational learning experience — nothing you have to put effort into or expect any benefit from beyond an evening's amusement." Its third season — there are two per year: one in March/April, the other in October/November — kicks off on March 18 and promises some amusing events.
Some of the offerings to come: "The Tao of Right Now: An Intro to the Practices and Uses of Mindfulness" with Susannah Blachly, a professional therapist and musician (March 18); "This Is Your Brain ... on Fun: Serious Adult Uses for Outright Silliness" with Diana and Jessamine Levine (March 25); "Reaping What Was Sewn: Reclaiming History through the Re-creation of Early American Apparel (1770-1815)," a talk and trunk show by Justin Squizzero with Eliza West (April 8); and "Preserving Life and Limb: An Arborist's Calling and a Discussion of Any Tree-Care Stuff You Want to Talk About" with "Zen climber" and tree-care professional Lincoln Earle-Centers (April 15).
McNaughton wants to keep the tone light, and she believes the takeaway will be valuable. "As many of us commune more exclusively in online worlds," she muses, "we've created an altogether new kind of social isolation. This is a sad casualty of our time, which I think strikes harder in rural areas.
"Town Braintap events provide a conversational bridge, a comfortable way for people to meet interesting, accomplished neighbors they might not otherwise have the chance to talk to in a substantive way," McNaughton says. "Every event finds its own direction, like good dinner-table conversation with talkative friends."
What does the future hold for Braintap? "We'd love to widen the appeal," says McNaughton, "to create events for people interested in technology, science, traditional trades, cooking..."
And one of these days, maybe even a little something on that zombie apocalypse.
The spring 2015 Town Braintap series is on Wednesdays, March 18 through April 15, 7 p.m., at Twinfield Union School in Plainfield. $10 suggested donation; benefits school's literacy program. Preregistration recommended online or by calling Jeanne Haskell at 454-1298. For general info, contact Ricka McNaughton at email@example.com or 454-1275
The original print version of this article was headlined "Plainfield's Town Braintap Serves Up Mind Candy for the Curious"
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