THE CHOCOLATE CHURCH ARTS CENTER in Bath, as seen on Wednesday.

THE CHOCOLATE CHURCH ARTS CENTER in Bath, as seen on Wednesday.

BATH

The Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The nonprofit arts center — located in a 170-year-old church with a chocolate-brown exterior — hosts a variety of concerts, plays and art shows and is now producing its own theater.

Attendance has risen steadily in the past few years, a trend that Executive Director Jennifer DeChant said is due to CCAC’s increased involvement in the Bath community.

“The connection to the community is strong,” said DeChant. “There are always people here rehearsing for theater productions, getting ready for music performances, meeting or auditioning or just hanging out in the art gallery. It’s about the connectivity and the relevancy to the community and the region. I think that’s an emphasis that we have picked up on in the last four or five years.”

FOLK SINGER Judy Collins performs on the main stage of Chocolate Church Arts Center in November 2013.

FOLK SINGER Judy Collins performs on the main stage of Chocolate Church Arts Center in November 2013.

The CCAC was founded in 1977 when New York City theatrical designer Jack Doepp bought the former Congregational Church — which had gone unused for years and was slated for demolition — from Sagadahoc Preservation Inc. The arts center hosted strictly theater at first, but soon added live music to its repertoire, which was its chief draw for years. In 2013, the board decided to move the arts center into what DeChant called a “populist experiment.”

“We wanted to utilize the the campus more fully,” said DeChant, who took over the executive director position that year. “We now produce our own theater, hold art shows, have our own programmatic aspects and are diversifying in many ways.”

The CCAC campus includes a main stage with 277 seats; a smaller, more intimate stage that seats around 80 people, and an art gallery.

“There are times when there are groups of people in all three areas,” said DeChant.

Although singers and actors from Maine make up CCAC’s chief group of performers, the arts center welcomes national performers, too. Acts like Joan Osborne and Suzzane Vega took the stage in 2016.

Volunteers and collaborations

CCAC is volunteer-based, an aspect that DeChant said is at the heart of its continued success.

“Most of what we do is possible because of the volunteers who are involved,” said DeChant. “We have a very small staff here, and we would never have gotten this far without our hardworking, committed volunteers. They stand side by side and do the heavy lifting.”

Volunteer jobs range from show coordinators, art gallery staffing, groundskeeping and maintenance.

Alison Freeman, who volunteers as production coordinator and is producing and directing this year’s Hot Chocolate Jubilee variety show “Life Begins at 40,” said that the church has had a community connection “since the beginning.”

“The community has always been an important aspect of the church,” said Freeman.

Gordon McKenny, who does volunteer maintenance work on the building, said he got involved with CCAC four years ago.

“I’m retired and have some extra time, and spend most of my time at the church,” said McKenny. “It’s really rewarding and a lot of fun.”

Some of the jobs McKenny has managed include repainting the church’s annex building, sanding and staining the floors, fixing toilets, removing one-and-a-half tons of old storage waste out of the basement and overhauling the building’s insulation. He also plows the church parking lot after snowstorms.

“This work means a lot to me,” said McKenny. “I take it personal to get things going at the church. It’s rewarding and I’m glad to see the attendance going up.”

DeChant also pointed to the CCAC’s collaboration with nonprofits over the past few years as a driver for success. DeChant cited a comedy night to benefit Bath Food Bank in 2015 and a collaboration with the Cosmopolitan Club of Bath last year as two nonprofit events that created community awareness.

“That’s what a community art center can do,” said DeChant. “We work really hard with others to make headway.”

CCAC’s future

DeChant envisions further developments in CCAC’s evolution in the next few years, including tuition based educational lectures, musician residencies and, eventually, a capital campaign.

“Our goal is to become a more programmatic experience for this community,” said DeChant. “That’s quite a difference from ticketing for live music, theater and dance, but it’s not a radical revolution. It’s more of an evolution.”

CCAC will continue to operate as a volunteer-based nonprofit that is not far above its bottom line, DeChant said, but one that will continue to “rise to the level of commitment to the community that we have shown.”

“Donors, sponsors and local businesses have been stepping up and supporting us,” said DeChant. “We are not out of the woods by any means, but indicators show that we are moving in the right direction.”

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