Common Fence Music road shows a ‘bittersweet gift’

Portsmouth nonprofit experiences the challenges — and rewards — of expanding its reach

By Jim McGaw
Posted 11/8/18

NEWPORT — It seemed as though Common Fence Music (CFM) had finally hit the big time Saturday night. 

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Common Fence Music road shows a ‘bittersweet gift’

Portsmouth nonprofit experiences the challenges — and rewards — of expanding its reach


NEWPORT — It seemed as though Common Fence Music (CFM) had finally hit the big time Saturday night. 

A large crowd of people gathered inside the dazzling Casino Theatre at the International Tennis Hall of Fame for the nonprofit’s second annual Fall Moon Festival, which featured an impressive lineup of singer/songwriters: Peter Mulvey, Mark Erelli, Caitlin Canty and Maya de Vitry.

The venue was a far cry from the tiny “Gold Lamé” stage at the music series’ home base at the Common Fence Point Community Center in Portsmouth. The 500-seat, 138-year-old theater was designed by famed architect — and tabloid-worthy murder victim — Stanford White, and first opened its doors in 1880. It closed in 1987 but reopened in 2010 after renovations.

The community center is undergoing a big renovation of its own, however, and that’s why the festival was in Newport Saturday. In fact, this year the music has been hosted in several different venues, including Hope & Main in Warren, Fenner Hall in Newport and St. John's Lodge in Portsmouth. Next month, Portsmouth High School will be the site of CFM’s annual Christmas show, featuring The Sweetback Sisters.

Taking the series on the road wasn’t born only out of necessity; it’s part of CFM’s longterm plan to broaden its reach. And while the nonprofit has had success in finding newer, younger music-lovers who don’t all live in Portsmouth, it’s run into some challenges as well, according to Laura Stetler, a member of Common Fence Music’s board of directors.

She called the community hall’s renovation project “a bittersweet gift” that presents both challenges and opportunities.

“We’re away from the home venue, so obviously that puts an increased strain on the organization,” said Ms. Stetler, who acknowledged that ticket sales are down this year. “It’s been an opportunity to use new venues and meet new people in those communities, so we would love to take the organization into bigger visibility in this area and throughout Rhode Island. But obviously, you can imagine the challenges of taking this organization and putting it on tour.

“We’re getting to know new people but there’s an inherent challenge with taking something that’s been very comfortable and taking it on tour, while trying to maintain the same tempo of concerts.”

Moving the stage around, Ms. Stetler said, “has given us a chance to appreciate how nimble we need to be, and the fact we can reach audiences outside Portsmouth is nice. We’re just realizing we need to be telling our story more to lots of different people and inviting them in.”

Getting involved

Ms. Stetler, a classically trained violinist who has an administrative degree and also works in economic development, became a board member even thought she lives over the state line in Connecticut. 

“One of their volunteers is an active-duty service member who I worked with overseas; I’m in an active-duty family as well,” she said. “He shot me a message: ‘I have an organization that I volunteer with that you might be interested in.’”

Soon after, she contacted CFM’s artistic director, Erin Young. 

Ms. Stetler, who sat up front for Saturday’s show, said there was an additional incentive to get involved. “A lot of the artists they program here, I just love,” she said.

Ms. Young welcomed the festival crowd with both a greeting and a plea: The nonprofit recently launched its annual drive and donations were welcome. (They can be made at

“This is a real critical time for us and our organization,” Ms. Young said.

Ms. Stetler remains hopeful that CFM will survive its growing pains and discover a bigger audience along the way.

“This is a great chance to go around and say, ‘What’s resonating outside of Portsmouth?’” she said. “It’s a really interesting time. The board is super engaged in wanting to make this work.”

For more information and upcoming shows in the Common Fence Music series, visit

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