Applause / Theaters seeking a home away from home
It’s an old adage: “All theater needs is two planks and a passion.” In medieval times, performers created a stage by putting boards on the back of a wagon. The Greeks and Romans had their amphitheaters, Shakespeare had his Globe, Broadway and the West End have their plush red and gold venues — their “planks” if you will.
Without a home to call its own, without a place to set up scenery, hang lights, be able to rehearse and perform, a theater is nothing but a peripatetic organization, wandering in the desert of lost opportunities.
The Westport Community Theater (WCT) is on the edge of eviction, while Stratford’s Square One, having lost its downtown venue, is now temporarily ensconced in a local school. The group that used to be called the Darien Players, having no place of its own, operates under the umbrella of the Darien Arts Center.
Of the four theaters surveyed, only Town Players of New Canaan is secure in its home away from home.
If towns owe something to non-professional theaters — and, arguably, they do — what do the theaters give back? Low-cost entertainment, obviously, but also student workshops, free or dirt-cheap tickets for seniors, a presence in schools, scholarships, staged readings, not to mention a place hundreds of locals can work and socialize every year.
After years of serving the community, some theaters are in mortal danger, a situation haunting the 61-year-old Westport Community Theater which began as the Westport Players. Mary Haberman, with late husband Jules, was one of the theater’s founders. Speaking by phone from Maine, she said, “Both Jules and I did directing and acting with the Players at the Westport Woman’s Club which all of a sudden announced that they weren’t going to give us space anymore. That was in the middle of a production.”
Determined to finish the job, the Habermans gathered a bunch of friends and had a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at which they raised $74.00. “We caused some ill feelings but we performed in the Bedford school, formed a steering committee, wrote a constitution and were off.”
From that beginning, WCT, like a troupe of strolling players, variously pitched its tent in Weston High School, Staples High School, Fairfield University, Nash’s Barn, the Weston Grange, Coleytown School, the Westport Playhouse, Lucile Lortel’s White Barn, even someone’s garden. Thy became known, with apologies to a ”Guys and Dolls” song, as “the oldest established permanent floating theater in the world.”
In 1978, WCT began negotiations with the town of Westport for the decommissioned Bedford school. Hooking up with the newly-formed Westport Arts Council proved the deciding factor.
Norwalk director / designer Ed Spires and the late Eileen Wilson were the leading forces behind securing the empty Bedford for an arts center. “Eileen worked with Barbara Wilk of the Arts Council to use the school’s auditorium, with other rooms in the school rented out to artists as studios and exhibit space. It would have been self-supporting,” said Spires in an interview.
But the town, which had been looking for bigger quarters, decided that the Bedford school would suit their search, leaving the gymnasium and related spaces to the theater and the Arts Council which agreed to split the rent and use the space for six months each. Spires and Wilson equipped their treasured space with risers and chairs, plus performing, technical and storage spaces.
After the Arts Council relocated, since 1978 WCT has happily co-existed with the town. Spires recalls a town official as once saying, “As long as we are here, you will have a home.”
That was then.
Now, as WCT president Sam Mink put it in an email, a planned renovation of Bedford is “a cloud hanging over all our heads. Renovating and remodeling Town Hall, if fully implemented, would reclaim most of our space and turn it into offices and meeting rooms. We are currently in the town’s good graces for the remainder of this season. Beyond that we just don’t know yet how things will play out — whether we’ll be able to extend our lease again in some form or whether the project will actually begin to kick in and force us to find another venue.”
Commenting by phone, the town’s Operations Director, Sara Harris, said that, though supportive of the community theater, the town needs to consolidate services, some of which are scattered into other buildings.
“Because we weren’t certain of the timing of changes and didn’t know how long the process would take,” said Harris, “we thought it best to put the theater on a one-year lease, which we’ve been doing for three years now. We are supportive and know they’re a great asset to the town. We are trying to maintain them in the building, keeping them in their space or some portion of it. But the final decision has not been determined. We are looking at our own operations and the most efficient layout of our departments, the most citizen-centric approach.”
As for the citizens who put on shows or sit in audiences, the town would not throw them out on their ears but would give “ample time” to leave. Would the town find a new space for WCT? “That hasn’t been discussed,” said Harris. “If we knew of some space that were available, we would offer that to them.”
In an area of scarce spaces and high rents, that search could be at least long, at worse futile. Non-theater people (“civilians”) haven’t a clue about a theater’s needs: for rehearsal space and time, for building, striking and storing scenery, for setting lights, for costume fittings.
For proof, turn to another orphan, Stratford’s Square One Theater. Having started with readings in the town library, the organization became a full-fledged theater when a contract was drawn up with the Scottish Rite, also known as the Masons, which had purchased what used to be a downtown movie emporium.
After 25 years, the Masons pulled the plug three seasons ago, stranding not only Square One but nearby restaurants which had relied on theatergoers’ patronage. Cited was the Masons’ needing the building for their own activities, although Square One maintains it was willing to work around their schedule.
“We’re members of the Chamber of Commerce,” said Richard Pheneger, Square One’s general manager. “They wrote a letter on behalf of their members to the Masons asking if there would be any possibility of Square One’s coming back to help out restaurants and businesses in the area. Not one response. The individual restaurants, then, wrote a similar letter asking them to please re-consider. Again, no response.”
Pheneger, artistic director Tom Holehan, plus theater members, looked everywhere in town for a new space. They even contemplated moving to Bridgeport but feared audiences wouldn’t follow. Eventually, with the help of the Stratford Department of Recreation, they chose the Stratford Academy, an arts magnet school where chairs have to be stored between performances.
“We like Stratford, partly because we’re the only game in town but also because we feel tied to the town since we grew out of the Stratford Library 28 years ago,” said Holehan. “I would have liked to see more from the town. There are so many empty spaces. I had ideas but nothing was forthcoming.”
Perhaps it was that exhaustion that drove the Darien Players, begun 43 years ago as the Cherry Lawn Players, into the arms of the Darien Arts Center (DAC). Run by a volunteer committee, the Darien Arts Center Stage presents several shows each year, sharing the 100-seat Weatherstone Studio in Town Hall with DAC’s other components: dance, visual arts, martial arts, kids’ theater and music.”
(One person familiar with the operation, and who requested anonymity, said “I know people who’ve directed there. All of sudden they’re told, ‘Sorry, you can’t start rehearsing till nine o’clock because there are dance classes, and they take precedence.’”)
Said Executive Director Amy Allen, “We have a fantastic facility. We pay rent to the town. We don’t fund raise.” To which Stage committee member Dana Fead added, “We’re here to serve the community, but we’re not part of the government or organization of the town. We are a separate, non-profit entity, not an outside group but part of DAC. We’re not subsidized in any way shape or form.”
On the other hand, Town Players of New Canaan have a “fantastic facility,” on which they pay no rent and for which they held private fund raisers. Begun in 1946, Town Players performed in churches, schools and the VFW before deciding to consolidate. Spurred by member Gordon Allison, they settled on the unused, dilapidated power plant in Waveny Park. “It took three years from first knowing we had the building, of going to Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, before we were approved,” said ex-officio president, actor and director Sheri Dean.
Once the town agreed, Ed Spires, utilizing a “beautiful” scale model by John Rogers, went to work on the interior with architect Richard Bergmann, Master Builder Clifford Webb and scores of volunteers. Opening as the Powerhouse Performing Arts Center in 1983, Town Players later added an annex to house an office and a storage room for costumes and props.
“We don’t pay the town any money at all, but we maintain the buildings and we’re a year-round asset, a part of tradition and culture,” said Dean. “We have very good relations with the town and know a lot of people on the town council. The Parks Department checks in with us occasionally.”
What the Players do not want is a closer relationship with officials. “We don’t want to be told what we can and cannot do,” said Dean. “We just want to be a community theater to put on our plays. We’ve been very happy staying independent of the town. We appreciate their support but we haven’t really placed any demands on them or them on us.”
The community theater movement that began in the last part of the 19th century at first had a social, in addition to an artistic purpose. According to the American Association of Community Theater, “as early as 1909, (playwright) Percy MacKaye wrote of the need for ‘civic’ theater activity, which he saw as ‘the conscious awakening of a people to self-government in the activities of its leisure.’”
In addition to productions, community theaters are a major component of a town’s fabric. All they ask in return for providing low-cost entertainment is a home of their own, a home sweet home to ply their art.
Is it too much to ask for a town’s non-financial support of local theaters that need their own spaces and attract thousands of playgoers? After all, when Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” he was talking about more than money.
David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.