Get to know... Ed and Melody Libonati
NEW CANAAN — For much of their lives, Ed and Melody Libonati have been deeply involved in the arts.
Ed and Melody, who met while students at Ithaca College, are the executive producer and artistic director, respectively, of the Summer Theatre of New Canaan, and have grown the production company significantly since they created it 14 years ago.
Melody is a former actress — she had a leading role on the soap opera “One Life to Live,” and has been on Broadway — and Ed formerly ran an international advertising agency and is a writer, director and producer.
The pair is bracing for another summer performing in Waveny Park, including a run of “Singin’ in the Rain” (July 6-30), the “Dancing Princesses” (June 24-July 30), and “Robin Hood” (July 15-30).
Q: We’re speaking the day after opening night of “Singin’ in the Rain.” How did it go?
ML: We had our first preview for “Singin’ in the Rain” last night. It was great. It’s a lot of big pieces in that show. It’s like producing a movie, really. Because you have rain, and tap-dancing, and songs.
EL: And you have a live orchestra, and you have all sorts of pre-roles, and sound effects and textures. You’ve got 42 moving lights and every single light has to be computerized and has to be programmed for every second of the show.
Q: How many people are you working with to ensure it all goes smoothly?
EL: We have about 150 people working for us in the summer. We have 19 interns. We have like 40 or 45 actors, 15 musicians. And then staff that come in both part time and full time. There are designers, assistant designers, technical, electricians, carpenters and shop people. It’s built in three shops because of the time crunch we have.
Q: When does preparation begin?
EL: Usually the day the show closes.
ML: By January we have to know the show and know the designers and start production.
EL: And we’ll start pre-production in December. We’ve tried to start it earlier, but as a nonprofit, it’s tough because we have to make sure we have funds for the next season. We make sure we’ve secured those pledges and support from sponsors, donors, foundations, grants, whatever. And once we feel comfortable we then pull the trigger on the next season. Historically it’s worked out very well.
Q: How long have you been involved with the theater? How did it come to be?
ML: I was an actress and one of my favorite parts of the acting world was doing theater in the summer because people were available and it’s a great time of year.
We’ve lived in this community for 30 years. We moved from New York City here with our children. There had been a summer community theater here before when we first moved here. But they hadn’t been doing it anymore. I thought the community needed a theater. I came from the professional world, so I thought everyone who’s an artist should be paid.
I didn’t want to do something that only I thought was a good idea. I brought together a few community people and said ‘I have this idea, what do you think?’ It was five people really involved in the community, and they said, ‘Yeah, I think that would be great, go do it!’
EL : We put sort of a think tank together of leaders in this community. People from the business, political and educational world. And from the arts. Everyone got together and said, ‘Is this viable? Can a town like New Canaan support a professional theater company? And does it want a professional theater company?’ It was a unanimous yes. We created a board and we proceeded with the first show as an experiment, and it was a huge success. We had maybe 90 percent attendance at Saxe Middle School.
Q: How has the theater grown?
EL: What’s remarkable about it is we had about 50 people audition for our first show and we cast 45 of them. Now when we have an audition we have over 1,000 people attend, all top professionals, and we cast about one-thirtieth of them. It’s become quite an evolution of the theater. In a lot of reviews, it’s considered on par with Broadway quality. This past year we were the second most nominated theater company in the state by the Connecticut Critics Circle.
This is being recognized by professional theater critics. Our company is just 14 years old, with one major show in the summer, and it matched, met or did greater than all of the established companies that send shows to Broadway.
We create the experience through professional artists and make this experience overwhelming. Beating expectations has never been a problem for us. It’s getting people to understand who we are. Once they come they recognize the value they enjoy the experience and generally they come back.
ML: We started out a musical and Shakespeare and children’s shows, because the first thing a theater has to do is say, ‘What does the community want? What’s needed?’ Because we’re such a family community, I knew that family shows were really important. Just to keep the economics right, we did cut down to one musical and two theater for a young audience shows. It seems to work.
The other part of this is I felt really strongly about an educational program. I think theater is responsible for educating people to continue. We have the whole realm of ages. We start with middle school. We have fifth through ninth grade students. We have junior company, a special needs program called DramaRamas, we have a high school intensive training program and a college intern program.
Q: Are there educational advantages of being based in New Canaan?
EL: What works really well about the educational program is, because we have this critical mass of artists here assembled in New Canaan — top designers, choreographers, fight coordinators, performers, technicians, etc. — we have all this talent and it just overlays on top of our education program. So these middle school kids are introduced to good habits and good standards. The high school programs, workshops and master classes, are held by top performing artists in the industry. They’re here, we have access to these people and it also gives us another opportunity to help supplement a lot of our artists’ earnings.
Q: Has the theater found a fan base in the community?
ML: What’s really been great through these 14 years is the support from the community, not just in foundations and donors, but also in the local people. It’s Karl Chevrolet, and it’s Walter Stewarts, and Halo Studios and Bankwell and the New Canaan Community Foundation. It’s just such a great family that we’ve been brought into.
EL: It’s really a collective effort. There are a lot of local delis and restaurants and caterers that provide lunches for actors and crew during turnaround because we have three shows a day and they might not have time to leave. We have restaurants that offer happy hour specials, pre and post-show dining specials for people who come to the theater. They’re very excited to do it because it generates traffic. We attract a lot of people into town.