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Reviving a Theater
Mon May 12, 2014
Shakespeare Theater in Stratford Looking For New Management
If you want to manage a once-popular theater that has hosted stars like Katharine Hepburn and James Earl Jones, the town of Stratford wants to hear from you.
The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford closed in 1989, and it's been vacant since. Actors and stage alumni Ed Asner and Christopher Walken visited the theater last year to try and raise money for it, and Stratford has recently put out a request for proposals, hoping to find a new operator by this summer.
The theater could be a success again, said Ed Goodrich, who chairs the Stratford Arts Commission. He also got a job cleaning the theater as a kid decades ago and he's part of a volunteer group trying to keep it in good condition.
"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind as a summer venue, they'll come back in the hundreds of thousands once you have this venue set up correctly," Goodrich said. "One of the problems is, as I've studied it and seen other Shakespeare Festivals, there has to be more than one venue here."
Fred Curchack agreed. His one-man performance, "Stuff As Dreams Are Made On," which was inspired by "The Tempest," was the theater's last show in 1989. He went on to become a Guggenheim fellow, and now teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Curchack said if the new operators can set up more than one venue, maybe with performing arts spaces and classes for the local community then it could work.
"Then it really turns it into part of the community, as opposed to just another commercial venue," Curchack said.
Curchack remembered coming from New York City as a young student to see Shakespeare. And the theater in Stratford will have to compete with programs in New York, such as Shakespeare in the Park. That's not to mention the popular Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada.
Goodrich is thinking of a larger vision than just one theater. He has in mind a kind of campus with multiple venues, like the performance spaces for the Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. He said the financial hardship is a phase that will pass. "Everything goes through this period," he said, "and that's the very nature of art. That's the very nature of theater. It has highs and lows." He cited the Palace Theater in Waterbury, the Warner Theater in Torrington as examples of theaters that successfully turned themselves around.
A consulting group hired by Stratford found that $3.2 million would be enough to get the theater up and running again in the summer. But the group also interviewed around 50 people about the theater, and about a quarter of those had other suggestions for what to do with the space, including a dinner theater or a restaurant.
In the meantime, a Shakespeare Academy is starting this summer with a program for theater students. Stratford will give out the contract this July.