Fade Up On Bridgeport : Producing Theatre In One Of America's Most Dangerous Cities
On Saturday July 25th, 2015, in Bridgeport, CT, a 33 year-old man was shot and killed at Rootsman Kitchen, a Jamaican eatery. At the same exact time, less than 2 miles away, the Downtown Cabaret Theatre's Junior Summer Production of Into the Woods Jr. was underway.
A second shooting victim was discovered Sunday afternoon after police at about 2 p.m discovered a man dead of a gunshot to the head. At that same time, just over a mile away at The Bijou Theatre, their summer stock teen production of Fame was about to open their final performance.
Two active shootings less than 2 miles from two youth theatrical performances. This might be alarming for some of you. But not here. This is normal.
This is Bridgeport.
Last year, according to CQ Press, after compiling the amount and types of crime across the country, they rated Bridgeport, CT as the 9th Most Dangerous City in America. There was some cause for celebration since this was a decrease, as they were ranked the 4th most dangerous city the previous year by another publication.
It's sad to see the fifth largest city in New England be in such a state. For those of you who don't know, Bridgeport was once one of the mightiest manufacturing cities on the eastern seaboard. The circus-promoter and former mayor, P.T. Barnum, was a famous resident of the city. Barnum built three houses there, and housed his circus in town during winters. The first Subway restaurant opened in the North End section of the city in 1965. The Frisbie Pie Company was located here, and Bridgeport is credited as the birthplace of the Frisbee.
However now, Bridgeport is more known for its violent crime rating which, in 2014, was double the national average.
Yet, The Bijou Theatre and the Downtown Cabaret Main Stage Theatre proudly call Bridgeport their home. And they're not just residing there, they're producing some of the best theatre in the region.
The Downtown Cabaret Main Stage Theatre is the result of a recent merger of sorts between the Bridgeport Theatre Company(BTC) and the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, where the BTC had called their home for the past couple of years.
Their merger joined together the best that both groups offer. While the Downtown Cabaret is known for their excellent children's theatre and concerts, BTC is known for their community theatre plays and musicals.
Just down the street lies The Bijou Theatre, another historic Bridgeport property. Originally built as an opera house, a two story ball room and retail store, it was converted to a state of the art performance space in 2011.
As I mentioned before, both these theaters are producing fantastic shows. In fact in 2014, The Bridgeport Theatre Company won 5 OnStage Critics Awards for their various productions and in 2015, The Bijou Theatre received 15 nominations for various productions from their season.
Talent isn't an issue with these theaters, the issue is selling tickets.
Often I'll attend their performances and see some of the best community theatre around, yet their houses are half full. I find myself dumbfounded because Fairfield County, CT has a vibrant theatre scene where other houses are often sold out weeks in advance, yet far superior shows here, aren't being seen. Why? One only has to read the newspaper and police blotter to figure that out.
"It's hard for me to feel safe going to see shows there, especially when they get out so late at night, " said one avid theatergoer I spoke to. "You're just risking too much, going there for theatre."
Another person I spoke to refused to venture into the city, even to see a family member perform, because they were robbed at knife point five years ago.
While these stigmas are understandable, there have been no reported incidents involving audience members of either of these theaters. But that doesn't mean it's not on the minds of those who run these houses.
"It's a constant thought. We want audiences to feel as safe as possible", one Downtown Cabaret source told me. "But it's hard when you hear these things happening as close as down the street."
A former cast member of a Bijou Theatre production told me their car was broken into during rehearsals, on two different occasions. Yet, they were still planning on auditioning for an upcoming show there. I had to ask why they would possibly want to do that,
"Where else am I going to have the chance to play these roles? These guys are the only ones willing to do this kind of theatre," they replied.
The leadership of both these groups understand the issues and are combating it artistically. To attract wider and larger audiences, both groups are swinging for the fences with their show selections this year. The Bijou Theatre are producing some bold works such as "The Pillowman" and small cast musicals such as "tick....tick..Boom!". The Downtown Cabaret Main Stage are producing larger and grander pieces such as " Memphis", "American Idiot" and "Evita". The hope is that these popular and iconic selections will help drive ticket sales.
I certainly hope you'll check out some of the offerings both these groups are producing this year. I've said it before that Bridgeport has the potential to become a arts/cultural mecca for Southern CT.
While neither The Bijou or Downtown Cabaret Main Stage are able to reduce crime in Bridgeport, they are certainly doing more than their share of making a better place.