- OnStage Connecticut Columnist
There is no doubt that we live in trying times. For many of us, a trip to the theatre is more than a respite from the anxiety of our days. It is a place for refuge and reassurance that we are not lost and we are not alone; it is a place to connect with others on an intellectual and emotional level through sharing the commonalities of the human condition. And it is a window through which we can gaze at the society we live in and imagine the society we aspire to create.
We need not always look to Broadway for these grand experiences. Many do not live close enough to New York City to take in a Broadway show, and many who do simply cannot afford the rising ticket prices. Luckily, we have local community theaters that provide quality, thoughtful, and thought provoking entertainment. One such venue is The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, located in Brookfield, Connecticut. Now celebrating its 60th anniversary season, TBTA has, in the words of its President, Lou Okell, "...been and oasis of creativity while giving all who step through its doors a sense of coming home since 1957."
I first visited The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts to take in their first show of the current season, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. I was not only blown away by the amazing performances of its cast, especially Anna Fagan as Maggie, James Wilding as Brick, and Will Jeffries as Big Daddy, but also taken by the setting of the theatre itself. I was interested in learning its history, as well as its plans for the future. I was able to pose a few questions to Theatre President, Lou Okell and Artistic Director, Will Jeffries. What follows is part of an educational and enlightening interview.
Can you tell me about the physical space of the theatre? How many people does the theatre hold? Can you tell me a little about its history? Having never visited Brookfield before, I thought the area has a nice New England feel to it.
Lou: "This is the second gymnasium for the Curtis School for Boys. The present stone building was built in 1907. The Curtis School closed its doors in 1943. The gymnasium remained empty until it was purchased by the Brookfield Country Players in 1958/59 and remodeled as a community theater.
The organization eventually grew to include a wide range of cultural offerings and, in 2003, changed its name to "The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts" (TBTA) to reflect this commitment to be a center for creativity for the greater Brookfield region. The new lobby, dedicated in 2005, has been used for informal gatherings, workshops, cultural events, and art shows. As part of our 60th anniversary celebration, we have remodeled the lobby and rededicated it as an art gallery with a Board member acting as curator for fine art shows throughout the year.
Will: "The theatre seats 135. I had the same reaction as you when I first walk into the space, that it felt like a classic New England summer stock theatre, and I was immediately at home as both an audience member and actor on the stage."
Can you tell me about your subscriber base? How do you continue to inspire young talent, still provide acting opportunities and challenges for more seasoned performers, and provide entertainment that is relevant for young and old alike?
Lou: "Our shows appeal to a wide ranging audience. Our subscribers and members reflect this diverse appeal. We have certainly had shows that were targeted for a specific age or group as part of a well-rounded full season. Our motto for 2017 is "all are welcome".
Will: "This is such an important question for all theatres, and can be a real conundrum. We want The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts to be an entertainment destination for our audiences. We want them to feel that if they come to our shows, whether they know the show they're attending or it's new to them, that they are going to see a performance of high quality in every element, the acting, sets, lights, costumes, and the atmosphere of the theatre. Some shows they may respond to more than others…but that's what art does. Whether they laugh or cry, or both, love it or hate it, or both, we want them to feel all the feelings that good theatre allows. And want them to know that when they come to our shows they are going to see a good piece of theatre, done as well as we can possibly do it.
We want the theatre artists who come here to ply their craft know that they will be treated well, with respect, and that their artistic contributions will be valued and appreciated. We know that people come to do theatre for different reasons...for some it's a hobby, for some an opportunity to be social and enjoy the camaraderie. Others have a more serious need for artistic expression, and a more rigorous standard to which they hold themselves. All of these are valid, and all are welcome here. We believe that it is possible to push the boundaries of your artistry to new heights while still being collegial and having fun as a working group, and we believe that if your priority is the collegiality and fun, you can have that here...because we know that theatre is much more fun if you are doing something which is also really great."
Can you talk about your upcoming shows for the rest of the season?
Will: "We tried to put together a season of variety, with important as well as lighthearted pieces, classics and newer shows, and a big honkin' All-American musical. And all of it with a special nod to the fact that this is our 60th Anniversary Season. So the number one straight play on Broadway 60 years ago was CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. I have wanted to direct BENT (April 28 - May 13) for many years, as it is a play that is iconic for its examination of the treatment of gays in Nazi Germany. It is an edgy and important piece, and we feel that it is part of TBTA earning its artistic credibility to do shows like this along with lighter fair. The Tony Award for Best Musical 60 years ago was DAMN YANKEES (July 14 - August 6). FROST/NIXON (September 8 - 23) is a brilliant play, and I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to play President Nixon in a production 3 or 4 years ago in Westport. It was a big hit for the theatre, and the audiences loved it...and it hasn't been seen anywhere around here since, so the timing is great. To do this play you need somebody to play Nixon, and I guess when they took me on as Artistic Director, they got him, too. And finally, NOISES OFF (November 3 - 18), the great British farce about a struggling theatre company, is a show some in our company have wanted to do for years, and now that we have a new stage floor that can handle the rolling scenery, we're going to give it a go! A sidesplitting end to a hopefully great season.
It's funny, in a way, that I see our plays this season in a bit of a different light now than I did when we first selected them. This has to do with the current political climate and the most unusual situation in which our Country finds itself, but all the shows have an added layer of significance to them...CAT spends a lot of time addressing the issues of greed and mendacity...living with lies and the liars who tell them. BENT deals directly with the issues of anti-Semitism, discrimination, and persecution of "the other" – in this case, the LBGT community. DAMN YANKEES, while a lighthearted and frothy musical, nevertheless is centered around a guy who makes a deal with the Devil to be the greatest ball player ever. FROST/NIXON deals with the perils of political and personal corruption, and a downfall of Shakespearian proportions. And NOISES OFF, a rollicking farce, is about a struggling little theatre company trying to get itself together and stay that way. Every show has moments of great humor, and moments where life in the story is hard for the characters...just like real life."
(Writer's note: BENT is unfortunately relevant in these days where we are getting more and more disheartening news reports of gay men being tortured, detained in concentration camps, and being killed in Chechnya.)
Can you also elaborate on plans to showcase new plays/authors based on audience pick?
Lou: "CHRISTMAS IN JULY (July 1) will feature new works by upcoming writers and composers. Board member Carol de Giere, our curator of new musicals, has been actively involved in promoting new musicals through her work with Stephen Schwartz and the National Alliance of Musical Theatre. Invitations to submit have been posted in trade publications and at new musical events and workshops. We currently have more than seven proposals to review. Carol and the Board of Directors will select three or four musicals from all submissions. Each show will have up to 45 minutes to present their musical to our audience. At the end of the evening, votes will be cast and the winning selection will have a full staged reading performance in December. This sort of staged reading is a benefit to composers and authors to help prepare their new writing for the next step in getting it fully produced."
For more information about submissions: http://musicalwriters.com/musings-blog/submissions-christmas-musicals/
Given the current political climate, can you provide your thoughts regarding the relevance and need for theater and the arts and the need for continued support from donors and patrons, especially in light of glaring cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts?
Lou: "Community theaters are a vital part of any creative community. They provide a space to strive for excellence in the arts, to learn new skills, practice the craft of theater, and provide worthwhile live performances to the community. They also have a unique opportunity to provide a space for free speech and open discussions of current issues by offering a range of shows that are not only entertaining but thought provoking and timely. We feel we have done this with our choice of shows and events for 2017.
As a non-profit community theater staffed entirely by volunteers, funding this work remains a constant challenge. We have been fortunate to have generous and loyal patrons support the work we do for the past 60 years and dedicated volunteers to make it all happen."
Will: "...Theatre at its best holds a mirror, as 'twere, up to nature, so we can see our selves, our families, our neighbors, friends, and even our foes. It is worth noting these days that there are those who think art is frivolous, and provides no results that they can see. This notion is much less about the results of the Arts than it is about the capacity for vision of those who say these things. As I see it, theatre is food for ones soul, and the very lifeblood of ones heart. Those who think that eliminating what meager public support for the Arts there has been in our Country...far less than other Countries...are probably people who are most in need of the restoration of the soul which the Arts provide, an irony I would consider delicious if it was not so sad.
The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts is a place where all are welcome, all are respected, and all are safe. If you want to come take part, we'll find something you can do. If you don't know how, we'll teach you. If you know how to do something, you can teach us. If you don't know us, come say hello. Come see a show. Come be in a show. Come join the Family."
In addition to the shows listed above, The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts also offers staged readings of plays, a teen show and Improv nights. For more information visit their website at http://brookfieldtheatre.org