From Brand New Stories to Those That Have Been Told for Centuries, Legacy Theatre Continues to Cultivate an Irreplaceable Art Form
In the middle of June, Legacy Theatre is the Apex Sponsor for the 38th annual Branford Festival on the Branford Town Green.
“Because, evidently, 15,000 people come to the Branford Fest,” says Keely Baisden Knudsen, the theater’s artistic director and co-founder. “So, like, great, this is an opportunity for us to say, ‘We’re three miles down the road!’”
A few days later, Knudsen is working on final rehearsals in New York City for the early July premiere of Phoebe Kreutz’s Awesomer and Awesomer, a revue featuring women determined to find humor in tough situations. Part of Legacy’s New Work Series, the show promises to take “a look at our troubled modern world and…laugh its head off.”
The final weekend in June, Legacy Theatre is back wooing its hometown by hosting, free and open to all, Born at The Water’s Edge, a 30-minute documentary about the history of Stony Creek, the Branford borough where the theater makes its home among “Creekers,” quarry workers, vacationers, actors, artists, historic architecture, and the scenic Thimble Islands.
On deck for July is a three woman, close-harmony singing trio for the July Fourth weekend; a free movie starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly; a performance of a poignant and intensely personal story about confronting the terrors of mental illness in a loved one; and, as part of Legacy’s Broadway Concert Series, Broadway star Jelani Remy singing and telling stories about the Great White Way.
The programming being offered by Legacy is varied, deep, wide, and generous in terms of its appeal. Audiences are starting to respond. What Knudsen and her team have been able to accomplish, after having opened the doors of this charming, entirely rebuilt jewel-box of a theater in the midst of the pandemic is nothing short of remarkable. Legacy is pulling audience members from as far away as Oklahoma and Florida.
Still, Knudsen is no where near being satisfied.
“It’s all about getting the word out and getting people into the doors,” she says. “I think that is the challenge of any new theater and any new endeavor.”
The Importance of New Works
During our conversation, we spend quite a bit of time talking about the importance and excitement of the new works being offered by Legacy. Sure, it’s tempting and often more lucrative to offer the same-old, same-old that folks saw in high school, then at a community theater, then in a regional theater, then on Broadway, Knudsen admits. You know, the ones where you already know the words to all of the songs.
“That’s so true,” she says. “But I think part of my job as artistic director is to educate our audiences and that...This is something new and valid for us to see and open our eyes to. And who knows what the next hit will be.”
Legacy has already seen some success with its premiere earlier this year of Joan Joyce!, a musical based on a book about softball legend who was one of the greatest athletes of all time. The original run sold out and shows had to be added. People did in fact come from as far away as Oklahoma and Florida to see it.
Now, The Palace Theatre in Waterbury is planning a reading of it in the fall. The Seven Angels Theatre is planning a co-production of it, with Legacy Theatre, in the spring.
“So it will live on, which is so surprising,” Knudsen says of Joyce’s improbable and heretofore little-known story. “It’s very touching and exciting.”
Knudsen is as excited about other upcoming new works.
“Nobody knows, nobody knows what is going to be the next big hit,” she says. “But we have an amazing variety of new works, from our children’s series that includes brand new adaptations, and we go into rehearsals this week with Awesomer and Awesomer. This is a brand new piece being developed in New York for a couple of weeks and then we will bring it here.”
The show’s writer, New York singer songwriter Phoebe Kreutz, who has worked with Emmy-nominated director Alan Muraoka, met her creative team when she was working on Sesame Street and the Tony Award winning musical comedy Avenue Q, which features Muppet-like puppets along with people who are grappling with the age-old issues of sex, drinking, surfing the web for porn, and the meaning of life.
“While working on Avenue Q as a songwriter, she came up with these just very funny but very kind of poignant and edgy songs about what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a woman in New York City. So she would do these cabarets after hours at 54 Below [a New York cabaret dinner club],” says Knudsen.
Gary Adler, who has performed at Legacy, realized the theater would be a perfect venue for it.
“So it was cast a few months and we go into rehearsals this week in New York, and we stay there a couple of weeks and then we come out here and perform it,” Knudsen says. “It’s so fresh and contemporary and funny and edgy. I think it’s going to be a real treat for our audiences.”
New Plays, Hallmark Movie Musical
Also coming up in the new works series is, on Sunday, July 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., free (though donations are appreciated) and open to the public, the Legacy Theatre Playwrights Circle Festival of Plays, where members of Legacy Theatre’s Playwrights Circle will present selections of their work. “We have this wonderful playwriting circle that meets every two weeks on Sunday afternoons,” she says. “It’s an invitation-only circle of playwrights, most of whom are members of the Dramatists Guild and who have done really interesting things. And we have some younger people and interns involved.”
Knudsen says it’s wonderful to sit on the groups and hear about how they’re honing and contributing to each others’ works, “So that’s going to be really, really fun to see,” she says of the July performances.
Also, in September, a reading festival is in the works, where playwrights will be invited to submit and compete for spots. And, in mid-August, Legacy will offer My Unauthorized Hallmark Movie Musical.
Hallmark movies? At Legacy Theatre?
At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit my fondness for Hallmark movies, and for the people who love them.
“So I can’t even say the title without smiling,” Knudsen admits.
Formulaic? Perhaps. Trite? Sure, more often than not these movies can be.
Still, she adds, “These shows are an anchor in some ways.”
The Legacy premiere musical will use the movies as a point of departure for its story and will feature three different digital screens and actors who interact with the Hallmark movies.
“It’s a poignant, funny, engaging piece that really does question connectivity, social experiences, and learning through vicariously going through relationships with people.”
They Can Fly
Knudsen also is excited about the Sunday, Aug. 21 performance of the Wheel Life Theatre Troupe, featuring Pilobolus, performing what the theater is billing as a “stunning adaptation” of Peter & Wendy, the Peter Pan prequel that just recently entered the public domain.
“So I’ve been taking that and working with David Bell on creating music for it,” she says.
Pilobolus has been recruited to help the performers fly. Grants from the Branford Community Foundation and the Guilford Foundation are helping to fund that performance.
“So we’re in weekly rehearsals now with Peter & Wendy, just exploring the music, exploring the structure of the writing. And then Pilobolus will come back, and move in, and be in residency for the week before rehearsals,” she says. “Everyone is just thrilled with this.”
Courting the Creekers
Another adaptation is The Tales of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh.
“That just came into the public domain,” she says. “So I thought it’d be a wonderful one to put in our series [on Sept. 17]” on Stony Creek Day. Again, with an eye to courting the locals, she adds, “so Creekers will get free passes to come.”
Knudsen—immersed in rehearsals, writing and producing new works, cultivating neophyte and experienced artists alike, reviewing the last season, and planning the next season, among other tasks on her to-do list—thinks back about both the successes and pandemic insanity of Legacy Theatre’s birth and first few years. And she lands on this.
“I’d like people to know that, yes, there’s been a pandemic, there have been so many changes in our theatrical landscape, nearby and far and yonder, on Broadway and everywhere, globally. And theater is alive. And well. And thriving. Artists are hungry to put it out there. Playwrights are creating. Now is the most gratifying time to see theater, to get into an intimate theater like this and laugh and cry with some stranger sitting next to you,” she says. “Whether the story is brand new or one that has been told for centuries. And it’s right here, in everyone’s back yard.”