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At the New Haven Theatre Company, projects just bubble up and the most passionate advocate usually advances to the stage. This is from a production of Rumors, a play by Neil Simon. Photo courtesy of New Haven Theatre Company

At the New Haven Theatre Company, projects just bubble up and the most passionate advocate usually advances to the stage. This is from a production of Rumors, a play by Neil Simon. (Photo courtesy of New Haven Theatre Company )

Friends Having Serious Fun

Published Nov 01, 2018 • Last Updated 01:27 pm, October 30, 2018

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In a town like New Haven known for its high-profile theaters—Long Wharf, Yale Rep, The Shubert, among them—how can an oh-so-small company find a following?

Now to worry. The New Haven Theatre Company isn’t concerned with competing with—or even one day becoming—one of the big kids. It is perfectly content, thank you very much, with doing its own thing and finding its own fans a handful at a time.

The company was formed about 20 years ago when a group of amateur theater lovers began performing in the back of BAR in downtown New Haven. But for the past 10 years or so, its name has been kept alive by a new collective of about a dozen theater-minded friends—some involved professionally in the arts, and some who are not.

After living a nomadic life in pop-up locations, the ensemble group is now based—thanks to the English Market owners Carol and Robert Orr—in the back of the store at 839 Chapel Street, just east of the Green in a raw space that can house an audience of about 40.

That’s just fine with the small group of ensemble members who collectively produce three intriguing shows a season in the intimate space. It’s a kind of company that’s hard to describe though “salon theater,” “living room theater,” or “chamber theater” might come closest.

“It’s its own kind of animal and it’s managed to exist in this vast theatrical eco-system of New Haven,” says ensemble member Steven Scarpa.

The most recent installment of the company has included several staff members from Long Wharf Theatre, including marketing and communications director Scarpa, associate producer Drew Gray, marketing manager Deena Nicol-Blifford, and Peter Chinot, who is now marketing director at TheaterWorks Silicone Valley and has relocated to California. Other members’ non-arts professions include a scientist, a lawyer, and a businessman.

The New Haven Theatre Company joins a small group of fringe theater groups that also include the multi-cultural The Collective Consciousness Theatre, Bregamos Community Theater that serves the Latino community, and the site-specific theater company, A Broken Umbrella Theatre.

Production values for the New Haven Theatre Company are spare, but the quality of material and its acting is above what is often presented at many amateur theater groups.

The company’s first show of this season is Love Song by John Kolvenback, co-directed by company members Margaret Mann and John Watson. The play, when premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and earned an Olivier nomination when it played London, runs on Thursdays through Saturdays, Nov. 8 to 10 and Nov. 15 to 17, all at 8 p.m.

Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, which received acclaim when it was off-Broadway three years ago, will be presented Feb. 28 to March 9, 2019. That will be followed by a larger endeavor by the company: Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest running April 25 to May 11.

Previous productions are equally eclectic. They include: a little-known work by Tony Award nominee Lucas Hnath (The Death of Walt Disney), Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio (presented in a downtown New Haven radio station), a rarely produced play by Harold Pinter (The Dumb Waiter), ditto for playwright Will Eno (Middletown), the black comedy Smudge, and Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets, a playwright of The Group Theatre who has dropped out of fashion.

“Essentially it’s a group of people who want to act and direct and who really just like to work with each other,” says Scarpa of the group that is mostly funded by ticket sales. “Though we’re not all theater professionals we are all serious-minded artists who have found a place to express ourselves and to have some serious fun.”

Projects just bubble up, he says, and the most passionate advocate usually advances to the stage.

“And the group is supportive,” says Scarpa. “There are no egos in the room. It’s a group that wants to do good, honest work—and have a good time doing it. People like and respect each other. We’re friends. While there isn’t one over-arching artistic voice [like many theaters], when someone steps up and says, ‘I believe in this,’ the group rallies around it. The good ideas rise to the top and gain a momentum because people in the room want to work with each other in a positive way. It all sort of takes care of itself.”

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