From a Rectangular Box to a Hallowed Ground for Artists to Create
From its first days when it opened as a non-denominational church in the 1800s to its last stint as home to the rare Sicilian puppets of Sebastiano Zappala, the building at 128 Thimble Island Road in the Stony Creek section of Branford has been recreated many times, serving the community in a variety of ways.
It will reopen to the public again later this month to a sold-out crowd celebrating the first performance in the newly renovated Legacy Theatre, which is also offering a full season of more than two dozen plays, family events, and concerts, including Barefoot in the Park, which will start its run on Wednesday, April 28.
Keely Baisden Knudsen, Legacy Theatre’s artistic director and co-founder, says that play was picked because pandemic-weary theater-lovers, most of them deprived of in-person performances for more than a year, could really use a comedy right about now. Also, she adds, it is a “widely relatable piece for the moment, as many couples are spending more time together in quarantine than they have since they were newlyweds!”
In the play, Paul struggles to get his work done while also dealing with the constant attention—and demands—of his doting wife.
The season also includes Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, “one of the foundations of theatrical literature and...timeless tale of tragedy and fate”; Joan Joyce, a new “all-American musical” about one of the greatest athletes of all times; and several Broadway regulars in the Broadway Spotlight Series, including Marty Thomas, Coco Smith, Vishal Vaidya, and Michael Demby-Cain.
But on the night of the Grand Opening, Friday, April 23, while attendees will be entertained by a performance by Broadway’s Telly Leung, it’s certain that all eyes, as well, will be on the renovated theater itself. Knudsen says that, while the process, particularly over the past year of the pandemic, has offered many challenges, it was also a privilege to be able to see the project through to this point.
“I have always believed that a theater is a sacred space. To create theater in a space is to make that space hallowed ground for an artist to create. Although the theater itself is an erasable canvas of sorts, it houses emotional states of being—relationships, humanity, putting a mirror up to life in many instances,” she says. “The framework of these evolving pieces becomes a symbol and invites a state of being in and of itself: Once an audience member exits the lobby and enters the hallway into the theater proper, it is a rite of passage into a state of readiness, a readiness and expectation to be entertained, enlightened or challenged.”
The Past Informs the Present
As I stand in the lobby with Leonard Wyeth of Wyeth Architects in Chester, the lead architect on the project, he recounts the building’s history as easily as someone else might talk about their family tree.
“Let’s go back in history,” he says. “In the 1800s, just around the time the rail cars came through, there was a trolley that connected the whole shoreline to New York City. It was the blossoming of the machine age, and the Industrial Revolution. People had free time and vacation. The shoreline was exploding as a summer spot. They would come to the wooden hotels to escape the hot city and for relaxation. But there was some concern that all of these people in bathing suits and with free time on their hands were idle souls.”
He pauses for dramatic effect, turns towards me, and raises his eyebrows.
“And so they built a non-denominational church meeting house, with services on Wednesday and Sundays, to keep them from going too far astray,” he says.
Then came the silent movie house from the 1900s to about the 1920s. Then a local theater group grabbed it and, working on a shoestring budget, staged performances in the 1930s.
“This was just a rectangular box, with the back end serving as a stage,” he says, sweeping his hand to encompass the building.
Theaters in Boston, New York, and Providence usually shut down for the hot summers, so out-of-work actors and people hungry for performances came together for summer stock theater.
Then came World War II, which “ruined the summer theater business, and which ruined a lot of things.” Then it became a factory, for women’s underwear and then for parachutes. And when that business died, it became a puppet house and a venue for occasional concerts.
And that’s when Wyeth first stepped into the building, in the 1980s. Working as an architect by day, but pursuing his avocation as a musician and sound designer by night, he came to help with the performances.
As he surveys the work being finished now, he shakes his head gently, as if still somewhat amused by that.
“It’s fascinating to me that I was here in the 1980s, when it still had puppets hanging on the wall and was used as a concert venue and gathering venue,” he says. “It was still pretty much in its original condition.”
Which is to say, it was really run down.
During the time he was moonlighting doing sound and as a performer, he was urgently summoned to the building. He was told that the floor had blown up.
“And sure enough, I came through the front doors and the floor had erupted five feet, it was a mountain of a floor,” he says, holding his hand up about five feet off of the floor. The sump pump broke, and there was a massive amount of water under the floor—”Boy did it swell.”
His last view of the theater, at that time, was that it was “in pretty rough condition.”
Great Needs, Tight Building
The next time he saw it, several years ago when starting this project, he was surprised that it was in somewhat better condition, some of it having already been salvaged. And he began the intensely collaborative process of creating the new Legacy Theatre, taking into account the needs of a variety of stakeholders, from actors to the neighbors.
He once described the project as “the space needs are great and the existing building is tight.”
Our tour reveals how he and the others solved these challenges.
The challenges were significant, he says, the corners of his eyes above his mask showing a smile. There was no way to increase the footprint, or to increase the height of the compact building.
“The bigger the challenge, the better,” he says. He calls it a “Swiss watch design. Everything has to fit.”
We look up at the ceiling of the lobby, which appears to be an intricate design element.
“That’s the floor of the theater,” he says, pointing up to the ceiling and the space in front of us. “Southern yellow pine. Structural decking. Bolts holding the seats together. Pieces of metal, structural steel. We leave it all exposed. Why not celebrate it?”
The lobby does indeed look like a celebration and an invitation to explore further.
“We play some games with light,” he says, walking along a narrow hall towards the theater. “There’s a trick that everyone experiences but is seldom articulated.”
He explains that when you enter a building, you usually create a mental picture that shapes your conception of the whole space. He points out that the lights are shining up, rather from the top down, “highlighting what’s above you, making it more buoyant. And you walk into the theater through this narrow compressed space. And you walk into the main floor and...”
He stops, turns toward me, and gestures towards the space we’ve entered.
“You tell me,” he says.
After walking through the narrow hallway, I see an intimate, cozy theater that at the same time conveys a sense of joy and spaciousness. He nods.
“It just explodes. It feels giant again, even in this tiny building. There’s a game being played here shaping the impression in a theatrical way. It’s very much like a theatrical set. The whole building is like a theatrical set.”
It’s a theatrical set with very clean air run through MERV-13 filters and a UV-C light air filter. “It’s essentially operating room clean...It’s the healthiest air of any theater that I know, but I got a funny feeling that, in the not too far future, all theaters will be more like this” he says. “If you have allergies in the spring, being in here will be a great way to spend the evening.”
It is also, of course, designed to minimize any risk of patrons being exposed to the virus that causes COVID. And, he adds, masks and social distancing will be maintained to help ensure a safe experience.
On our way out of the theater at the end of the tour, we run across Jamie Burnett, a production and lighting designer from Luminous Environments, based in Durham, who is working on the lighting control system high above the stage. Burnett, famous locally for, among other projects, spectacular multi-media performance events in Branford’s quarries, pauses to talk with us. We end up in a conversation about fly pipes, wire on spindles, light loads. The system that will hold the lights, and scenery, and curtains at Legacy is new to the industry, and much lighter and more nimble. It became available in the middle of planning for the theater, and allowed the theater to get rid of the catwalks, which would have taken up more space, and allows those working on productions to do away with things like ladders when changing lights and scenery. It provides the theater crew with more options and flexibility, and the ability to create the magic faster and with greater ease. Burnett will be working on lighting design for Barefoot in the Park. “I’ve got it all designed and built,” he says, looking up at the rigging and sounding like a kid who’s been set loose in Jordie’s Toy Shoppe on Christmas Eve.
‘Sharing Our Own Legacies’.
Knudsen says that in this theater, each season, her goal is to showcase a world premiere, a musical, a straight play, and a classic.
This season, with the Black Lives Matter movement being of great import, she felt it was particularly important to ask difficult questions, as so she was drawn to the work of one of her favorite contemporary writers, Doug Lyons, who co-wrote a musical called POLKADOTS “that addresses the issues of race and deep-seeded prejudices head on, in a fun, upbeat and inspiring musical.”
That will be performed on Saturdays in May at 10 a.m. as part of the family series, “and [it] is a tremendous way to continue this important dialogue within our families,” she says.
Lyons will attend a talk back the second Saturday in May.
She’s also looking forward to staging Joan Joyce.
“Joan Joyce is known as one of the greatest athletes of all time! A Connecticut native, she has broken records in an alarming number of sports and is possibly best known for her softball records. A world premiere musical about her life, based on the book by Tony Renzoni, will be performed in June,” she says. “Now 80 and still coaching softball, Joan will attend the June 19 performance and be available for autographs, as restrictions permit.”
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, first performed in 429 BCE, “just after a plague that killed nearly one-third of the Athenian population,” seems a particularly inspired choice and will be performed late summer.
“The pandemic and issues in leadership feel alarmingly fresh, and I marvel at the immediacy of a piece written centuries ago,” she says. “As an artist, I am most interested in finding visual storytelling effects for this classic and am working with the famed world music percussionist Jarrod Cagwin to create an original score that will match the intensity and soul of the piece.”
She is thrilled to be offering all of this in the new building. She has nothing but praise for the team at Wyeth Architects, along with David Petersen. She says they were “a tremendous resource of knowledge, vision, and creativity, with ceaseless can-do attitudes, patience, generosity of spirit.”
“They have used every square inch to the advantage of the art-making and comfort for the audience, and Leonard’s keen ear for acoustics makes it an enviable performance hall,” she says.
She says the architecture of the theater carries with it the spirits of all the players that have gone before.
“I have always felt, especially in the most challenging phases of gaining permissions and approvals for this project, that ultimately as we succeeded in restoring this historic building, the spirits of those who have gone before, from Orson Welles to the members of the parish Players, to those we have lost from the puppet house era, egging me on and championing the process along the way,” she says. “After all, as Shakespeare wrote, man is but ‘a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more’; all we have to pass along is our own legacy. As this building is preserved and remains for the passing generations, it allows us passers-by to briefly share our own legacies within its common walls.”