Exploring 'the joy and the terror of the theater' at TheatreWorks New Milford
If the walls could talk inside the Brookside Avenue structure that houses TheatreWorks New Milford, you'd probably hear lots of praying.
The 1901 building was originally a church, so those early prayers were likely the religious kind. But now that it's been a community theater for 40-plus years, the prayers have a different ring to them. More like, "Please don't let me forget my lines!"
That's definitely one of them, said program manager Tom Libonate, of Danbury. Another is "Please let that sound or light cue go off when it needs to." That's important because, "How can an actor react to a gunshot that never happens?" Libonate said.
And finally, "Please let all my props be in order."
"Nothing like walking onto a stage with no knife when you have to stab someone in the climax," Libonate said.
Of course, if the walls really could talk, you'd also hear lots of laughter and music, as well as applause. TheatreWorks has grown quite successful these past four decades. The question is: How did the group achieve its success and what are the challenges?
One answer to the first part is that they're always on the go. For example, casting took place in early December for this year's first production, a comedic drama called "The Lyons." Rehearsals started in January for the Friday, Feb. 20, opening.
"This comedy has a biting edge to it," said production manager Rich Pettibone, of New Milford. "It kicks off with the husband laying in a hospital room, dying, while his wife flips through a magazine, talking about how she's going to redecorate when he's gone. They start arguing -- you get an idea of the type of comedy this is."
Much of the story takes place in that hospital room. Pettibone said since everyone knows very well what a hospital room looks like, it's important to "achieve a level of realism" with the set. Paying attention to such details is part of the company's recipe for success.
Naturally, there are challenges with that quest for "the right look" and perfect props. Each show has a budget. Pettibone said the average play runs about $10,000 to $12,000, while musicals are upwards of $20,000.
When they do something special, such as bringing puppetry into the mix for a show like "Avenue Q," costs go up. For that fall show, they needed to hire an orchestra and a professional instructor to help the actors learn how to handle their puppets.
"If you increase the complexity of the show, you increase the cost," Pettibone said. If the budget isn't there, you have to get creative. That's what they had to do with "Our Country's Good."
"The show required traditional British Redcoat uniforms, but they were ridiculously expensive. We had eight men who needed to be costumed for one scene, but we were only able to afford two uniforms."
They solved the problem by giving the uniforms to the two lead actors and constructing the rest. "It was not as elaborate, but it worked out," he said. "Just a little bit of theater legerdemain (slight of hand)."
Choosing the right mix of shows is important, too. "We have a selection committee," said Pettibone, who is involved in it with other members including TheatreWorks president Glenn R. Couture, of Ansonia.
"Glenn and I were involved in choosing `The Lyons' -- it's fresh and hasn't been seen in the area before. We try to get newer pieces and balance them with the occasional chestnut. So far, so good. We'll see how the audience responds. That's always the question. That's the joy and terror of the theater. You do all this work and see how the audience responds."
Couture has been involved in TheatreWorks since 2002. "For me it's a chance to play characters that aren't necessarily me," said the Norwalk High School physics teacher. "There are wonderful, creative and dedicated people here who I have been fortunate to work with."
Bill Hughes, a former board member and artistic director, is also among several TheatreWorks people who have worked on Broadway. He was involved in the set and costume designs, as well as the script, for the 1977 production of "Dracula" with Frank Langella. He also worked as a rehearsal scene partner with Richard Burton in "Equus."
But you don't need to be a Broadway veteran to join TheatreWorks. Their shows are open to professionals as well as amateurs. They even offer a stipend to all performers, technicians and directors.
Robin DeJesus was a Norwalk High School student when he joined the TheatreWork's production of "Sweeney Todd," over the summer when he was 16. Today he's 30, and playing a munchkin called Boq in Broadway's "Wicked."
"I had dreamed of a career in theater; it sort of became possible that summer. It really affected me," said DeJesus, who has twice been nominated for a Tony Award.
"We have been blessed with great talent to choose from," Couture said. "We have worked with people who have done professional Broadway shows, and people who have never been on stage before. Each person brings something different."
TheatreWorks New Milford, 5 Brookside Ave., Friday, Feb. 20, to Saturday, March 14. $23, $18 for students and military personnel with ID, 860-350-6863, theatreworks.us.
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