Big Drama at FTC



Photographs: Jayne Atkinson by Kristin Burke/Peter Baker Studios; B.B. King, K.D. Lang and Tom Tom Club by Mike Thut

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Theater is the art of transformation — turns out, it’s savvy business, too.

Incendiary music, martinis, late-night strolls — sounds like something we would all be enjoying if the economic gray cloud over our heads would move along. But don’t give up the idea just yet. A silver lining has been spotted in downtown Fairfield, where you can have just such a night out. It’s local (save on gas and train fare), inexpensive (less than half the cost of a Broadway ticket), and philanthropic (this not-for-profit venue gives back to the community).  Neighbors, meet the Fairfield Theatre Company (FTC).

Low, squat and looking a whole lot more like a psychedelic widget factory than a first-rate performing arts center, FTC sits on a corner facing a Metro-North station. Inside, there’s no orchestra pit or fly system; you have to turn sideways to get through the backstage area; and the 200-seat space is so small that when celebrated jazz guitarist Al DiMeola performed there the first time, he strummed a few lazy chords, looked around and remarked, “My bathroom is bigger than this theater.” Even at midday, the room is pitch dark; the stage floor is painted a dull black to suck up errant bits of light. Yet, remarkably, theatricality pulses throughout the space —perhaps that’s because growing the business, itself, has been a series of dramatic transformations.

 

 

Act 1: Scene Setting

The more than a thousand days of programming — plays, concerts, staged readings, educational programs, lectures, acting workshops, storytelling, cabaret camp for kids and film nights — started at FTC in 2004 with a trio of theater enthusiasts. The founders were Fairfield resident and actor Donald Warfield; actor and educator Stephen Stout; and Miles Marek, a producer, designer and actor with experience running a construction company — skills he had no idea he would use some day in theater. FTC began by scouring New York City for edgy, thought-provoking plays and bringing them back, intact, to its educated suburban audience. It did so, starting in 2001, in a tiny space at Fairfield University. The work was high-caliber, but hauling fully produced Actors’ Equity productions sixty-five miles up the line involves many people, lots of meetings and a bucket of money. The business had to refocus quickly.

Board member Keir Dullea and his wife, Mia Dillon, both actors, revamped the business plan with advice from their neighbor Alan Neigher, an entertainment lawyer. Then the university announced that it could no longer rent space to FTC. In looking for a new home, the theater lost Warfield, who returned to his own acting career, and added Jeff Provost as managing director. FTC had set the stage for its second act.

Act 2: Transformation

Peter Penczer, immediate past president of the FTC Board of Directors (also a real estate developer and a lawyer), remembers when Marek asked him to help find a new home for the company, “I showed him several places, but the best by far was the space that the town Parks and Recreation Department had vacated.”

Neigher and Penczer helped write the application and negotiate a thirty-year lease after convincing First Selectman Kenneth Flatto that a not-for-profit performance arts center would benefit downtown. “I’m not really a ‘theater person,’ ” says Penczer, “but I like to make things happen.” That he did: The new place cost $1 per year and a portion of the ticket sales. Also, its cavernous rooms had to be converted into a workable theater.

“The place was dilapidated, with leaks and mold,” says Flatto. “They would have to transform the place.”

FTC completed the renovation in a startling eighty days, thanks to Marek’s expertise and the help, much of it at cost, of General Contractor Jack Simmons of John Simmons Associates, who takes no credit. “Anybody can build a building,” he says with a shrug. “It’s what you do with it afterward that counts.”

In May 2004 FTC put on its first play, but the company was already running out of money and needed to change direction yet again. “ ‘Theater only’ wasn’t working,” says Neigher. “Too much dark time. They had to turn to something that would increase cash flow.” Music was their answer.

“With theater, you have to have all the money up front,” Neigher explains. “You can’t pay with ticket sales.” Bringing a play to the stage costs upwards of $50,000. For a fraction of that, FTC could book a national touring act and sell out the house. FTC figured the market for popular music could be ten times that of theater.

“Anybody can build a building. It’s what you do with it afterward that counts.” — Jack Simmons

Bassist Brian Torff was one of Marek’s first choices. Torff is the musical director at Fairfield University and has played with Cleo Laine, Stephane Grappelli and Erroll Garner. During a sound check Torff remarked, “The acoustics are fabulous. We hardly need speakers.” FTC hadn’t counted on that good luck.

“God smiled on us,” says Neigher today. “Performers love the space.”

Changes in programming incurred changes in management. With the departure of Stout and Provost, Marek called himself the “last man standing,” though he was soon surrounded by dedicated volunteers and staff, including Eileen O’Reilly, managing director; Trevor Sylvestro, marketing director; and Tyler Grill, artist relations and new business development director.

“Everyone doubles as something,” says Marek. “The people who have signed on to be part of this have really stuck it out through some tough times.” He laughs. “I’m particularly proud of our website. I tried to get some seats for the Philharmonic the other day and it took me over an hour — this, from one of the largest not-for-profit cultural organizations in the world. And anyone can log on to our website, for a scrappy little theater in small-town America, and subscribe in less than a minute or two.”

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