What does it take to create a brand-new theater company? For Fairfield Center Stage, the new nonprofit theater company in Fairfield, Connecticut, it takes resilience, creative thinking, a strong sense of community, and a little bit of luck.
Inspired by the concept of environmental theater, this innovative breath of fresh air for theater lovers is presenting a full first season of classic and cutting-edge shows: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie and Live Floor Show, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Dreamgirls, and more.
Fairfield Center Stage’s mission is to “lead a culturally diverse collective of local artists to provide a quality, accessible, and affordable theatre arts experience for the community, by the community.” I interviewed Artistic Director Christy Newsom to learn a little bit more about the genesis of this new company as well as the challenges it faces in its inaugural season.
The journey began in 2010 when Eli and Christy Newsom moved to Connecticut from New York and formed the non-profit Bridgeport Theatre Company. They produced a full season of shows at Bridgeport’s Playhouse on the Green – which closed immediately after the closing of their final show of the season. The Downtown Cabaret Theatre, also in Bridgeport, then invited the Newsoms to rent space in their space, where at the time they were running a successful children’s theater and hosting tribute bands and other concerts, but had not produced mainstage theater for a long time.
By 2015 Bridgeport Theatre Company had merged with the Downtown Cabaret and became Downtown Cabaret Main Stage. According the Christy, “We had it in our contractual agreement with the Cabaret that we would keep the non-profit Bridgeport Theatre Company dormant but we would still have our annual meetings and pay dues, so that in the event that anything should happen and the relationship faltered between the two organizations, we would still have that protection for ourselves.” Luckily, they had that, because at the end of the Cabaret’s 2017/2018 season, they found that Eli’s contract was not being renewed.
Christy explained, “Fairfield Center Stage is the ‘doing business as’ name for Bridgeport Theatre Company. We would not have been able to produce this season as quickly as we are doing if we hadn’t already had an active nonprofit. This is the second 2018-2019 season that we have planned. We planned the season at the Cabaret that is continuing to be produced without us at the helm. Once we found out that Eli was no longer going to be working for the Cabaret, we put this season together for Fairfield Center Stage in three days.”
The biggest problem they faced was that once again they found themselves without a venue. Being locals, the Newsoms have wanted to produce a show in Fairfield for a long time. While Fairfield does have The Fairfield Theater Company, it’s mostly a concert venue. Christy said, “So while we have been looking and waiting for this magical venue to appear, we said, we’re not going to let that stop us anymore so we’ll do a season of nomadic environmental theater that’s site-specific, and we can put the town of Fairfield ‘center stage’ by highlighting and using local venues.”
The town of Fairfield is certainly front and center in the amazing lineup of shows they have scheduled. Eli and Christy conceived the first show, The Music Man in Concert, which was performed in June, when they discovered the gazebo in Fairfield Center. Christy thought that it looked “like old school Americana; like we could do The Music Man here.” Unfortunately, the gazebo grounds are not quite large enough for a show, so they rented a stage nearby at the Fairfield Museum Commons and performed The Music Man for over 1,500 patrons.
Upcoming site-specific shows will be at local venues including Trevi Lounge, a gay bar, for performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in September and The Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie and Live Floor Show in October; the historical Burr Mansion for A Christmas Carol Experience in December; a beautiful, state-of-the-art 900-seat theater at Black Rock Church for the inspirational show Dreamgirls in March; and the picturesque Pequot Library for the musical based on the literary classic The Secret Garden in May.
These non-traditional venues will offer unconventional experiences for audiences as well as performers. The intimate Trevi Lounge will afford patrons unique opportunities for audience participation, especially with the showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, since there are three large screens. According to Christy, “It’s a different environment there than what we’re used to with a regular proscenium theater. The actors can really be integrated and weave through the audience.”
A Christmas Carol Experience will have the feel of the popular show Sleep No More, which has been running for years at New York’s McKittrick Hotel. Audiences will follow Scrooge and the ghosts through the mansion, witnessing Scrooge’s past, present, and future and then celebrating his transformation. The Secret Garden‘s first act will be performed inside the Pequot Library, the second in the beautiful library gardens.
Fairfield Center Stage is highlighting not only the physical community of Fairfield but also the community of actors and theater professionals who have worked with Eli and Christy over the years. When they left the Downtown Cabaret, Christy said they were very concerned about their staff members, actors, musicians, directors, choreographers, and colleagues who had committed their time and talents to working with them for the upcoming season and who might have been left wondering if they still had a job after the split.
“The urgency to create another season wasn’t just personal but it really felt like we owe this to our people, our staff members. We want to continue to be able to offer them jobs, and for our artists, we want to continue to be able to offer them performance opportunities.”
For Christy, “The support from our theater family has been completely overwhelming. What was a sad time could have been much, much sadder had we lost that community. The best part of all of this, in the unfortunate situation of having that artistic home being taken away from us, is that we’ve been able to create a new artistic home together with our family – I’m just over the moon about it.”
The company has already welcomed over 50 familiar faces for the cast of the Music Man in Concert, and will feature a cast of 70 for its fundraising Onward and Upward concert and silent auction in November. Additionally, Fairfield Center Stage is planning to bring back Equity actress Alana Cauthen to reprise the role of Effie in Dreamgirls, after her successful run with the touring company of Rent.
The season will also feature a new work by long-time collaborator and award-winning composer Clay Zambo, who has written a new musical, Vows, based on a New York Times column that tells real-life stories about how couples meet and fall in love. The challenge for the company will be finding real-life couples to play the couples in the show.
That casting challenge adds to the many tests that Fairfield Center Stage faces on bringing this environmental-theater concept to life. They have already dealt with extreme heat (during the outdoor concert in June). Upcoming trials include working in and around filled venues for rehearsals and potential last-minute move-ins to performance spaces.
There are also minor challenges to face, like secret stairways for actors to navigate in the mansion, and larger issues like dealing with weather for outdoor performances. Christy remains calm, however, saying, “I always say we get the season we were meant to have. So even though all of these things are exciting, there’s a little element of scary through all of them. But you know, that’s theater. If there’s not a little bit of scary, you’re not doing it right.”
For complete information about Fairfield Center Stage, or to purchase tickets, you can visit the company’s website. Hedwig and the Angry Inch opens September 7 at Trevi Lounge in Fairfield, CT.