Smart Investment: Performing Arts in the Valley

The performing arts have a vital impact on the quality of life in our Valley community.
There is no denying that the performing arts can have a vital impact on the quality of life in a community.

Theatre, dance and the like draw patrons and performers to a city or region for entertainment, education and employment.
"Valley Shakespeare Festival was started with the goal of becoming a nationally recognized regional theatre, to the area," explains Artistic Director Tom Simonetti. "We employ members of Actor's Equity as well as locals and offer an extremely rigorous summer intern program for youth who are interested in the arts as a profession."

Since its establishment in 2013, Valley Shakespeare Festival has created unique opportunities for people to experience the Bard: in the park, in the bar, and in school.

"Through polling, we found that most people are accustomed to going to New York or to New Haven and spending $500 for an evening of theatre where they feel alienated from what is happening," Simonetti says. "Valley Shakespeare Festival works to provide a much different experience and create new opportunities for the community to come together."

The annual Summer production is performed in Veteran's Memorial Park in Shelton, staged readings of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol are held every year at the Plumb Memorial Library, and the company adapts one of Shakespeare's works each year to be performed in a local bar or restaurant in the Valley. Last month, the company performed a condensed version of The Tempest at Porky's Café in Shelton.

"Theatre is immediate, immersive, and intimate and has pushed society's boundaries more than any other medium of story-telling out there," Simonetti says. "By truly experiencing a live performance and being an active audience member you can take away so much."

Derby Mayor Anita Dugatto agrees with that sentiment. The city's Sterling Opera House is a historic landmark set right in the middle of its downtown district. Its 125-year history includes legendary entertainment acts like Red Skelton, Harry Houdini and George Burns, and advocates for renovating the long-vacant venue want to see it return to that prestige.

"Having access to arts and culture is so important, because it transcends economic status in a community," Mayor Dugatto says. "It brings everybody to the same place."

The challenge, Mayor Dugatto says, will be getting the Sterling Opera House to be that place. Suggestions include renovating the first floor to be retail space, meanwhile launching an awareness campaign - across not only the region, but the entire state - to show what the Sterling Opera House is all about. That could bring additional funders to the table.

Across the Housatonic River, Center Stage Theatre has been providing a variety of performing arts experiences for the community for more than a decade.

"Many people are enriched in the process," says Francesca Scarpa, cofounder of Center Stage, which inhabits part of the former Lafayette School, renamed the Richard O. Belden Cultural Center in October. "Our patrons, the children who benefit from our educational programs, the adults who volunteer as actors, set builders and seamstresses and everyone who continues to make Center Stage a vibrant part of our community."

Education, and literacy, are also priorities for Valley Shakespeare Festival. Last year, at the request of the Shelton Board of Education, the company created an Education Initiative that could be brought into the public schools. A shortened production of As You Like It was presented to fourth graders across town. This year, the Initiative will extend to libraries and other community centers.

"We wanted to make sure that we would be able to help schools and other organizations through performing these older texts," explains Simonetti. "It was encouraging to hear teachers express their desire to see more programs like this, noting that it's the first time many of their students had experienced live theatre."