Next act Shakespeare theater: Mothballs
STRATFORD — With a little imagination, one can almost hear the sonorous Richard Basehart as King Richard: “I weep for joy to stand upon my kingdom once again...” while on the stage of the long-shuttered American Shakespeare Festival Theatre on Elm Street.
Basehart said that line in ASFT’s 1962 season. That was in the theater’s glory years, its stage trod by such household names as Michael Moriarty, Jill Clayburgh, Katharine Hepburn, Kim Hunter, Hal Holbrook, Christopher Plummer, Roddy McDowall, Christopher Walken, Fritz Weaver and Fred Gwynne.
Now that the theater, with its teak-paneled walls and brass drinking fountains, will be mothballed — sealed up from the elements and from inquisitive rodents and raccoons — so this “town asset can be preserved,” according to Beth Daponte, who leads the subcommittee that’s overseeing the ASFT. It’ll likely remain in that state for years, until someone comes along to make a go at staging plays there again.
In recent days, a half-dozen contractors took a rare tour through the storied building and they’ll soon be bidding on the mothballing contract. Town officials say that this will cost less than $500,000, although the exact figure won’t be known until their bids are opened.
“It’ll cost less than what we thought at first,” said Beth Daponte, who heads the Shakespeare Subcommittee of the Town Council’s Building Needs Committee. “When it was built, no expense was spared, so it’s held up well over the years.”
Daponte is one of the ASFT’s biggest cheerleaders; she’s been fending off suggestions to tear the place down and be done with it.
“It’s a huge town asset and it has tremendous potential,” she said. “We’ve seen in other communities that the arts are a key part in their economic development. Having artistic life in a town attracts economic development.”
The town already has an assessment of how to go about mothballing the complex building from Marvel Architects, which specializes in saving and modifying historic buildings. The tour was led by Scott Demel, Marvel’s director, and Town Engineer John Casey.
Daponte said that this step should have taken place years ago, but fledgling attempts to resurrect the ASFT have gotten in the way of this because there was always a tantalizing plan and people with big dreams parading their ideas in Town Hall. Hope was placed in the hands of several developers over the years, their efforts always scuttled by missed deadlines, empty pockets and political infighting.
Big ideas take money, and the millions it would take to get the 63-year-old theater up and running again never seemed to materialize. Friday’s tour, for example, revealed that the building is filled with hundreds of new seats, all still in their boxes, from one such attempt in the 1990s to get it going again.
The ASFT had its first production, “Julius Caesar,” in 1955. It had its last last full season in 1982 with “King Henry IV,” “Twelfth Night” and “Hamlet” with Christopher Walken and Anne Baxter. In the 1960s and ’70s, buses filled with high school students from all over the Northeast pulled into the parking lots and some of those class trips came from as far away as Kansas and Louisiana.
Other production companies made attempts in the 1980s to keep the curtain from coming down for good, something that happened in 1989 with Fred Curchack’s one-person rendition of “The Tempest” — the last production on the Stratford stage.
Daponte, for now, is the chairwoman of the Town Council, an assignment that will end on Dec. 11 when the newly elected council takes their seats. She said that she’ll still be a member of the Shakespeare Subcommittee for the foreseeable future. She lost her bid to remain as the District 1 council seat in the Sept. 12 primary.
Marvel has a $90,000 contract with the town to come up with the mothballing plan, which also includes overseeing the project and other details. Some members of the Town Council balked at that idea, thinking that there might be a development plan around the corner, but no such deal materialized.
Officials say that the theater will be sealed up in the coming months, certainly by this time next year. .
The idea for theater was conceived in 1950 by Lawrence Langner and it was built with the help of Lincoln Kirstein and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed. When Reed died in 1973, the money to keep it going died with him. After that, it was a struggle keeping the curtain up.
The state took over the theater in 1983 and it’s been owned by the town of Stratford since 2005.
Daponte said that the town will OK a contractor on Wednesday, Dec. 20.