A memory About the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre

Naugatuck Patch Theatre Reviewer Nancy Sasso Janis shares some memories about the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre, affectionately known at the Shakespeare Theatre.

Dedicated to the memory of my father, Austin N. Sasso

It was the norm when I was in high school in Stratford to attend at least one Shakespeare play every year at the American Shakespeare Theatre and no one misses this theater more than me.
– From Nancy Sasso Janis’ review of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS at Hartford Stage

Early Sunday morning, I was heartbroken to read that the beloved Shakespeare Theatre was gone forever. A treasure has been lost…

The theater that I loved had opened in my hometown before I was born. Some of the most famous stars, like Katherine Hepburn, had graced its stage before I was old enough to attend a Shakespeare play. However, I have strong memories of taking field trip after field trip with my middle school and high school English classes to experience high quality productions at our hometown theater after studying the texts in class. I wish I could remember the titles of all of the works of the Bard that we enjoyed; I do remember that when our classes got off the school buses after our brief commute from across town, we got in line with students that had traveled great distances from all around the region.

I am certain that I got to see the renowned performance of Morris Carnovsky in the title role of King Lear. I distinctly remember the teacher who chaperoned our trip to the performance noting how she could tell which teens in the audience had read the play before attending the production. Those students that had studied the tragedy before the show sat forward in their seats at the most dramatic point in the tragedy, the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes. I know for sure that I saw a play with Christopher Plummer, remembering him from one of the first films I ever saw in a movie theatre, The Sound of Music.

Another distinct memory was the production of Twelfth Night featuring Fred Gwynne (of Herman Munster fame) as Sir Toby Belch, Caroline McWilliams as Olivia and Carole Shelley in the role of Viola. Ms. Shelley’s performance has stuck with me because she broke the fourth wall at the matinee performance filled with middle and high school students, some of whom were behaving very badly. In the middle of her performance, she stopped and basically told the students who were talking to stop doing so, threatening to make the play “very, very boring” if they did not. Those of us whose behavior was not embarrassing their teachers gave a collective sigh of relief; as I recall, the audience behavior did improve for the remaining scenes. It was an early theatre memory I will never forget.

As a young child, I was thrilled to attend the annual Christmas party sponsored by my father’s employer AVCO Lycoming at the Shakespeare Theatre. The company would rent the building for the afternoon and after a short program, the curtains would open to reveal the stage full of wrapped gifts for the employee’s children. Parents would then escort their children onto the stage to get the gift appropriate for their age from employees dressed as elves. I vividly remember my dad navigating the onstage aisles to help all five of his offspring secure the correct gift.

Many years later, I brought my sister with me to a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in our hometown theatre. We loved the music of JCS and I remember that a hanging jacket was used for Judas’ final scene.

Sadly, the theater stopped producing plays in the early 80s and I have been following the ongoing talks about how to revitalize the property, knowing that the chances of it being restored to its former glory as a theater were slim. I somehow hoped that at least the shell of the building would remain standing on its historic site.

I was excited to return to the grounds of the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in my hometown of Stratford CT. It didn’t matter that I had to bring my lawn chair and bug spray or even that no one was allowed into the once beautiful theater that I remembered from my visits when I was just a teen-aged Shakespeare lover. I could not miss a chance to see a production of a play by William Shakespeare on the historic grounds with a lovely view of Long Island Sound and I claimed a spot on the lawn with a large crowd for opening night of The Taming of the Shrew performed by Connecticut Free Shakespeare in 2016.

Reaction online has been a sea of crying emojis.

Writer/director/producer Chip Deffaa posted this message on his Facebook page:

Oh! I’m sorry to see this… I certainly have good memories of seeing Shakespeare there as a youth…. Many high-schools in the Tri-State region took field trips to this Connecticut theater (which, sadly, has been vacant in recent years). The property itself is valuable. And clearing the site by fire will no doubt benefit some future commercial developer…. I wish a theater could be rebuilt on the site, but I have a hunch that’s not going to happen…

Costumer Renee Purdy eloquently posted her th0ughts:

A true Shakespeare tragedy…an immeasurable loss to those dedicated to efforts to restore this beautiful, history filled space. A loss to the entire theatre community. Such a sad and unnecessary loss.

State Senator Kevin Kelly posted his thoughts on Facebook

The tragic loss of our theater, a integral part of our community history, is devastating. Not only is this an enormous loss for Stratford, but also for our entire state. The Shakespeare Theatre was a cultural and artistic icon. Its history is something we must never forget. As a Stratford resident and long time advocate for preserving the landmark, today is particularly heartbreaking. The paramount focus right now must be on public safety and I want to thank all the first responders, fire, police and EMS who are working to ensure the public remains safe.

From Macbeth:

“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

(Act V, Scene V, Line 23)

Rest in peace, American Shakespeare Festival Theatre.

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