An Equity Theater Grows in Ridgefield by Geary Danihy

A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut co-founder, Daniel Levine.

By my count there are 15 Equity theaters in Connecticut, that is, theaters operating under some form of an Equity contract, plus over 60 other theater companies of various sizes. One would think that, theatrically speaking, Connecticut is pretty well covered, but Daniel Levine doesn’t think so. The Ridgefield resident had a dream, but unlike most dreams, this one is actually coming true. Soon there will be an Equity theater in Ridgefield, operating under the name of A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, or ACT of CT (not to be confused with the 4-hour test Connecticut high school students might take). The gestation of the company, and the creation of the theater that will house it, is just as serendipitous as how Levine first got involved in theater.

I met with Levine at a Ridgefield coffee house recently to talk about the birth pangs of ACT. As he sipped an iced coffee, he reminisced about the rather circuitous route he took that eventually led him to Broadway, and finally to ACT.

“I’ve been a Broadway actor since the 90s,” he said, but that hadn’t been in his life plan, although there were hints. “I grew up in Boston and I was at Brandeis, studying theater arts and pre-med.” (Go figure.) “So I graduated and there was this decision I had to make: I loved theater so much but I was also excellent in pre-med so, do I move to New York, try to be an actor and see what happens or should I go to medical school? I just didn’t know what to do. I’d never been to New York – I didn’t know if I could be competitive. So, in my sort of juvenile mind I said, you know what I’ll do, I’ll be a dentist.”

That’s right, a dentist. So Levine enrolled in Tufts University’s school of dental medicine. It was during his second year of study in oral surgery that he went to New York and saw “Les Miz.”

“I said to myself, I want to be in that show. So, I saw they were having auditions, big open calls to cast the next Marius for “Les Miserables” and I said I’m going to go – it would be my first professional audition – let me see if I can do this…and, well, I got the role. So I dropped out of Tufts and joined the cast of ‘Les Miz’ for three years.”

Obviously, that opened the door and erased all interest in bicuspids. Not only did his stint in “Les Miz” earn him his Equity card it led to roles in “Chicago,” “Mamma Mia!,” the revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway, “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Tommy,” and, oddly enough, “Little Shop of Horrors,” in which he played…you guessed it…the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. “That was a full circle moment,” Levine said, “because I finally got to live out my parents’ dream of me becoming a dentist.” Locally and more recently, he played Che in MTC’s production of “Evita.”

Levine, obviously, is an established Broadway actor with a lot of credits. So, what led him to Ridgefield? His brother and family live around Ridgefield, so about six years ago he was visiting them, fell in love with the town and bought a weekend house there. Although he was still working on Broadway he eventually was introduced to the Ridgefield Playhouse and he was asked to curate the Broadway and Cabaret series at the theater. “So I came on as artistic director of the series,” he said. The goal, he explained, was to bring more “Broadway” to Ridgefield. The Playhouse, which offers approximately 250 shows a year – singers, rock groups, comedians, etc., — is what is called a presenting theater. In other words, it doesn’t produce shows but rather books them and provides the wherewithal for the performances.

“I thought there was an audience for theater,” Levine said, “so I created this great series, not only bringing Broadway stars to Ridgefield – last year I had Betty Buckley, I had Lea Salonga, Stephen Schwartz, Joel Grey – but I had the idea to present full-length Broadway shows in concert with an all-star Broadway cast using some of the original stars of the shows. So, three years ago we did ‘Tommy.’ It was such a huge hit – I mean people went absolutely crazy. It was sold out immediately.”

A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut co-founder, Katie Diamond.

Last year Levine directed “Jesus Christ Superstar” with an all-star cast and again it sold out. This year he’ll be directing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” although it is yet to be cast. During this process, Levine’s sense that there was a market for legitimate theater in Ridgefield grew. “What I’ve realized and what I’ve learned, living in Ridgefield and working at the Playhouse,” he said, “is that there is a desire for more Broadway and more musicals in this community, and there’s not a ton of Equity theaters in the area.” So, the seeds were sown and now all that was needed was a little rain and some fertilizer.

“So, I have a friend who also lives here,” Levine said. “Her name is Katie Diamond – she was in ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘The Pirate Queen’ – and we sat here one day and were talking about theater and how great this community is and we thought, what if we can figure out how to open our own small professional Equity theater here in Ridgefield? We started asking around and people – there’s a lot of money in Ridgefield – they said, ‘Oh, my God, I’d invest in that.’”

There is such a thing as timing – as a matter of fact, some believe that timing is everything. As Levine and Diamond were starting to float the idea of creating an Equity theater in Ridgefield they learned there was a property in Ridgefield called the Schlumberger property, located about a mile from the coffee shop where Levine and I met. The property, between Old Quarry Road and Sunset Lane, had been the research facility for an oil corporation, and the corporate digs had been designed by Philip Johnson, so the complex of buildings had historical importance, but it had been vacant for over seven years after the corporation moved to Cambridge, MA.

The town, not wanting to destroy the buildings because of their architectural importance, held onto them, but there was no idea about what to do with them. Some of the property was sold off for construction of condominiums and some of the buildings were finally razed, but the auditorium and an adjacent building still stood.

The town started polling the residents to find out what they wanted to do with the property: A park? A baseball field? A library? Many of the residents responded that they would like to see it become an arts complex.

So Levine and Diamond were sitting in a coffee shop dreaming about opening an Equity theater and the town was wondering what to do with the remaining Schlumberger property. Gee, an auditorium designed by Philip Johnson. What if…?

The Schlumberger property, future home of A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut.

Levine and Diamond met with the town’s First Selectman, who told them if they could figure out how to pull this off he would present it to the town’s “Schlumberger committee.” However, there were problems with the auditorium. Five years ago there had been a severe internal flood – pipes had burst because the building hadn’t been heated. The inside of the auditorium had been destroyed, it was just a shell. Undaunted, Levine and Diamond went forward, meeting with the committee and forming a board for the project. Eventually it went to a town vote, and no one objected at the meeting, so it was a go, save for the fact that it was going to cost a hell of a lot of money to bring the 180-seat auditorium back to life, the responsibility for which fell on ACT’s shoulders. Eventually, it was estimated that the entire renovation would run close to $1,500,000, half of which has now been raised.

Construction has begun. Necessary demolitions occurred in early July and the renovations begin in August. The auditorium is now gutted and ACT is working with architects that specialize in theater design to make sure that what rises out of the rubble is a state-of-the-art theater.

One problem that immediately became apparent was that the theater would have limited wing space (i.e., space to the left and right of the stage proper) and absolutely no fly space (space above the proscenium where scenery can be stored and lowered). What to do? The problem was discussed at a board meeting. Somebody said, “The best way to solve this problem is to install a turntable, like the one used in ‘Les Miz” and ‘Hamilton.’” Right. A turntable, a massive piece of equipment, very expensive, probably close to $350,000.

Levine smiled. “One of our board members said, ‘You know, I really like this idea,’ and she wrote a check for the turntable.” Ah, there’s nothing like living in Ridgefield.

Plans are to have a gala opening of the facility in May of 2018 and stage their first show in June. They have options for two blockbusters but Levine didn’t want to say which they’ve committed to. The announcement should come in several weeks.

“The plans are to do a four-show season,” Levine said. “Three musicals and one play. The season will run from September to June, all of them under Equity contracts. Our goal is to cast most of the principals as Equity. The model will be somewhat similar to that at Westport Country Playhouse.”

There are some heavy guns behind the planned productions. Levine will be the artistic director and Diamond will serve as executive director. Bryan Perry, Levine’s husband, who is currently the music director and conductor for “Wicked” on Broadway, will be the music supervisor, and then there’s Stephen Schwartz, a Ridgefield resident and the man responsible for such musicals as “Pippin,” “Godspell” and “Wicked.”

“Stephen is a friend of mine,” Levine said. “I’ve worked with Stephen on a lot of projects and when I pitched him the idea he said: ‘I love this. I would love to have an Equity theater here. How can I be involved?’”

Levine had several suggestions. First, he offered Schwartz the opportunity to become an artistic advisor, and the icing on the cake: he suggested that ACT produce a “Stephen Schwartz series,” so that for the first four seasons there would be three Stephen Schwartz musicals boarded. Schwartz, apparently, was pleased with the idea.

Levine believes that “the more arts in a community the better for everyone.” Thus, beyond the four-show season, there are plans for a number of programs to make the venue a “true arts destination.” Levine and Diamond hope that the venue will workshop new musicals as well as create a young adult (basically high school students) theater conservatory. He also wants to hold a Master-Class series, bringing in theater professionals to teach classes on music theater auditioning and theater dancing, among other topics. “Because we’re so close to New York,” Levine said, “we can do that.”

Levine’s career path has veered in the direction of producing and directing and he doesn’t see himself going back to a Broadway show schedule, although he’s open to doing local runs as he did at MTC.

As a producer and director he has several shows currently touring the country and Schwartz got him involved in producing shows for the Princess Cruise Lines, shows that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else. Of that experience Levine says: “I learned so much about the technical aspects of theater. As an actor you’re sitting at a tech (a rehearsal devoted to checking sound, lighting and all the other things that can go bump in the theater) but you don’t really understand about the creation of a set, or being asked by the scenic designer, ‘What are your feelings about how “Hairspray” needs to feel, how is it different from how it was done on Broadway?’ I learned so much and I don’t think I would have been comfortable being the artistic director of this new theater if it weren’t for the Princess experience. It was like theater undergraduate school, and then graduate school.”

Dreams often die aborning, but it sounds like the dream of opening an Equity theater in Ridgefield is well on its way to becoming a reality. Levine realizes that there will be obstacles to overcome, surprises not envisioned, but he and Diamond have the community behind them, and their deep connections with Broadway can’t hurt. If all goes well, in about a year the curtain will rise on ACT’s first production, and after that, well: “We’ve got magic to do…Just for you / We’ve got miracle plays to play / We’ve got parts to perform….Hearts to warm / Kings and things to take by storm / As we go along our way.”