NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Will the final headline read “All’s Well That Ends Well” or “Much Ado About Nothing”?
Yet another group of developers and theater professionals is going to try its hand at reviving the former American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Conn.
Koerner Kronenfeld Partners of New York, a public affairs/strategic planning corporation with connections in the legit industry, received the green light this month to present a plan and negotiate with the town of Stratford to renovate and run the moribund theater, opened in 1955 and shuttered since the late ’80s.
Last year, the town was given ownership by the state of the 1,500-seat theater on 14.5 acres of prime real estate overlooking Long Island Sound. State has been trying unsuccessfully for more than a dozen years to seal development deals.
The Shakespeare Theater has seen more than 20 years of broken promises to return it to its glory days of the 1950s and ’60s, when there was a deep-pocketed angel in founder Lawrence Langner and no competition from places like the present Stamford Center for the Arts, Long Wharf Theater in New Haven and a year-round Westport Country Playhouse.
This month, the town council voted to pursue a plan and a long-term lease with Koerner Kronenfeld, whose preliminary outline boasts George White, founder and former director of the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, as its artistic head; general theater managers Leonard Soloway and Steven Levy; and as dramaturg Howard Kissel, New York Daily News theater critic, who will be leaving that post to become an arts and culture writer for the paper. (A critic to succeed Kissel has yet to be named.)
Koerner will be president of the corporation, with his partner Ivan Kronenfeld serving as exec VP. In its “management team” are Soloway and Levy, who will oversee theater and production general management; Ellen Jacobs for marketing and development; Leo Meyer as artistic director of musical theater; Joseph Patria for facilities management; and Candice Korner for education and outreach.
Koerner says his firm will enter into negotiations this week with the town to create “a deal based on balancing risks and rewards.” He says his company will be assessing details of how much it would cost to bring the theater up to code and beyond. He estimates $5 million would be needed to fix up the theater and start a year of programming and outreach.
Details and final approval of the development are still being worked out. In the outline submitted to the town, a not-for-profit corporation will run the renovated facility, which has been boarded up since 2002 and in need of significant repair. White and Kissel propose a permanent repertory company presenting two seasons of 10 weeks each, a holiday musical and educational outreach. The plan calls for $2.5 million to bring the building up to “working standards” and the two theatrical seasons, costing $750,000.
Financing is still a major sticking point, as it has been for past plans. The working-class town, not part of the state’s wealthy “Gold Coast” communities, will not subsidize the new operation, says Mayor James R. Miron, and little help is anticipated from the state. Miron says he wants to see some productions under way as early as the summer, even if they take place on the theater grounds.
The outline calls for corporate sponsors (including naming rights), education grants and private support.
After the deal with the town is set, Koerner will solidify the White-Kissel artistic plan, which centers on Shakespeare and musical productions, and then try to get corporate support, which he says is key to the project. If the funds from the business community are not there, he says the project would be very dicey.
White says he will develop several artistic plans but that they will be determined by the amount of financing that can be raised. White, who is still a behind-the-scenes fund-raiser for the O’Neill and Yale School of Drama, says his role is exclusively an artistic one. He will not act as a fund-raiser for the new endeavor.
At the tail end of the legislative sessions, state legislators approved $200,000 for the new theater. The town has already paid about $300,000 in debts accumulated by the previous not-for-profit board to wipe out the liens on the property and theater.