No one will mistake the Ridgefield Theater Barn for an opulent theatrical venue. Its name recalls the building’s original purpose as a dairy barn on a farm owned by a local monastery.
“We have limited stage space and backstage space and we don’t have any wing space, so we have to think about the staging,” explained Pamme Jones, the theater’s executive director.
But achieving more with less has been a trademark of this Ridgefield nonprofit since its opening in 1965. The theater’s February presentation, Joe Simonelli’s comedy “Old Ringers,” involved a single set — a well-worn downstairs level of a down-at-the-heel home — yet the perceived limits of this unchanging setting were expanded with a kitchen sink with running water and cabinets full of dishes and glassware that are used during the show. And Jones noted that the theater’s next presentation, its annual “An Evening of One Act Plays” that opens March 8, will be “presented in a black box style — everyone will use the same black theater blocks to stage it, simply because it is too complicated to build nine sets for the nine plays we are staging.”
Even the audience seating has been reconfigured to give a greater impression of space: a spread of cabaret-style seating that enables the audience to watch the performance while having tables to put whatever drink or food they bring with them.
“We seat 72,” Jones said, adding the inspiration to move away from traditional theater seating came from visits to cabaret venues in Manhattan. “We had some restaurant people come in and … switch it up.”
Although Ridgefield Theater Barn operates as a community theater — actors perform for the love of their craft and not the pursuit of cash — Jones pointed out that its ability to produce provocative dramas and ebullient comedies has earned it a strong reputation beyond the town. This is evident in its one-act play presentations, which require a separate artistic committee to review the submissions for consideration.
“Last year we had more than 70 plays submitted and we read all of the plays,” Jones recalled. “We really love to use unpublished local playwrights — and local for us can mean Pennsylvania. They don’t all come from Fairfield County. Last year we had a wonderful play come our way from L.A. and we loved the play, so we did it.”
The one-act play offerings are not conceived around a specific theme, but Jones explained that “some sort of arc arises organically from all of the plays that have been presented. This year all of the plays have a loose arc about women making strong choices.”
The theater runs on an annual operating budget of roughly $280,000. Thanks to a mix of shows ranging from contemporary classics like August Wilson’s “Fences” and Sam Shepherd’s “True West” plus an occasional special event like Simonelli’s “Old Ringers” (which had its Connecticut premiere at the theater) and a thriving children’s theater workshop program, the Ridgefield Theater Barn has not been burdened with money woes.
“We are very lucky to be a theater that is able to self-produce and stay in the black,” Jones said. “That alone is an enormous accomplishment. We have not relied heavily on fund raising in the past.”
The theater is heading into a new direction that erases a key burden of its tight spaces.
“We are venturing into official, honest-to-God fund raising because we are going to be starting a capital drive for our expansion,” said Jones. “In order to build a show out, we have to go dark and empty out because we have no place where to build. Out in the back, we are going to be adding 1,100 square feet — it’s going to be a wood shop, props and wings space. While this show is going on, we can be building for the next show, shut down for 48 hours and get the next show up and running. Otherwise, we shut down for three or four weekends and we can’t do anything.”
The theater is also expanding in its downstairs space, with Jones envisioning “a series of classrooms and black box theater with traditional theater seating. It will be a great place for us to do play readings, stand-up comedy, workshops. The walls will be retractable, and we will be able to rent out space to professional organizations looking for space to meet. And we can put in a catering kitchen to do nice events.”
Jones puts the goal for this capital drive at around $500,000. Town permits for the construction have been obtained and final meetings with the project’s engineers are scheduled, while the exact details and deadlines for the fund-raising are still in the works.
While the expansion project rolls out, the Ridgefield Theater Barn is already looking ahead to its final work of the 2018-2019 season, a staging of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” that opens May 21, and the 2019-2020 season is being formulated with two musicals (“The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “Schmorgasbord!”) plus the vintage Neil Simon favorite “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”