When Ed and Melody Libonati launched Summer Theatre of New Canaan in 2004, they needed about 50 people, including local actors, to put on their live shows—Shakespeare in the restored walled garden at Waveny, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Saxe Middle School.
For the season featuring “Singin’ in the Rain” that closed last week, the longtime town residents required nearly 125 staff members and another 40-plus volunteers to put their performances at the tent in Waveny near the New Canaan High School parking lot.
In order to continue its program and move toward a sustainable model, the nonprofit organization now must get to a point where it’s revenue from programming exceeds that which comes in through fundraising, according to Ed Libonati, STONC’s executive producer.
“To get on a more sustainable trajectory for our organization, we need a large venue,” he told NewCanaanite.com recently when asked about the future of STONC in town.
“We also need to amortize the cost of the people that we hire and we can do that by spreading out over a longer season, as well.”
The demand for STONC’s award-winning shows is there for that longer season, according to Libonati, and a more permanent, traditional facility would allow the organization to meet it.
“Many people will not come to this [the current tent] because it’s too difficult for them, many seniors or people with disabilities find it challenging, and seniors make up about one-third of our audience—traditionally, they make up more,” he said. “Sometimes having to get out on a rainy day—not so much on a nice night but going out on a bad day and the walk to get to the tent, it works against us, in one sense.”
STONC has conducted surveys over the past few years, Libonati said, asking people if they would prefer Summer Theatre to be in a more traditional venue, to remain under the tent or whether it doesn’t matter to them, and 75 percent say they would prefer it to be under a tent or that it doesn’t matter.
The program would seek to find an interior space that would roughly double current capacity, to 400 or 500 seats, he said.
If critics are to be believed, there’s little question that the quality of the programming is as good as other theatre companies with permanent homes.
This past year, STONC was the second-most-nominated theater company in the entire state by the Connecticut Critics Circle, a professional organization of theater reviewers. Last summer’s “West Side Story” received seven nominations, including best musical, best director, best choreographer, best leading actor, best leading actress, best featured actor and best featured actress.
Companies such as Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse put on far more than one major show per year and do not face the same practical challenges of operating out of a tent that STONC does, Libonati said.
“The short story is, we are looking to expand our programming beyond the summer,” he said. “We have already expanded our theater for young audience program, and we now have a touring shows across Connecticut and in elementary schools and performing arts centers. Along those lines, we plan to start kids’ shows throughout the year and we are looking out for a smaller venue to put them on in, whether that’s a building here in New Canaan or at the schools on particular weekends we are still exploring. But we are going to start offering children’s shows throughout the year to keep our name out there and to help get additional revenue.”
Currently, revenue from ticket sales comes from New Canaan people as well as those in a 30-mile radius, Libonati said—including Greenwich, Darien, Stamford, Ridgefield, Norwalk, Wilton, Weston, Redding and Lewisboro, N.Y.
“However, New Canaan is our home—we are 30-year residents here and New Canaan has a great appreciation and respect for the theater. We are supported quite well in this community and this becomes during the summer and potentially year-round an economic engine for merchants and businesses, as well. We have a great relationship with restaurants and businesses. So it’s a nice symbiotic relationship with STONC and what it brings and offers businesses and residents. Where it becomes questionable is: Is it sustainable to stay in New Canaan? Other towns have asked us if we are interested in doing programs there, saying they have possible spaces for us. We would like to exhaust the opportunities in New Canaan before we look elsewhere.”