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What will rise from Shakespeare theater’s ashes?

January 17, 2019

STRATFORD — The story of the Shakespeare theater could have inspired the Bard himself.

From its grandiose beginnings and heyday as a destination for top acting and entertainment to its decades-long decline and spectacular annihilation, the theater’s rise and fall mirrored the arc of so many tragic heroes whose tales once graced its stage.

As investigators sift through the scorched rubble where the iconic building stood to find out exactly how it burned to the ground, residents and officials will begin deciding just what to do with the 14-acre waterfront property.

“The community needs to come together and we need to talk about all the options that we’d like to see on the property,” Mayor Laura Hoydick said. “What’s the most relevant to the most people? What can we afford most reasonably? It’s not about my vision, it’s about our vision.”

Restrictions put in place when the town acquired the property from the state in 2005 mandate that 20 percent of the site be preserved as open space and “the entire property shall remain accessible to the general public for their enjoyment in perpetuity.”

So it’s not going to be sold to a condo developer, a fear expressed by some speakers during the public forum before a Town Council meeting Monday.

The deed also says the town “shall make reasonable efforts to utilize the premises for public entertainment purposes, including, but not limited to, continuing its historic use for theater purposes.”

Possible scenarios

With the theater building now gone, that language could cover a number of possibilities — perhaps something like the most recent development proposal, scuttled in 2016, that envisioned a hotel to generate revenue to support the theater.

Or, with the massive theater now gone, an idea for a smaller amphitheater or experimental theater space might emerge.

Or, if “reasonable efforts” to revive a theater aren’t feasible — and they haven’t been for decades — some other form of public recreation or entertainment might be.

As the cash-strapped town decides what to do next, affordability will play a key role in the decision-making, Town Council Chairman Jim Connor said.

“It comes down to money, money, money and money,” he said. “If we were New Canaan or Westport, it might be a different ballgame. But we’re not.”

A gofundme page created by the Mighty Quinn Foundation, which oversees the Shakespeare Academy at Stratford that uses the grounds annually for performances, is seeking $25,000 to chip in toward rebuilding a theater.

The mayor said an insurance policy on the building, officially assessed at $1.8 million, should also help. She said federal and state politicians, business owners, and philanthropists have also reached out.

State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said the town’s legislative delegation is hoping to garner support in Hartford for $5 million in state bond money for the property.

“Right now you have a renewed interest and focus that was brought to the property that may have not been as intense as it is now,” Kelly said.

The mayor said the town could arrange “charrettes” — essentially public brainstorming sessions — to solicit ideas from residents about what to do with the property.

“I think that’s a good process,” Hoydick said. “It’s transparent and inclusive.”

A Shakespeare Subcommittee of the town’s Building Needs Committee will also provide input.

The people’s choice

At the end of the process, the question could ultimately be put to voters.

“It may have to be pushed to referendum if this continues on and we have three or four different factions,” Connor said, referencing prior development concepts floated for the property. “Let the town decide as a whole.”

In the fire’s aftermath, many residents have expressed hope that past differences can be set aside.

But with the building sitting unused for so long, many don’t feel the same connection to the property’s storied past as those who grew up seeing performances by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer.

“I think people lost sight of that,” said Wendy Canfield, whose grandmother, aunt and mother worked there. “It’s easy to not care if you don’t know.”

Others have faulted the town for its stewardship of the property as the building, which was “mothballed” last year, deteriorated.

Jeanine Sansone, now a California resident, recalled getting a job as an usher there after her sophomore year at the University of Connecticut in the hopes of seeing Paul Newman, who had appeared in a benefit there.

She got her wish five years later, when Newman returned to tend bar at an after-party for another benefit hosted by his wife, Joanne Woodward. Sansone had the pleasure of having a 7 & 7 mixed by Cool Hand Luke himself.

“I still have the plastic cup and napkin up in my attic,” she said, lamenting the theater’s demise.

“That building just languished there,” Sansone said. “It was just so sad. Maybe this is the kick in the pants that people needed to do something.”

Surveying the burnt wreckage the morning after the fire, lifelong Stratford resident Gail Solemene said the blaze was a long time coming.

“How long was it going to stand there with nothing happening?” she said. “I’m not even shocked this happened.”

Hoydick said hindsight is 20/20, and the anger felt by residents is understandable.

“We could have invested significant money to have a guard there, or fence it off,” she said. “There are a lot of things we could have done. Except, what was the most prudent for the community? Let’s address the tragedy and figure out what our next step is.”

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