Story and Photo By Matt Smith
“Curtain up! Light the lights! We’ve got nothing to hit but the heights!” Diehard theatre buffs will, of course, recognize this lyric as the mantra of the indefatigable Mama Rose in the 1959 musical Gypsy. However, it’s safe to say that this clear-cut, “reach-for-the-stars” advice could also perfectly describe the mission of Arc Stages, a not-for-profit theatre company located in Pleasantville.
Since June 2010, this “marriage” between former community theatre organization, Chappaqua Drama Group, and Little Village Playhouse, a former 15-year-old educational theatre program based in Pleasantville, has provided the community with an ensemble-based, collaborative environment–an “artistic haven,” if you will–which allows all participants, young and old, the chance to freely express themselves through the artistic process.
The “small, but fierce” staff of seven is steadfast in their goal of education and growth, and they take pride in their wide selection of offerings, which includes everything from classes to special workshops to amateur and even professional, productions. One glimpse at their work and you’re sure to see why there’s simply “no business like show business.”
“I think there are very few places that have what we have here,” says Ann Shankman, Artistic Director of the Community Stage, who describes the program as “an all-encompassing umbrella over the performing arts.” She says the company offers a little something for everyone, whether it be “for kids, for the everyday person who has a regular job but wants to do theatre, like they did it in college and could never do it again…[or for] professional actors who do [this] for a living.”
As President of the Executive Board of the company, Shankman says she gets joy out of knowing their work helps to raise a positive spirit in the community. “On both sides of the spectrum,” she adds, with a smile. “We’re helping people that come to us to be in our shows [by giving them a show to be in] and we’re helping people who come to be entertained [by giving them a show to see]…on whatever level that may be.”
Shankman and the rest of the Arc Stages staff also pride themselves on the company’s budding success as a business. “We are the people who started it, and we all have a death grip on its success,” she states. “And we wear many hats to make sure that what we’re putting out there matches our vision.”
A little over five years in, it certainly seems like that vision has been realized. And the key to their success may lie in the many ways in which they distinguish themselves from other theatre groups–one of which, most prominent in the Educational Stage, is their unique approach to the casting process. “Instead of shoehorning kids into a show that we’ve chosen before we know [them] and what their levels are….we pick shows that fit them,” explains Arc Stages’ Artistic Director Adam David Cohen.
In other words, shows aren’t necessarily, in all cases, chosen ahead of time. Based on what they see from a certain person or group during their audition, the staff may handpick a show to fit the needs of that group–even if that means changing a previous selection. And yes, Cohen acknowledges that this approach does “present marketing problems,” but he strongly believes the pros outweigh the cons, arguing that this process better supports the company’s aforementioned goal of education and artistic growth.
“It’s really about the art of what we’re doing…and less about someone in a star role,” Cohen explains. “We don’t like to do a big show and then stick thirty people in the background. We try to put on shows that are ensemble in nature,” so that, in the end, “everyone’s more hands-on and it feels like it’s their [own].”
Another way to promote the values of ensemble and not “shoehorn” actors into roles like Velma Kelly or Harold Hill? “We like to focus on newer work,” Cohen continues. “[Especially] in the Next Stage (the professional program), new writing is very important to us. [We] don’t want to re-paint the same painting over and over.” Additionally, by performing newer pieces–such as Love/Sick, by John Cariani–in favor of the old standards, “[the actors] get to originate roles. They don’t have a recording [of a performance] to fall back on. The role gets to be theirs.”
In keeping with their goals and supporting inclusiveness and education, and in an effort to get everyone involved, Arc Stages will kick off a series of classes for adults in 2016–“scene study classes, improv, voice, that type of thing.” And that’s not all. Another exciting event the staff plans to roll out in the New Year is a playwriting festival for younger students.
“We’re working with [students at] Bedford Road School,” Cohen explains. “We’re going to teach them the principles of playwriting. They’re going to come here, we’re going to go there… it’ll be a lot of fun.”
The year-long project will culminate with each student completing a short play, which may be chosen to be performed in the Arc Stages space. “They’ll be invited back [to Arc Stages] and [the event] will be open to the public, as a Playwriting Festival from local students.” Cohen stresses that if this initial run goes well, he hopes to extend Playwriting Festival submissions to the community at large.
Finally, they’ll be launching a Theatre for Young Audiences program, in which the professional Equity actors will perform an educational show exclusively for kids. The staff will also begin registration for their summer program, titled Summer Stage, open to all community kids aged 4-18. And of course, each stage within the company–Community, Educational and Next–will put on another show.
Physical Expansion Underway!
And, amidst all the expansion in programming, the company will also undergo a physical expansion as well. The current 74-seat auditorium will be split in two, “becoming part dressing rooms, and part flex classroom [space],” Cohen explains. In addition, their current storage closet/set building room will become the new entrance space for audience members.
The larger, 175-200 seat auditorium will be a proscenium theatre in which all of their main productions will be held. The building/construction project, which began in 2013, is expected to be completed within the next five years. Want to join in on the fun?
If so, the Community Stage is open–naturally–to all members of the community, regardless of age. The next set of auditions will be held in January, and the production for that program will be chosen in advance. So, if you’re intrigued, come out and show them what you’ve got! “There are a lot of talented people out there,” Cohen says, on the subject. “We’re happy to see them all.”
For those who may not be as performance-inclined, Arc Stages also has volunteer programs in costuming, set design, lights and sound, box office, publicity, and more.
“The only thing we keep in-house is we clean the bathrooms,” Cohen says with a laugh. But, seriously, as you can see from the wide variety of opportunities, Arc Stages really is a place where you can truly do it all. As Cohen states, “You can learn about theatre, you can be a part of theatre, [and] you can see good theatre.”
Arc Stages is located at 147 Wheeler Avenue in Pleasantville. For more information on the organization and/or how to audition, please visit www.arcstages.org.
Matt Smith, a proud graduate of Skidmore College, is a regular contributor to The Inside Press, Inc.