Tucked away beyond the construction crews and heavy equipment that have been plowing away for the last two years at Chappaqua Crossing lies the recently transformed Chappaqua Performing Arts Center (ChappPAC). Once named the Wallace Auditorium and used primarily for Readers Digest meetings and conferences, the intimate playhouse has been reincarnated as a performing arts center, cultural destination and mecca for educational children’s theatre.
Initially slated for demolition when Summit Development and Greenfield Partners designed Chappaqua Crossing’s retail and residential community, the small theatre was saved through negotiations with Deputy Town Supervisor Lisa Katz and the help of the New Castle Arts and Culture Committee. Summit Greenfield offered to donate the theatre to the Town of New Castle for one dollar.
When the town asked experienced theatre professional and educator John Fanelli’s opinion about saving the theatre, he said, “You don’t find 425 seat theatres in your backyard every day. You couldn’t build this. It would cost way too much money. It’s like a beautiful country playhouse and it’s pretty awesome that it’s still here.”
After issuing a request for proposal for a theatre manager, the town chose Fanelli as the theatre manager. Scott Campbell of Soup’s On Entertainment was also chosen as a promoter. Fanelli was well acquainted with the facility and well aware of its potential as he had already been renting it for productions of his own Armonk-based educational children’s theatre company, Lighthouse Youth Theatre and Standing Ovations Studio, where he serves as artistic director. His responsibilities at ChappPAC include managing bookings, rentals of the space, volunteers, vendors and maintaining the integrity of the structure. Clearly the right man for the job, Fanelli, whose passion is educational theatre, has been directing, teaching and creating programs for children and teens in theatre for almost 25 years.
“If you ask me,” Fanelli professes, “the most important education you can give your child is a performing arts education because it teaches them so much about who they are as people and gives them such great confidence. If they can stand up in front of 400 people and do a show, then they certainly can do a book report or run for class president…they can do pretty much anything they want. We are teaching life skills.”
The theatre has ushered in its second year of children’s theatre programming with a collection of fall children’s workshops presented by the Town of New Castle, Standing Ovation Studios, and Soup’s On Entertainment. Most recently this November, Tony Award winner Lindsay Mendez (Carousel, Wicked, Godspell, Grease) and Broadway star Derek Klena (Anastasia, Wicked, Bridges of Madison County) led a workshop about musical theatre technique and audition preparation. The session ended with the students performing on stage for parents and friends and a “talkback session” with the actors about their own Broadway experiences. Earlier this fall, Broadway actors and former cast members of Wicked, Arielle Jacobs and Alicia Albright, led a children’s Wicked workshop which also culminated in an on-stage performance and an informative Q & A session with the actors.
The season kicked off with a free musical theatre workshop open house where students learned to perform songs and dances from Peter Pan and Hamilton.
Three additional free workshops are planned for the new year to help get people in the door and get them excited about the programs offered.
As part of these workshops, students are split up according to age and then further divided into three small groups that rotate among a musical director, choreographer, and acting teacher. Students are then able to focus on all three disciplines.
Bringing theatre education to our youngest citizens, ChappPAC also hosts Drama Bee, an educational weekly theatre program for preschoolers, in partnership with New Castle Recreation. “My goal is to educate kids and teach them things about themselves using musical theatre,” says Fanelli. “When a parent calls and asks me how to get their child on Broadway, I always tell them to call someone else because that’s not my goal. I think the way to get to Broadway is to go to college and then be a professional and go as an adult. Being a child actor on Broadway doesn’t necessarily translate to becoming a professional actor.”
While many of the children’s programs have been made possible through a generous private grant, the reinvention of this hidden gem has been facilitated through a combined effort of the town, dedicated theatre professionals like Fanelli and private citizens.
Deputy Town Supervisor Katz spearheaded the acquisition of this theatre for the town. “Personally, making this theatre a reality has been very fulfilling for me. It’s really just an exciting opportunity for the town to be able to utilize it and do something incredible for not just our residents, but all of the surrounding communities as well,” she says. “The goal is to eventually make it a preeminent destination for theatre, dance, music and visual arts in Northern Westchester,” she adds.
A foundation comprised of volunteers, The Friends of Chappaqua Performing Arts Center, has been formed to provide funding for capital improvements, programming, special projects and sponsorship opportunities to support ChappPAC. At the time of writing this article, the group was seeking and awaiting 501(c)(3) status so they can begin fundraising. Michele Gregson and Tracy Stein, Chairs of the Friends group, have been instrumental in engaging volunteers and potential donors, developing marketing strategies, and planning for the theatre’s future as a premier performing arts center.
“We have a great model in the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, a highly regarded cinematic destination, where the surrounding merchants have benefited. We hope to do the same here where you can see a show, make an evening out of it, and go to one of our local restaurants downtown,” suggests Gregson.
Some of the exciting ideas that Gregson says have been discussed for the theatre are to organize a lecture series with prominent speakers along the lines of the offerings at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, to use the theatre as a developmental space for prospective Broadway shows, and to host art exhibits.
Gregson, who also serves as Chair of Westchester Women at UJA-Federation of New York, has helped secure a grant from UJA to produce three Jewish-related programs at the theatre, which will likely be presented in the spring.
The leaders behind this theatre are also open to suggestions. Their goal is to provide programming that the community craves. As they move forward, they will continually assess what is successful and optimize programming to bring in audiences.
Besides producing shows, maintaining the space is also at the top of the agenda for the town and the volunteers. Luckily the building was in good shape and already beautifully laid out as a theater when the town acquired it. Fanelli put in new LED lighting, upgraded the lighting board and the acoustic equipment, and renovated the stage. With the help of the Friends group, he hopes to continue improving the space. “Within three years it will be just like the Ridgefield Playhouse. That’s the goal,” he says, referring to the 500-seat venue in Connecticut.
As the front of the building is in need of repairs, Gregson hopes to undertake a fundraising initiative where donors can purchase bricks engraved with their names on them to adorn the building. She also anticipates planning a fundraising gala in the near future. Additional plans for the theatre include adding a box office and a concession stand. Organizers hope to hire and train workers with special needs to work at the concession stand.
With various improvements yet to be made, exciting ideas yet to bear fruit, and despite the surrounding construction, the theatre has been open for business and successfully putting on programming.
Recent performances in November have run the gamut from family fun with Tim Kubart and the Space Cadets, an indie pop dance party for all ages, to fodder for adult audiences like folk/rock singer-songwriter and former Chappaqua resident Dar Williams. On December 1st, comedians and co-hosts of the popular parenting podcast What Fresh Hell: Laughing in the Face of Motherhood performed.
“The funny thing is that nobody really knew this place was sitting here for 30 years,” remarks Fanelli. “I hope that we can establish ourselves as the number one place for family entertainment and for educational theatre programming in the area. If you want to go see a great show for the whole family, Chappaqua Performing Arts Center is your place,” he says.
RESERVE YOUR TICKETS:
An interactive screening of the Christmas film Elf will take place on Saturday, December 8.
Junie B. Jones will be performed by Theatreworks USA on Saturday, February 9.
On March 9, the Chappaqua Orchestra will perform an interactive, inclusive family concert spotlighting the special needs community playing with the orchestra.