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Curtain Rises on Revived Sharon Stage

An empty Connecticut theater is rebuilt and reopened as a laboratory for new work

AS the Broadway season gets under way, a season long on revivals and short on new plays, a group of Broadway professionals is reviewing work that began this summer at the Sharon Stage.

The sleepy village of Sharon in northwest Connecticut was the site of some hopeful developments for one community in particular, and for the future of American theater in general.

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Two factors played a role in resuscitating the Sharon Stage after it looked as though the theater would sink under a mountain of debt and management troubles. Its rebirth represents the shared efforts of local patrons, residents, and theater professionals.

Particularly noteworthy was the cooperation and grass-roots involvement by those professionals - including Broadway press agents, advertising reps, and the Jujamcyn organization, which owns several large theaters.

Like other performing arts, theater can only remain viable through the continuous writing and development of new plays and musicals. Audiences enjoy the familiar, and pay to see it, but new work fuels an excitement about theater, and keeps American theater fresh and relevant.

With the high costs of producing plays in New York, fewer new plays start their lives there. And that is where theaters such as the Sharon Stage come in.

''Our whole mission was about development, creating a place for new plays, rather than the usual summer theater fare,'' says Michael Gill, an independent producer who shepherded the Sharon Stage through the three-year process leading to its reopening. ''We tried to view this as though we were producing little New York shows.''

Sharon Stage board member Merle Frimark is a partner at Frimark & Thibodeau, the Broadway press agency that represents megahits such as ''Miss Saigon,'' ''Les Miserables,'' and ''Phantom of the Opera.'' She explains, ''We tried to put together a season that would be satisfying, stimulating, and entertaining. It's the beginning of a process, so that the actors, directors, and playwrights can develop their work.''

The impetus behind the project came from an unusual source. ''Some of the stagehands at the Majestic Theatre [home to 'Phantom' in New York at the time] came to me and said they had found this little theater sitting empty,'' Mr. Gill says. The stage crew urged him to visit Sharon, and he was hooked.

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The original idea that each person would provide a service - carpentry, for instance, and electrical wiring, costumes, and props - was expanded to include other help Gill brought in. He oversaw the legal steps to buy the property from its local owners, and helped steer the process of converting the site into a usable space.

For $200,000, the new Sharon Stage organization found itself with five buildings, including a main stage, costume barn, office building, dormitory, and the small gallery that had been the original theater 40 years ago. It took another $280,000 in renovations before a show could be housed.

Gill structured the company as a not-for-profit, and each board member gave the company an interest-free loan. ''Nobody expects to reap a profit. We're doing it because we love it,'' Gill says.

With board members' connections, they were able to generate top-of-the-line donations. Press agent Frimark says that Jujamcyn was refurbishing the Virginia Theatre on Broadway and offered Gill the seats they were removing. Serino Coyne, the Broadway advertising agency, designed the Sharon Theater's logo, and Wayne Sapper of King Displays, who does all the Broadway marquees, donated signs. Grunt work, such as cleaning and screwing the seats into the floor, was done by board members.

One evening last June, the theater and a new play made their debut. Actress Estelle Parsons (known to TV audiences for her recurring role as Roseanne's mother on the ''Roseanne'' show) joined Carol Kane in a comedy by Mark Rosin and Barry Glasser, ''Twice Removed.'' At an opening celebration, Ms. Parsons said, ''I really support what they're trying to do here.''

But all the goodwill in the world won't help unless local patrons agree to buy tickets and sit in those 380 new seats. Mona Staafer-Hoffman, owner of the nearby Interlaken Inn, offered words of praise for the new venture. ''We're delighted about it. We've missed the playhouse, and this new group really seems to know what they are doing.''

Ms. Staafer-Hoffman and her husband were pleased that the Sharon Stage added weeknight shows, one of the innovations the new team instituted. Others included ticket prices as low as $9.50, and an early (7 p.m.) curtain for some performances.

Frimark recalls that several Sharon residents told her that ''they wanted something more meaty, more intelligent'' than the standard summer offerings.

''One thing we learned is that [audiences] aren't ready to see works-in-progress in a full production on our main stage,'' Gill says, adding that plans to convert the gallery space to a smaller theater would have provided a better location for still-evolving plays, with the main stage reserved for ''pieces that are more finished.''

This comment, he explains, is aimed at ''Twice Removed'' while a revival of the rarely seen ''Robber Bridegroom'' and a new Joyce Carol Oates play were better received. Future plans include more children's shows, as well as a musical series, and play readings.

Gill's business plan called for a 55 percent capacity during the season. ''At the beginning, we were at 38 percent, but as the weeks went by, it grew to about 86 percent, exceeding my expectations,'' he says.

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