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Prospector and its ‘pop-up’ offer movies, pride of work

The brick shell of Prospector Theater rises on the site of the old Playhouse movie theater. The hope of opening in  warm July has The Prospector crew — including, from left, Bijhan Clarke, Val Jensen and Emily Haughney — smiling through the cold. —Macklin Reid photo

The brick shell of Prospector Theater rises on the site of the old Playhouse movie theater. The hope of opening in warm July has The Prospector crew — including, from left, Bijhan Clarke, Val Jensen and Emily Haughney — smiling through the cold. —Macklin Reid photo

“We want to bring white-gloved ushers back, to open the doors and welcome our audiences,” said the Prospector Theater’s Valerie Jensen.

“Other theaters are interested in seeing how few people they can operate with. We’re approaching this from the opposite.”

Ms. Jensen is the founder and activating spirit of the Prospector, under construction on the site of the old Playhouse movie theater on Prospect Street — and also of the Prospector Pop-Up, a storefront at 454 Main Street that is bringing movies and other programing to town in advance of the big theater’s opening this summer.

The Prospector will be a commercial quality theater, and a source of employment and job training for disabled adults.

“We are very interested in helping the community and audiences to interact and be around people with disabilities,” Ms. Jensen said.

“We’re hoping this will begin to open doors. The Prospector will kind of be a stepping-stone.”

Disabled people are like most everyone else — the work world can be intimidating at first, but with time and training, with some experience, they can become very good at their jobs. As competence and confidence grow, work can become an important part of their lives and identities, a source of pride.

As a willing employer, the Prospector will provide a venue for local disabled people to achieve that — at the theater and, it is hoped, eventually at other workplaces.

That’s the vision. It came to Ms. Jensen over her years leading SPHERE, the local nonprofit that serves disabled adults — having fun, going on adventures, putting on plays, making movies.

“Why do this? I love working with people with disabilities so much, and SPHERE’s been so much fun,” she said. “At some point I realized that what we really needed was employment opportunities. Really, to be able to parlay that fun and enthusiasm into a means for independence — a job, friends outside the house.

“That’s something people have to do for themselves,” she said. “It’s not something you can give to them, that satisfaction of having done a good job at work.”

But she hopes the Prospector will be an opportunity for disabled people to learn jobs, work hard, and earn the satisfaction of going home at the end of a productive day with a feeling they play a part in the functioning of the town, the economy, the nation.

“The theater is a perfect venue for people with all different ability levels to learn something new and to work at the jobs that they love,” Ms. Jensen said.

“And while we do need popcorn poppers and traditional movie theater-type jobs, we’re going to train projectionists, film editors, sound techs.”

Others might see disabled people’s limits. Ms. Jensen sees their strengths as warm, capable people who make loyal, dependable employees.

“They’re the most unemployed and underemployed segment of our society,” she said. “Close to 70% of adults with disabilities, 21 to 64, are unemployed, and it doesn’t have to be that way. The schools do a good job these days, but services end at 21.”

So the Prospector will put folks to work, and give them training, regular paychecks, and a chance to feel good about themselves, to feel part of things — and to have fun.

“Some of our people only want to work two hours a week,” Ms. Jensen said. “And that can be the best two hours of their week.”

The Pop-Up

While the building on Prospect Street is still under construction, the Prospector has already begun hosting events — and movies — at the Prospector Pop-Up, a storefront at 454 Main Street with seating for 40 and a big-screen, high-end media system that gives the feel of a theater.

It’s in the midst of a three-evening series of films about artists, their lives and work.

Pollock, about legendary abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, was the first, on Jan. 10.

The next is Frida, Julie Taymor’s Academy Award-nominated film about Mexican painter and social revolutionary Frida Kahlo, on Monday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m.

And Rivers and Tides, Thomas Riedelsheimer’s award-winning documentary about naturalist sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, will show on March 10 at 7 p.m.

The films are co-sponsored by the Ridgefield Library and the Ridgefield Guild of Artists as part of their six-event Artalks series.

A Law Through Film Series, sponsored by local attorney Rob Creamer, began with the Henry Fonda classic Twelve Angry Men on Jan. 29.

It continues Feb. 26 with Frost/Nixon, about former President Richard Nixon’s combative and revealing interview with British TV journalist David Frost. The showing will be followed by a moderated discussion touching on events in today’s Washington, and the audience will pick the law-related film to be shown in March.

How We Eat discussions at the Pop-Up are sponsored by Ridgefield Magazine.

“We’ve had many events in here,” said Andrew Tedder, Prospector marketing and outreach coordinator, “Chamber of Commerce events, Board of Realtors training. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation had a fund-raiser kickoff breakfast.”

“Inspire, educate and entertain, that’s our outreach here at 454,” said Marion Roth, the Prospector’s general manager. “So when we open on Prospect Street, there’s an awareness. We’ll already have a relationship with the people.”

Hours at the Prospector Pop-Up are 10 to 5 weekdays. During the holidays the Pop-Up was often open Saturdays and Sundays, and the weekend hours may return in the spring.

While the Pop-Up is busy at 454 Main Street, the Prospector Theater is rising on Prospect Street, beside the library.

“The target date for opening is July. We still have a lot of work,” Ms. Jensen said.

But the building is beginning to take shape, with its brick facade recalling that of the old Playhouse building.

“The scaffolding came down and very soon the portico is going to go up and it’s going to look like the same beautiful building they saw in 1939,” Ms. Jensen said.

“From a construction standpoint things are going really well, and the interiors are coming along nicely.

“This is about the same exact footprint as the original building,” she said. “But we went 25 feet down, and by doing that, we were able to put in stadium seating, sloped floors, and add a full, functioning basement, which is really important to our functioning and our mission.

“These days, 2014, independent movie theaters need to be much more than movie theaters. At the Prospector, our mission is for training, educating and employing adults with disabilities. Because they are the people we most wanted to serve, we had to design the building so it would be relevant during the day. So often, people wouldn’t even think about going to a movie theater in the daytime. It seems like a nighttime activity.”

“It’ll open its doors to everyone — daytime programming, evening programming, the young, the old,” said Ms. Roth.

The plan is to keep the three theaters busy with multiple shows all week long.

“We’re going to be open all day — matinee performances. We’re going to do movie marathons, theme nights, dress-up, costumes,” said Bijhan Clarke, theater manager. “Star Wars night. Harry Potter.”

“A Halloween night,” added Emily Haughney, who currently gives tours of the Prospector Pop-Up.

The new building will house a lot.

“Three theaters,” Ms. Jensen said. “The first about 160 seats. Theater Two has 100 seats and Theater Three has 54 fixed seats and room for imagination — loveseats, exercise bikes,” she said. “We’ll have a bar, restaurant and café.”

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