Ridgefield Theater Barn looks to spread its wings

 Plans to expand the Ridgefield Theater Barn include ground-level rooms for classes and conferences, more backstage space for bands and larger sets, an upper-level office, and a new costume room. The nonprofit theater does 33 weekend performances a year, in addition to improv comedy sessions and classes for kids. — Steve Coulter photo

Plans to expand the Ridgefield Theater Barn include ground-level rooms for classes and conferences, more backstage space for bands and larger sets, an upper-level office, and a new costume room. The nonprofit theater does 33 weekend performances a year, in addition to improv comedy sessions and classes for kids. — Steve Coulter photo

The arts scene in Ridgefield just can’t seem to stop growing — and now things have gotten a little too crowded.

That’s why plans to renovate and expand the Ridgefield Theater Barn are expected to be submitted to the town’s planning and zoning department this week, according to the theater’s executive director, Wayne Leiss.

“We’ve grown quite tremendously,” Mr. Leiss said. “We’re doing 33 weekend performances a year, and what we’ve found out is that’s a really high use for the space we have.

“What we’d like is to offer more programming — bigger shows with multiple sets — without stepping on each other’s toes anymore,” he said. “We have nine shows in rehearsal alone right now, and that doesn’t count the improv comedy we have or the classes for kids.

The Theater Barn, which is located on 37 Halpin Lane in a converted dairy barn, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The nonprofit’s expansion plans include a new black box theater area for smaller, intimate programs; an upper-level addition that will create space for a two-person office and a costume room; and ground-level rooms for classes and conferences.

“The current space for costumes is downstairs — that will become a room for props as well as a dressing room,” Mr. Leiss said. “There will also be a scene shop space where we can build scenes and store some smaller sets.

“Right now, we can’t build a set until one comes down — there’s just not enough space for it.”

Mr. Leiss added that the black box theater will serve as the Theater Barn’s second performing space.

It won’t get full sets or lighting like the main stage, but it will benefit from the new ground-level class and conference rooms.

“One will be a classroom for kids and the other will be a conference space that can also hold classes,” Mr. Leiss said. “That second room, the conference space, opens up to the black box performing area so it can host larger crowds — just smaller than the existing main stage, actually.

“The main goal is for us to be able to offload some things from the main stage to there so that we don’t have to constantly be cleaning up and flipping shows,” he said. “After this is finished, we won’t have to be flipping the house around all the time.”

Perhaps most important to the theater’s volunteer performers, and those in the audience, will be the additional backstage space that includes a new backstage wing as well as the set-building space.

“With the set up we have currently, big sets have to stay on stage,” Mr. Leiss explained. “This will give us a lot more flexibility.”

Another bright spot is that there will be less cleanup work involved for everybody who uses the venue.

“Everyone has to pack up and get their stuff out of here because we have so many people coming in and there’s not enough space,” he said. “Now they’ll be able to leave stuff here.”

While the downstairs and upstairs are being upgraded, the main stage area will continue to fit about 70 people at tables and another 85 in theater-style seating.

“That won’t change,” Mr. Leiss explained. “The wing space next to the main stage will be expanded so bands and bigger sets can fit next to the stage rather than eat up crowd space.

“In the past, we’ve had a 12-piece band on stage to do a musical with our 17-person cast or we’ve had to give up seating space to fit a set or a band — that’s not what we want,” he said. “That’s precious space that’s needed for the performers on stage and the people sitting in the audience.”

He added that with the additional space, sets can be wheeled on and off stage as scenes change.

“As we swap scenes, we can swap out sets and, again, just be that much more flexible with what we’re doing,” Mr. Leiss said. “Multiple sets, bigger shows.”

Time and money

Construction could begin at the end of the year, but the theater will have to raise a capital budget of about $750,000, in addition to its annual $225,000 operating budget, he said.

“We don’t have to raise it all at once — it can be constructed in phases,” he explained. ‘We hope we can get started with it soon.”

The town owns the building and leases it to the theater for $1 a year.

No competition

Despite its proximity to the Ridgefield Playhouse and Prospector Theater, the Ridgefield Theater Barn is not in competition with any venue in town, Mr. Leiss said.

“They have movies and live musical acts — we don’t do that,” he said. “We produce live theater. …

“The Playhouse’s name leads you to believe they do produce plays, and they do host the occasional kids show, but they’re offering a different kind of live entertainment than us,” he said. “It’s not a competition at all — it’s a nice complement.

“I’m happy that we’re a part of a town that offers a whole breadth of live entertainment.”

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