'Not worth the risk': Ridgefield's Prospector Theater to temporarily close

RIDGEFIELD — Despite its determination to remain open under pandemic-related protocols, Ridgefield’s Prospector Theater will temporarily close Monday, due to rising COVID-19 cases and a lack of studio releases.

The announcement came from founder Valerie Jensen, of New Canaan, on Wednesday, who opened the nonprofit theater in 2014 to provide employment opportunities to adults with disabilities.

“I value-engineered the situation and decided it was not worth the risk to Prospector’s (theater staff) and the public by staying open,” she said. “Being closed gives my team the ability to reduce the day-to-day operational noise and focus on reopening safely, whenever that may be. ... This was a move that we made ourselves.”

Jensen has renegotiated a lease agreement to open a second theater in Wilton that she signed in February 2020, just a month before the pandemic began.

“The capital expense involved in building a theater is extraordinary,” she said, “and with other movie theaters fallen and not having content ourselves, we were relatively fortunate to stop what we were doing before we started any construction.”

The Prospector initially closed on March 13, 2020, one week before Gov. Ned Lamont’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” order halted all nonessential, in-person business in Connecticut. The theater reopened three months later, on June 17, after the staff was brought up to speed on COVID-related policies and procedures. They were also trained to work remotely should it temporarily close again.

“Through the entire pandemic, there was no outbreak attributed to having gone to the Prospector,” Jensen said. “We drastically cut the capacity in our theaters, and stayed underneath the legal limit, and had an usher seating every party that came in to space out the groups.”

But as Jensen monitored surging case counts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House and town health officials, she said she had no choice but to close the theater’s doors.

Since the pandemic postponed some studio releases that the Prospector was planning to screen, Jensen pioneered a streaming channel for the theater to provide original, educational content to global audiences. It is set to debut in 2022.

In 2020, charitable donations to the Prospector took a significant downturn as well, and ticket sales dropped roughly 97 percent from the previous year, Jensen said. She said once public confidence is restored and vaccinations increase, she will reopen the theater. She emphasized the critical role the community will play in ensuring its success.

“Anytime anybody engages with us on social media, writes a review or shares our story, it creates a job on the other side of the screen for people who desperately want meaningful employment — and most of those things are free,” she said. “Our closure should really send a message to people that we ... need community support in order to survive.”

The Prospector Theater is selling gift certificates reedeemable when it reopens. Donations can be made at www.prospectortheater.org/donate.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com