SSince its founding in 2005 by Gary and Francesca Scarpa, Center Stage Theater has provided Shelton with entertaining stage productions and a community gathering place. The theater provides opportunities for local creative talent to express themselves on stage and volunteers to assist with various production responsibilities.
The theater has been part of Shelton’s Richard O. Belden Cultural Center since 2011 — previously the site was home to Lafayette Elementary School, and the center stage shares its lease with Living Hope Church and Valley United Way.
“We take up most of the space,” said managing director Carla Supersano Sullivan. “The former gym is our theater space, we have several classrooms that we occupy, the former kitchen is our costume shop and the former cafeteria is our set shop.”
Before it was at the Belden Cultural Center, the theater operated alongside a combined bookstore and coffee shop in downtown Shelton, and the impetus for this combined business came from Oprah Winfrey.
“Fran Scarpa attended an Oprah Winfrey presentation when Oprah turned 50, and Fran also turned 50 that year,” Sullivan began. “Oprah said, ‘You can do anything you want, your life begins now, follow your dreams.’
Unfortunately, the bookshop and cafe part languished and ended up closing, but the advice was not fruitless as the theater proved very popular and its longevity can be attributed to a focus on top-notch production values and acting and directing talent.
For this year, its subscription series will feature five “full-scale” productions, which are the main attraction of the theater and each of which has 10 performances. “Footloose: The Musical,” his most recent full-scale production, was an adaptation of the 1984 film of the same name about disaffected youths who stand up to the authorities in a small town. To better synchronize with the central themes of the story and better immerse the audience, the production hired cast members between the ages of 14 and 23. And while its film of the same name has been around for decades, the Center Stage musical sold out during its July 22-31 run.
“Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On” is the next full-scale production, which will air from October 14-23. It is the fourth show in the Wonderettes series and follows the various exploits of four high school friends. The production features both an all-female cast and female leads behind the scenes.
Finally, their final full-scale production of the year will be Meet Me in St. Louis, a Golden Age musical inspired by Judy Garland’s 1944 film. The show will run from December 2-11.
Sullivan said Center Stage “will announce our new season on November 14th and then start all over again next February with our show of the season.”
Between large-scale productions, Center Stage Theater hosts numerous small shows, cabarets and stand-up comedy lists, many of which span one or two nights. Each year, Center Stage typically has 90 to 100 “lit nights” in which a production is performed.
“I would say next year it will grow to close to 115 to 125,” Sullivan said.
In addition to providing entertainment for its community, theater also provides opportunities for learning. The Education Center offers programming during the spring and fall semesters, as well as five weeks of summer camp, with between 150 to 200 students enrolled each semester. The center teaches acting, singing and dancing, starting in preschool through high school, with some classes for adults as well.
Although Center Stage attracts many young acting talents and students, the theater is multigenerational in spirit, with some actors, volunteers and patrons in their eighties and nineties. Also, from the beginning, Center Stage has been built in part by family members working together.
“It definitely started as a family affair with founders Gary and Fran Scarpa and their children and extended family who were originally involved in the productions,” Sullivan said.
These efforts were appreciated by the Shelton community, which was evident during the pandemic shutdown.
“They missed us when it was dark,” Sullivan recalled. “They really missed not only the shows and the production, but that social gathering place when we were dark. They were very, very eager to come back and be back in the community at our theater.”
The theater industry as a whole was hit hard by the pandemic, and to this day even Broadway has not fully recovered. Center Stage is adapting and financially secure at the moment, although the number of volunteers has not yet reached pre-pandemic numbers. The theater has taken measures to combat the pandemic, including the requested use of masks and the return of tickets and the rescheduling of a performance because a leading role contracted Covid-19.
“We’ve had to become very, very flexible, very nimble, even more creative than we were before to be able to do what we do,” Sullivan added.