Since its founding in 2005 by Gary and Francesca Scarpa, Center Stage Theater has provided Shelton with entertaining stage productions and a gathering space for the community. The theater provides opportunities for local creative talent to express themselves on the stage and volunteers to assist in a variety of production responsibilities.
The theater has been part of Shelton’s Richard O. Belden Cultural Center since 2011—the venue was previously the home of Lafayette Elementary School and the Center Stage shares its tenancy with Living Hope Church and Valley United Way.
“We take up the bulk of the space,” said Managing Director Carla Supersano Sullivan. “The former gymnasium 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-building shop.”
Prior to being at the Belden Cultural Center, the theater operated along with a combination bookstore and coffee shop in downtown Shelton, and the impetus for this combination business came from Oprah Winfrey.
“Fran Scarpa attended a presentation by Oprah Winfrey when Oprah turned 50 and Fran also turned 50 in the same year,” Sullivan began. “Oprah said, ‘You can do anything you want, your life starts now, follow your dreams.’”
Unfortunately, the bookstore and coffee shop portion languished and ended in closure, but the advice was not fruitless because the theater proved to be very popular, and its longevity may be chalked up to a focus on top-notch production values and acting and directorial talent .
For this year, five “full-scale” productions will be shown as part of its subscription series, which are the theater’s main attractions and with each having 10 performances. “Footloose: The Musical” its most recent full-scale production, was an adaptation of the 1984 film of the same name about disaffected youth going up against small-town authority. To better synchronize with the story’s central themes and better immerse audiences, the production recruited cast members between the ages of 14 and 23. And while its namesake film has been familiar for decades, the Center Stage musical sold out during its July 22-31 run .
“Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On” is the next full-scale production set for an Oct. 14-23 run. It is the fourth show in the “Wonderettes” series and follows the various exploits of four female friends in high school. The production features both an all-women cast and women at the helm in behind-the-scenes capacities.
Finally, their last full-scale production for the year will be “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a Golden Age musical inspired by the 1944 Judy Garland movie. The show will run from Dec. 2-11.
Sullivan said that Center Stage “will announce our new season on Nov. 14, and then start all over again next February with our show of the season.”
In between full-scale productions, Center Stage Theater is host to numerous small shows, cabarets and stand-up comedy rosters, many spanning one or two nights. Each year, Center Stage has typically had 90 to 100 “lit nights” in which a production of some sort was playing.
“I would say next year that will grow to closer to 115 to 125,” Sullivan said.
Besides providing entertainment for its community, the theater also provides learning opportunities. The Education Center offers programming during spring and fall semesters as well as five weeks of summer camp, with each semester having between 150 to 200 students enrolled. The center teaches acting, singing and dancing beginning at pre-K and going into high school, with some classes for adults as well.
Though Center Stage attracts many youthful acting talent and students, the theater is multigenerational in its spirit, with some actors, volunteers and patrons being in their eighties and nineties. Additionally, since its inception Center Stage has been elevated in part by family members working together.
“It definitely started as a family affair with the founders, Gary and Fran Scarpa and their children and their extended family who were initially involved in the productions,” Sullivan said.
These efforts have been appreciated by the Shelton community, which was evident during the pandemic shutdowns.
“They missed us when we were dark,” Sullivan recalled. “They really missed not just the performances and the production, but that social gathering place when we were dark. They were very, very anxious to come back and be back in 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 has adapted and is financially secure at the moment, though volunteer numbers have yet to reach pre-pandemic numbers. The theater has adopted measures to combat the pandemic, including the requested usage of masks and refunding tickets and rescheduling a performance because a lead contracted Covid-19.
“We’ve had to become very, very flexible, very nimble, even more creative than we used to be able to do what we do,” Sullivan added.