Phoenix Stage Company rises into its second year

From left, Kimberly Sanders, Ron Nassef, and Moses Beckett rehearse a scene in the Phoenix Stage Company's "Love Sex and the IRS" in March. .- CN ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — Phoenix Stage Company recently celebrated its one year anniversary the way it started out—with a tailgate party.

In its first production of “Bleacher Bums” last September, Chicago Cubs Fans cheered on their home team. Last week, Phoenix fans cheered on Naugatuck’s community theater as it announced its second season.

Phoenix supporters hope the team continues its winning streak.

“It’s going really well,” said Ed Bassett, one of the theater’s three founders and a member of the board. “It’s been a very fast year.”

Bassett said the theater’s popularity has been growing since it opened, with new actors and guests at each show.

People are starting to know that we’re here now,” Bassett said.

For next year’s lineup of nine productions, Bassett said he and the other board members listened to the audience and the box office to bring people shows they’ll want to see.

“They’re doing a good job of assessing their first season and their audiences and trying to plan for next season. They’re very reflective about what they do,” said Val Vitalo, an actress who has been in five of the theater company’s shows.

“The Ice Box” is opening next week. Written by local Litchfield writer Rick Doyle, who is a teacher at Taft School in Watertown, the comedy thriller is sure to delight audiences.

“It’s scary in places and it’s funny in places,” Bassett said. “It’s fun. It’s a fun show.”

Following “The Ice Box,” the Phoenix will present “Drinking Habits.”

Only two actors who have performed at the Phoenix before are returning for the comedy about nuns who secretly make wine to keep their convent afloat.

“That’s another good indicator for us that word is getting out … when we see auditions with a lot of new people,” Bassett said.

Vitalo is one of those actors who keeps returning. She will appear as Buella in “The Ice Box.”

“It’s a wacky show,” said Vitalo, who described it as a sci-fi horror comedy.

She has also graced the stage for the Phoenix’s productions of “Hallelujah Girls,” “I Hate Hamlet,” “Love Sex and the IRS,” and “Beyond Therapy.”

As a maturing actress, Vitalo said she enjoys opportunities for varied ages to perform in shows at the Phoenix. Vitalo started out doing musicals at the Warner Theatre, but as she gets older, she found that she really enjoys doing comedies, she said.

“I just love this little, intimate theatre,” Vitalo said. “It’s a wonderful niche.”

After 15 years performing at the larger Warner Theater, Vitalo said she also enjoys the smaller Phoenix theater.

“It used to frighten me to be that intimate and that close,” Vitalo said.

Vitalo lives in Torrington, a 40 minute commute, but she said the cost in time and gas is worth it.

“When you feel appreciated right away, you just want to do your best. That’s the difference,” Vitalo said.

Vitalo said the theater’s founders, Bassett, Karen Wilcox, and Agnes Dann, are wonderful to work with.

“They treat their volunteers so wonderfully,” Vitalo said. “They even bake for you.”

She said the theater’s three co-founders are key to the success of the theater.

“I also think that Ed, Agnes, and Karen have a wonderful combination of personalities and skills to run a theatre,” Vitalo said. “They have expertise in common things about theatre but also special expertise in different aspects.”

Vitalo said Bassett is a marvelous costumer, director, stage manager, and set designer while Wilcox, who also works at the Warner, is an extraordinary director, chorographer, and advertising and marketing guru.

“She’s so knowledgeable about even the technical parts of theater,” Vitalo said.

Dann is wonderful managing the box office and the theater’s website and good at press and audience relations.

“She’s able to help with every aspect that they need help with,” Vitalo said.

As a fledging operation, Bassett said the theater wants to work to support other town events, not compete with them.

“We’re also being asked to be involved in other things in town,” Bassett said, starting with the Arts and Culture Festival Oct. 1, where the theater plans to have performers on hand and a booth set up.

Bassett said, people still wonder whether the theater company is a viable business.

“We’re working very hard and we’re here to be here,” he said.

Making ends meet is no easy task for a small non-profit that relies completely on volunteers to survive.

“We have so many volunteers it’s awesome. We couldn’t possibly do it without them,” Bassett said.

After saving up for most of the year, the Phoenix finally purchased their own chairs—purple to match the planetary carpet. Before buying their own chairs, the stage company had to borrow from friends.

“Our guests love them. They’re comfortable, they’re secure, and they’re ours,” Bassett said.

The theater has also installed more lighting, and a sound system over the year, according to Vitalo.

Another factor that will make next year easier, financially, for the theater is that it recently received its nonprofit status, meaning it can start an annual fundraising campaign.

The theater plans to launch that campaign with its first annual glow in the dark mini golf tournament Oct. 8 in Southbury.

Now that the Phoenix is on its feet, Vitalo said the theater wants to get to a point where it can take some risks with its shows. Once the theater has a solid base of support, it can try some more unknown, edgier works that are not on the typical bill of fare.

“I think the goals for their theatre is not to expand facility, but just to expand their offerings and draw more people in,” Vitalo said.