If your name's not Medici, and you feel the urge to develop an arts scene, consider providing a warm, nurturing environment for Creative Folks to interact and create. A place like the Workshop, for example, an art and performance venue in Mystic that has sprung to prominence in the last year.
Of course, local history is rife with such places - particularly in musical quarters. Westerly's Knickerbocker Café helped develop a nationwide blues revival spearheaded by Roomful of Blues. Fifteen years ago, the Depot in Mystic fostered a rock renaissance that fueled such bands as 17 Relics, Doug, Golgo, All Fall Down, and Skimbleshanks.
And the long-touted "New London scene," still going strong, established a sturdy root system early on with TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone), where many of today's NL bands got their start. The building also provided gallery space and hosted theatrical productions and readings. TAZ gave way to the now-defunct Secret Theater - and then, of course, the e'er-expanding and going-strong Hygienic Art conglomerate opened its doors on Bank Street.
The Workshop is the latest such enclave, providing aesthetic nutrients and cheap practice space for a scene of young, upcoming bands such as Herff Jones, Rhapsodists, Fish House, Dirty Stayouts and the Sam N Andy Power Trio.
These acts, along with veterans Anderson Family Picnic, will all perform tonight as the Workshop hosts a first birthday party.
Located in the center section of a tripartite structure that use to house Mystic Lumber, the Workshop contains two performance stages, a high-tech sound room and console, meeting- and classrooms and a U-shaped second floor balcony, ideal for conversation and interaction, that also serves as a gallery space where local artists hang their paintings. The whole place is colorful and comfy and located in a neighborhood hard to the Mystic downtown drag - meaning it's convenient and safe.
"The Workshop has always been a venue where we can just let everything go and have a great time," says Blair Smith, one of the lead vocalists of Herff Jones, so far the most successful of the space's family of bands. "It basically incubated us from infancy. We have always been welcome to play there, and it really helped us to get our name around Mystic before anyone besides our close friends had heard of us."
The Workshop is the brainchild of Tony Perrone, well known in the region as the trumpeter for the Mystic Horns. During his high school years in Stonington, Perrone was a regular attendee at the Stonington Community Center, where artists like Greg Piccolo and Duke Robillard were getting started in their careers.
"If I was to compare the Workshop to anything, it would be the Stonington Community Center," Perrone says. "You'd hear all these upcoming bands in the area, and obviously some of them have gone on to do quite well."
Perrone says he's always been concerned that young people don't have enough activities to keep busy or places to go to do them. With that on his mind, he kept his eyes open for possible locations that could be used for rehearsal and performance in the Mystic area - away from the typical bar environment and also far from residential areas where noise complaints might surface.
Eventually, Perrone spied a FOR RENT sign in the Mystic Lumber location. It was a sturdy spot with the very cool balcony and plenty of room for renovation and conceptualization.
After signing the lease, Perrone was trying to find ways to advertise and get artists interested in a cheap rehearsal facility. After a meeting with several area high school artists and musicians, who then took it upon themselves to start a Workshop Facebook page, the room took off and began to develop a community and an identity.
In addition to the bands who congregate there, local artists have happily leased wall space to hang their art, playwrights and actors rehearse and read from works in progress, and even Ravie Gravy, a local outfit that spins off '60s-style psychedelic light shows, provides inspired illumination for productions.
It's all good, according to Perrone.
"The idea was an art and performance space to build and create your talents in all arts, not just music but every type of art: sculpture, painting, comedy, magic, puppetry, music - and all the experiences that go along with it," he says.
Perrone says the first year was a wonderful success although still a financial struggle. The plan is to establish the space as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, and Perrone throws kudos to Hygienic Art's co-founder Jim Stidfole for providing advice and a template for moving forward in that direction.
"The (not-for-profit status) would enable community leaders to become more active with us, and hopefully, in turn, the whole community would recognize our value and contribute," Perrone says. "We've been blessed by so many volunteers and interested young artists. It would be nice to move to the next level."
New programs are always evolving, including showcases where five different area high school bands perform one night a month, and where "house bands" like Herff Jones and Fish House will put on a show and bring in new groups from other towns.
Classes in music history and film are being discussed, as well as instruction in radio announcing and sound technology using the house system and console.
Another performance innovation is the Cupid's Valentine Festival scheduled for Feb. 11. Included will be reading, a dance, fashion show, chocolate extravaganza, and other appropriately heart-shaped activities.
Essentially, Smith says, the Workshop is absolutely vital to the Mystic arts community.
"It's never been a place where we have to worry about impressing anyone or making ourselves look good," Smith says. "It's simply a place where (we can all) play shows that are unique and unorthodox and you won't hear anywhere else - because it's our home."