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Knudsen Leads Non-Profit Legacy Theatre

Published 03/13/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 03/12/2013 04:12 PM

By Pam Johnson
The Sound

With Keely Baisden Knudsen in the lead, there's no doubt the Stony Creek Puppet House will live on, as The Legacy Theatre.

Keely founded the non-profit Legacy Theatre in 2011, launching a feasibility study to find a place where the tradition of professional theater could include education and training opportunities for all abilities and ages. Before too long, the Creek's 1903 theater building was pinpointed as ideal in location, size, and scope. In July 2012, the non-profit clinched an exclusive contract to purchase the Puppet House, a Connecticut Historic Landmark.

Given the special place the theater holds for many, "Once we combined our efforts with the Stony Creek Puppet House, it was like wildfire," says Keely. "People were so interested in that space and what was going to happen to it. Even our name, Legacy Theatre, fits. It was kismet."

In more happy news, Keely learned last week the closing date will be March 28-about four months ahead of schedule.

Of course, there's still much work to be done. The building will be restored, renovated, and re-envisioned as the Legacy's permanent home with a 150- to 200-seat theater. On Saturday, April 6, Keely invites supporters to A Legacy for Tomorrow, an elegant and culturally rich gala at Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club. The red-carpet evening will feature dinner, auctions, and entertainment. All proceeds will be matched, up to $50,000, to help renovate the theater.

In its 110-year history, the Puppet House has been a silent movie house, the repertory theater home of the famed Parish Players, a summer stock house, a World War II parachute factory, and a puppet house. As the Legacy Theatre, the building will revive its repertory hey-day while also serving as a teaching and training center and a locale for outside productions and events.

"We're a repertory company, just like the theaters of old," says Keely. "They all used to have a group of professional actors that would rotate among the great musicals and straight plays. A select number of us will be teachers whom the public can work with in private classes and tutorials. We encourage community members to pitch in ideas and thoughts for programming and presentations-what they'd like to see and what kind of classes you want to attend."

Keely graduated first in her class at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She holds a master's degree in drama from Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (which she attended on full scholarship). She's performed internationally in plays, musicals, operas, dance companies, mime theatre, and even puppetry. A creator/teacher of theater (at Southern Connecticut State University, Hartt School of Drama, Fairfield University, Yale's Baroque Opera Company, and Quinnipiac University), the Actors' Equity Association member has served as education director, resident choreographer, and performer for Elm Shakespeare Co. She's also performed with Cornerstone Productions in Mystic.

Keely and her husband Brian moved to Guilford three years ago and have four young daughters.

"I grew up in San Antonio," notes Keely. "School brought me out to the Northeast. I would escape from the city to be close to suburbia, and I just fell in love with Connecticut."

Keely grew up with James Roday, star of TV's Psych. He's a close friend and a Legacy board member.

"He's starting his own theater in Los Angeles and he's been very supportive of us. We're talking about a potential project we can do, so there will be famous people coming to our stage and local artists."

Another likely guest performer-Broadway's Nadia Bowers, a Branford native. Bringing in such guests is a nod to past big names, including Clark Gable and Orson Welles, who once trod the same boards, says Keely. The Legacy will also pay homage to the Puppet House era. Keely's friend, Russian actress Masha Mashkova, is the daughter of actor Vladimir Mashkov (or, as Keely says, "the Russian Brad Pitt!").

"His parents were puppeteers. They own one of the largest puppet theaters and museums in Moscow and they're interested in doing an international exchange," says Keely, adding that April 6 gala guests will get a sneak peak.

"We're actually bringing some puppeteers from Russia who will perform at the gala for 10 or 15 minutes."

With the gala approaching and fundraising continuing to build, The Legacy Theatre hopes to open sometime in 2014, retaining its exterior footprint while "minting out the interior; making a it a beautiful theatrical space worthy of the talent walking the boards and the community coming out to see it," says Keely.

The Legacy Theatre hosts "A Legacy for Tomorrow" at the Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club Saturday, April 6 at 6:30 p.m. featuring dinner, auctions, and entertainment including former Miss Connecticut Stephanie Stiefel Williams. All proceeds will be matched, up to $50,000 to benefit theater restoration. For more information, to contribute an item to the evening's auction, or to purchase tickets, call 203-457-0138 or visit www.legacytheatrect.org.

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