The next stage for the Spirit of Broadway Theater

Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day Volunteers work on the outer lobby at the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich on Dec. 29.

You might say it's a new era for the Spirit of Broadway Theater, as it's entering its 16th year.

The Norwich venue is undergoing a physical transformation. The auditorium is being reconfigured now, and plans are being developed to renovate the building's upper two floors over the next few years.

It's experiencing a financial transformation, too. The Spirit of Broadway has been recovering from recession-induced debt incurred in 2009. It has been erasing major chunks of that debt every year since. More on that later.

All this is happening while the Spirit of Broadway is doing what Artistic Director/CEO Brett Bernardini says no other theater in the country is doing: staging only new works.

Over the past 15 years, Bernardini says, he has learned a great deal, and he wants the Spirit of Broadway to continue to produce theater that has an impact.

"I want theater to matter in people's lives," he says. "Theater has always been, if you will, the keeper of stories. Theater has to be the story of our lives, or it's not relevant."

So Spirit of Broadway will continue to eschew revivals in favor of new work, like "Dani Girl," a show about a young girl with cancer that opens Wednesday.

In addition, Bernardini says, "We have some pretty sizable plans. ... I have spent this past year looking ahead, saying, 'What can this theater be for the next five, 10, 15 years?'"

First, the theater auditorium itself has been undergoing a radical tranformation. Over the past few weeks, walls have been torn down, and much of the interior has been ripped apart. Crews are reconfiguring the theater to allow the sound and lighting work to be more effective, based on suggestions from sound designer Steve Hinchey and technical director John Marion.

The sound and lighting booth used to be above the audience; consquently, the sound person was hearing something different from what theatergoers were, and the lighting person couldn't see the lights because they were below him. The booth has now been moved so it's on the ground level.

"Having (the sound and lighting people) both on the same level as the audience means that we can greatly improve both of these areas in our work," Bernardini says.

The stage has been relocated, too, so it's straight ahead as people enter, rather than to the right. There is more stage space now, and the new configuration increases what the Spirit of Broadway can do with sets.

"We figured out how to do this with a couple hundred dollars - what is the bare minumum we have to buy, what do we have in the shop, and who's willing to donate time?" Bernardini says.

All of this will require a shifting of chairs, too, which means losing six or seven of the site's 74 seats.

The Spirit of Broadway is also working to improve things behind the scenes. The theater board drafted a new five-year vision in 2012. Two major components are already taking shape. The governance structure is changing, with a model that calls for quarterly, not monthly, meetings and a board consisting of 5 to 7 members including businesspeople and theater professionals drawn nationally.

In addition, there are four action teams of volunteers who are already at work on events, resources, communications and the building itself.

The theater is also contemplating signficant changes beyond that in its building, which is a former firehouse. Using a $20,000 grant from the historical commission, the Spirit of Broadway hired an architect who reimagined the second and third floors. Among the proposed changes: adding office space, a board room that'll be available to the public, a catering kitchen and bathrooms on the second floor; and a replica of the theater for rehearsals and an open room on the third. The goal is to raise funds for those renovations - the quiet phase of fundraising this year, followed by the public phase - and then doing the actual construction in 2015 or earlier.

In the meantime, one of the highlights of the 2013 season will be a musical the Spirit of Broadway commissioned about Benedict Arnold. It will run Sept. 11 to Oct. 12 this year and then in a slot over the following two years.

The idea is to tie this in to an historic tourism event focusing on Arnold and the Revolutionary War. The Spirit of Broadway folks are working with the Norwich Community Development Corporation and the Norwich Historical Society to develop such an event, which might include, say, a period ball or battle recreations.

The Spirit of Broadway is moving into 2013 having made some great strides, too, after dealing with financial struggles during the past few years. Bernardini says Spirit of Broadway had thrived until the bottom dropped out of the economy.

"The recession for us began in January 2009, when we got smacked hard," he says.

He says that, since state and city funding and some grant contracts would always come in in January, the theater would do all its ordering in December and then would pay the invoices when they arrived in January. But much of the funding and grants they expected in 2009 never arrived.

"Even with signed contracts, people said, 'Oh, there's an economic recession, we're not paying,'" he says. "We started 2009 with $173,000 of bills. ... So what had been very profitable up until 2008 was now looking at a hole. It wasn't even a step down. We were just pushed off a cliff - like everybody else; we're not alone."

He says he is happy to report that, at the end of 2011, the Spirit of Broadway had whittled what was, at one point, almost a $300,000 deficit down to $70,000.

Bernardini had hoped they could erase all the debt by the start of 2013, but it doesn't seem that will happen. Still, though, the theater has been paying off huge portions of that debt each year.

"We have a steady track record of climbing out of that hole. ... I think we have a lot to point to with pride," he says. "Things are pointing upward, and so long as they continue to point upward, I'll continue to eke it out. It's been a hell of a ride."

The subscriptions sold for this year number close to 300 - more than double the number of subscriptions for 2012. Thirty-three percent of the theater's income comes from ticket sales. The budget per show depends on the number of people involved and has ranged over the years from $20,000 to just over $100,000.

This year, Spirit of Broadway - which, Bernardini notes, boasts professional designers, actors, musicians, et cetera - is bumping the ticket price from $30 to $32, with $1 of that increase going toward the upkeep of the building.

And, Bernardini says, this theater is continuing to guarantee its work.

"If you don't like what you see on our stage, at intermission, on your way out ... stop by the box office, say you don't like the show, and we will either give you tickets to another performance or we will refund your money. Show me another theater that does it," he says.

No one, he says, has ever taken him up on that offer.

Exterior of the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich.
Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Exterior of the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich.
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