Erin Sousa-Stanley, a fixture on the area's theater scene, becomes Granite Theatre's artistic director
Since she was a kid, Erin Sousa-Stanley has been acting and singing on stages in southeastern Connecticut and beyond.
The 1993 Waterford High School alum majored in musical theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and then performed in theaters around the country, including off-Broadway.
Once she had children, she began focusing more on directing and producing; that, she says, "gave me an opportunity to still be a present mother and be there for every moment." For the past two decades, she has worked with the Stonington High School drama program dubbed SHS Drama, as a choreographer and then as director. She also has been artistic director of the East Lyme Regional Theater since founding it in 2010.
As of Jan. 14, she added a new job to her resume. She was hired as artistic director for the Granite Theatre in Westerly.
“It’s thrilling. It’s a dream come true. I’m really humbled and honored. I’ve been working my whole career for something like this,” she says. “I have been involved in the arts community for 30-plus years. My first dream was to be a star (she laughs), and life sort of had a different course. But when I had children, I realized that I could still pursue my passion by using my directing skills and what I had learned in college and be able to still be part of making the magic happen.”
Sousa-Stanley says she always wanted to have the chance to lead a theater and develop a full season, as opposed to just a few productions. She loves the idea of being part of the vision for a theater — particularly a theater like Granite that already has a strong presence in the community — and to take it to its next chapter.
She said this Westerly theater has been near and dear to her heart for a long time. Back when it was the Colonial Theatre and she was a child, her parents and grandparents took her to performances there. One of her first acting jobs was in a musical version of “A Christmas Carol” at the Colonial.
And the family tradition continued with the next generation at the venue. In a 2018 production of “Annie,” her daughter Scarlett starred in the title role and Sousa-Stanley was Lily. Son Spencer was in “The Sound of Music” there.
What the Granite needs to move forward
Dina Marie Ferri, president of the Granite Theatre board of directors, says, “We are beyond excited to have Erin Sousa-Stanley be a part of the Granite Theatre. She’s beloved throughout Rhode Island and Connecticut, and her experience and talent is what the Granite Theatre needs to move forward after a couple of difficult years. I believe Erin has the ability to reunite our community, allowing all types of individuals, new and old, to come together and have a season like no other.”
Because of COVID-19, the theater wasn’t able to do any live shows in 2020. The Granite had hired Michael Thurber as artistic director in 2019, but with the theater essentially shut down in 2020, it had to let him go, Ferri says.
In 2021, the Granite did present a few productions, and, Ferri says, “Pretty much the board, including myself, we stepped in, we were the production managers, we were the stage managers, we did the directing, we did everything for the shows because we couldn't pay anybody.”
Ferri says she’s optimistic and hopes that the theater will knock it out of the park this year.
A new season
Sousa-Stanley declined to discuss her proposed eight-show 2022 season until the Granite’s board voted on it next week. She did, though, mention the opening show, the comedy-drama “I Hate Hamlet,” which will kick off the last week of March and run over the course of three weekends.
And Sousa-Stanley spoke in generalities about ideas for future productions.
“The Granite has been known for their staple of comedies and murder mysteries, and they typically produced one musical a year. Being a musical theater gal myself, in the future, I would love to produce more musicals. We all know that musicals tend to sell more and bring in more diverse audiences,” she says.
Having gone through difficulties brought on by COVID, all theaters have to watch their finances, and Sousa-Stanley knows that she has to be fiscally savvy, choosing shows the theater can afford, and that she has to bring revenue and audiences into the Granite.
One thing she is contemplating is having a youth musical, with youths participating in the production.
She’s thinking of producing a musical in the summer, when tourists are here, and a drama in the fall, when schools can bring in students.
While she loves comedies, she believes it’s vital to also tell stories that awaken people’s senses, make them think and question, and invoke change.
Discussing the impact of the pandemic on live shows, Sousa-Stanley says it’s obviously vital to keep actors and patrons safe, and she notes that she has been producing theater safely for the past two years with ELRT and SHS Drama.
“If we can keep theater alive, I’m going to do anything in my power to do so,” she says.
Staying with SHS Drama
Even with her Granite duties, Sousa-Stanley will continue with SHS Drama. With that group, she is responsible for just two shows a year. At the Granite, she doesn’t need to direct every show and is hoping to bring in “some wonderful directors and production staff,” she says. At Stonington, she has people in place to help her. So she should be able to do both.
As for East Lyme Regional Theater, she said, ”I want that to stay, as the founder for 11 years. I am fortunate that there are so many wonderful people on our board and people in the community who support ELRT. Right now, it’s going to be on hold. However, I produced five shows over the past two years during the pandemic, and two musical theater camps. This year, we will still be having our music theater camp. We will be possibly producing a Broadway cabaret and, again, there are people in place that have reached out and said, ‘I will direct that, I'll do that, I’ll step in.’ It’s been a vital part of this community, and I don’t want to take that away, especially when people are available to step up and help.”
Familial love of the arts
Sousa-Stanley started singing — country music with her grandparents — when she was very young and living in Florida. Her family moved to her mother's hometown of New London when Erin was 4. (She proudly notes that her mother's family, the Riveras, were one of the first Hispanic families to settle in New London.) Erin attended Catholic school at St. Mary's Star of the Sea School in New London. She would sing at Mass at St. Mary's, and then her father would then run her to his Baptist church to sing at the service there. She discovered a love for musical theater after seeing "Annie." In fact, she sang "Tomorrow" in her first show, a tribute to America and the music of our times, at the Coast Guard Academy. The family moved to Waterford when Erin was in 7th grade, and her stage career continued to blossom.
Now, her children with husband Chris Stanley — who has been choral director at Stonington High School for 24 years — are likewise involved in the arts. Lucas, 23, is a theater education teacher at an elementary school in Massachusetts. Spencer, 18, is a freshman at the prestigious University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music. And Scarlett, 13, is still at home in East Lyme and is in eighth grade; she particularly loves dance but also sings and performs.
“We’re like a modern ‘Sound of Music’ family, but a little smaller,” Sousa-Stanley laughs.
Staff and partnerships
At the Granite, Sousa-Stanley says, “I am fortunate that there is a wonderful staff in place. There’s also a new general manager, Carter Smith, he has a degree from Western (Connecticut State University) in theater. We also have a mostly new, very passionate board. They are very enthusiastic about the positive changes coming to the theater,” she says.
She says she thinks it’s very important to create new partnerships in the community and with other artists in the area. And she wants to foster relationships with other arts organizations in Westerly.
Dreams can come true
With her roots in educational theater, Sousa-Stanley loves seeing her alums performing and making their dreams come true.
Several of her former students have reached out when they learned about her being named artistic director at the Granite.
“They said, ‘You always told me dreams could come true, and I’m so glad your dreams came true,’” she says.
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