East Lyme Regional Theater gears up for its first show in former Niantic Cinema space
Out front, the name “Niantic Cinema” still runs across the building in small letters below a row of twinkling lights.
But signs of change are everywhere else.
The space out front where movie posters used to hang now has ones that proclaim: “‘Annie Jr.’ running April 28-May 7” and “Live from Niantic … Niantic Bay Playhouse … Where the Stars Meet the Sea.”
The former Niantic Cinema, which closed at the end of 2022, is beginning its new life as home for the East Lyme Regional Theater. ELRT has existed for a dozen years but hasn’t had a place of its own.
The building is now dubbed Niantic Bay Playhouse, and the plan is to offer entertainment beyond ELRT as well, from musicians to cabaret performers and even screenings of classic movies.
Inside, the box office and much of the lobby has been repainted a gray-white. The old film posters that are affixed at the top of the lobby walls will soon be replaced with stage production photos from ELRT. The concession stand has new tiling over its counter. ELRT is working to get a beer and wine license so drinks will be sold, along with popcorn, candy and perhaps some packaged baked goods.
In the auditorium to the center right, the first three rows of seats have been removed to allow space for theater rehearsals — and that’s what was happening on a recent night, as children learned their blocking for a scene from “Annie Jr.” Later on, ELRT will build a stage here, where the aforementioned cabaret performers and musicians will be able to perform.
Upstairs, youngsters are gathered on the previously existing “stage” in front of the screen, doing vocal and physical warmups in preparation for their “Annie Jr.” rehearsal.
The movie auditorium to the center left remains as is, since ELRT plans to use it to show old movies. Erin Sousa-Stanley, who is founder and artistic director of ELRT, says that’s a way to pay homage to the Mitchell family that owns the building and ran the cinema for decades and to the community. ELRT is leasing the space.
In the auditorium to the far right, past the restrooms, several rows of seats at the front have been removed to make room for the stage that is going to be built. “Annie Jr.” will be performed here, and there are 183 seats as well as space for three wheelchairs. A platform will be built at the back of the auditorium for the lighting and sound team. ELRT has a two-phase plan for this area. The first is to construct the 32-by-24-foot stage, which will have small wings off to the side created using flats. The later phase will involve building a second level that will feature dressing rooms and a green room.
“You can make magic in a small space, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. I believe everyone in these seats knows what the goal is,” says Erin Sousa-Stanley, founder and artistic director of ELRT.
Support from the community
The Mitchells closed Niantic Cinema permanently at the end of 2022, citing the surge in streaming and in the venue’s operating costs.
Since news broke that ELRT was moving into the Niantic Cinema space (all except for the auditorium on the far left), Sousa-Stanley has been getting “amazing reactions.”
“Everyone has truly embraced this project,” she says. “Honestly, I couldn’t be more humbled by the outreach of support.”
Sousa-Stanley has had business owners stopping her on the street, and an attorney and a contractor have offered to donate their time to help the organization. (The contractor would lead a crew of ELRT volunteers.)
“So many people have been like angels,” she says.
Sousa-Stanley says that although the nonprofit ELRT has been saving money for years, it took a hit during COVID like every other organization, so the initial project is being done as much by donations and as inexpensively as possible.
She’s hoping that an upcoming capital campaign will help for future renovations. ELRT also would like to have the theater spaces named by corporate sponsors.
The first show
“Annie Jr.,” which will run April 28-May 7, is a youth production with a cast of all kids. Sousa-Stanley has always done a youth production at this time of year; the rest of the ELRT season will feature casts of adults and teens/college-aged folks. Sousa-Stanley double-cast “Annie Jr.,” with 42 kids involved in total.
“I’ve been wanting to do ‘Annie’ with my company for a long time, and I knew we had such an amazing pool of talent, especially young girls. It felt like a perfect show to open the season in our new inaugural space, our new home,” she says. “It’s that feel-good show that is so heartwarming and uplifting.”
Plus, she quotes the lyrics from the show’s signature song, “Tomorrow,” and says the sun really did come out for ELRT.
A decision hasn’t been finalized on some of the plays this season, Sousa-Stanley says, but there will be a murder-mystery in June, followed by the musical comedy version of “The Addams Family” during the summer, and “A Christmas Carol” at the end of the year.
Like a family
Madelynn Justice, 8, of Waterford, who is one of the two girls playing the role of Annie, says, “It’s been really fun rehearsing in the old Niantic Cinema. It’s just been super exciting to be the main character in the first production at Niantic Bay Playhouse.”
She says that the cast is very talented and they have a lot of fun at rehearsals. She adds that Sousa-Stanley and husband Chris Stanley, ELRT music director, have been great teachers.
Waterford resident Rhyan Sousa, 10, is the other actress playing Annie. Sousa (whose father is Erin Sousa-Stanley’s cousin) did her first show at age 5, and this marks her eighth ELRT production. She says she’s made great friends and has learned a lot.
As for ELRT’s new site, she says, “I was so excited because (Sousa-Stanley) has been looking for a home for so many years, and I was so happy for her and excited to have this big space to do all our practicing and our shows.”
And discussing ELRT in general, Emma Frisbie, an eighth-grader from East Lyme who plays Kate the orphan and also doubles as Cecile in the mansion staff in “Annie Jr.,” says, “It’s a really good community. I feel like when I’m with my theater friends, I’m with my family.”
What: Open House
Where: Niantic Bay Playhouse, 279 Main St., Niantic
When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday
What: “Annie Jr.”
Where: Niantic Bay Playhouse, 279 Main St., Niantic
When: April 28-May 7; 7 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
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