STONY CREEK – Poets, painters, playwrights invent hobbles and haikus, anything, to avoid beginning with a blank page.
In this case, Wyeth Architects, a small Chester-based design firm with a specialty in passive house design, the constraints were everywhere preexisting when they started work on the Legacy Theatre in Branford.
The Wyeth-designed 126-seat pocket theatre opened in April 2021 in the narrow shell of the former Stony Creek Puppet House, a National Historic Landmark that had once housed an Orson Wells theater troupe but more recently was left to deteriorate as a squat and a music venue.
Tucked between houses in the funky coastal community of Stony Creek, just outside of New Haven, the structure has little parking and had long since become a liability for the neighbors by the time co-founders Keely Baisden Knudsen and Stephanie Stiefel Williams formed the Legacy Theatre in 2011 and were able to purchase the building in 2015.
“We asked Keeley and Stephanie for some pictures of theaters that they found inspirational. I think they gave us seven pictures. I believe it was seven pictures of seven beautiful theaters, all of them 3000 seats or more,” recalled architect Leonard Wyeth.
“Super ornate,” said Knudsen.
“Baroque!” said in architect Sara Holmes.
“Very elegant,” said Knudsen.
“Very red,” said Wyeth.
The result is a steeply raked theater in rich vermillion and blonde wood, with a metallic gold proscenium that bucks the trend toward a Nordic economy of style for something closer to Mitteleuropa storybook magic.
“The whole procession of coming into the theater is an act in itself,” explained Holmes, who first fell in love with theater as an undergrad at Skidmore College. “You come into the lobby, and it gets kind of small, then you come through the door and it’s a huge, a big space that opens out. There’s a gold proscenium. It’s lush. I really feel like you’ve passed through the door and entered this different world. It’s like a cue to ready your suspension of disbelief.”
In the tight confines of the existing brick and mortar structure, which dates to the early twentieth century, Wyeth said that most of the structure was built from wood, with the floors shaved to an inch and a half and covered in natural rubber to deaden noise and allow for adequate headroom. The rake accommodates a small lobby.
The lighting, sound system, tech booth and mechanicals are all state of the art, according to Holmes, and the fly system designed to coil to accommodate limited fly space.
Equity contracts were not even granted when the theater opened last year during the pandemic, and the theater has so far relied instead on guest artist contracts. The original idea, according to Keely, was to create a resident repertory theater built around actors from the area, with additional performers drawn from out of state.
“It’s exciting to be in this neighborhood and see different characters played by the same people to get a feel for them,” said Keely. “We definitely have our core group of half-a-dozen local favorites.”
For my own part, without an audience or actors to distract me, I most noticed the air, slightly cool, and alive in the space.
A “passive design” approach, Wyeth said, was a natural fit for the Legacy Theatre, allowing them to easily accommodate new Equity rules for MERV-13 air filtration – the same technology used in hospital operating rooms – on the fly during construction.
The theater is entirely electric, and perhaps in five years entirely solar powered.
“We finished a house recently in Stonington. 2700 square feet. It’s new construction. It’s all electric. There’s no fossil fuel at all. $9.11 a month, all 12 months. So, can it be done? Yes, it can. It can be done right now,” said Wyeth.
The acoustics, which are good enough to attract a partnership with Yale Opera, and a Sunday Broadway series, benefited from the expertise of Damian Doria, a board member, and partner with Stage Consultants, a theater planning, and acoustics design practice.
Jamie Burnett, a local production and lightning designer who continues to work with Legacy Theatre, consulted with Wyeth Architects on a design for the lighting and mechanicals that would not require a tensile metal grid.
The theater, including stage, dressing rooms and lighting and sound boards, is wheelchair accessible and hosts the Wheel Life Theatre – an acting troupe for performers on crutches and in wheelchairs.
At a relatively modest cost of $5 million, Legacy theatre is undoubtedly a top performance space on the shoreline between New Haven and Westerly, and a model for other towns hoping to build similar. In 2022, the Wyeth design won a Preservation Connecticut Award of Merit, an AIA Connecticut Sustainable Architecture Award of Merit as well as an Elizabeth Mills Brown Award of Excellence, and the Connecticut Green Building Council Green Building Retrofit Award of Merit.
And the future? 5 or 10 years?
“We are talking about live streaming this year. There’s a lot of potential for theaters to begin to think outside the box. And now that we’ve kind of all been going through this crazy pandemic and had to think outside the box, now we’re coming up with different hybrid models of how do we get beyond just selling a seat for a show, right? How do we get more revenue than that? And so, our next venture is going to be live streaming the shows that we can expand ticket sales. So, gosh, who knows what’s going to be coming?”