Stratford residents hope to rebuild beloved theater

After the American Shakespeare Theatre was engulfed in flames in the early hours of Jan. 13, Stratford residents and representatives have sought to rebuild their unique theater from the ashes.

The Shakespeare theater, in Stratford, Conn. burned to the ground early Sunday morning, Jan. 13, 2019. Opened in 1955 as the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre, the building had stood vacant for many years. — Ned Gerard/ Hearst Connecticut Media

Sen. Kevin Kelly, who worked his first job at the American Shakespeare Theatre, sent a joint letter with Rep. Joe Gresko, Rep. Phil Young and Rep. Ben McGorty to ask Gov. Ned Lamont for a $5 million bond to rebuild the theater.

“The Shakespeare Theatre was once one of Connecticut’s top tourist destinations. It was home to famed performances by national legends in the arts. It has a special place in the history of not only Stratford, but also of our entire state,” the letter said. “Rebuilding would be an opportunity to revitalize the arts, boost our economy and commemorate an integral piece of our history.”

The theater, which was one of three like it in the world, opened in 1955 and was modeled after London’s Globe Theater. The theater has been closed since 1989 and came under the town’s ownership in 2005.

Since the fire there has been a public outcry over the theater’s destruction that incited mourning from Stratford’s residents as well as those across the theater community. Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda tweeted that the fire was “heartbreaking.” During its heyday the theater housed a stage where Hollywood stars, like Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken and others took their bows.

“The loss of this iconic and historic theater that holds a special place in the hearts of Stratford residents is devastating,” said Stratford Mayor Laura Hoydick. “Our first concern is ensuring safety, making sure the site is secured and that there is no further threat to public safety. This fire continues to be under investigation to determine the exact cause of this fire, and we will be working in concert with state officials in that effort.”

The American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford prior to the fire. — Melvin Mason photo

While officials search for the cause of the fire, residents have created a GoFundMe account and a Change.Org petition in the hopes of rebuilding the beloved theater. The GoFundMe account was started by the Mighty Quinn Foundation, a Stratford based arts non-profit organization, with the goal of raising $25,000 for creating “a dedicated theater space in Stratford.” The page has raised over $1,800 in a week.

Sage Sperling, a 14-year-old Stratford resident launched the Change.Org petition with a friend. The petition has garnered more than 900 signatures, Sperling said once it hits her goal of 1,000 she will be submitting it to Mayor Hoydick.

“I hope that we’ll at least get a theater built there, maybe not an exact replica, just something that stands for Shakespeare,” Sperling, a self-professed Shakespeare fan, said.

Sperling added that she thinks it is important for a theater to be rebuilt in the town so residents and younger theater lovers have local access to the arts.

“Shakespeare is simply too important to our culture to simply let his legacy wither away,” Sperling’s petition said.