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Volume 34
Issue 13
 
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Exploring Southern Connecticut
Exploring Southern Connecticut
by E. Joyce Glasgow - SGN A&E Writer

PART ONE OF TWO:

The towns and cities of southern Connecticut have a lot to offer. Many towns line Long Island Sound with its sandy beaches and are easily accessible from New York City by railroad or car.

BRIDGEPORT, CT

Bridgeport, CT, like New Haven, is having a renaissance on a smaller scale after years of being plagued by economic decline because of its former dependence on munitions sales and other industry during World War II. It has also had trouble with corrupt leadership in its local government. Once beautiful and thriving earlier in the twentieth century, Bridgeport, called "The Park City," has lovely historic buildings, numerous parks (many designed by the Olmsteads, of Central Park fame) and a long stretch of beach on Long Island Sound. PT Barnum was from Bridgeport and his museum is there.

Great things are starting to happen in Bridgeport. The national organization "Artspace" has just opened an artists' live-work loft space and gallery in Read's, the former multi-storied department store, so artists who need low cost space in close proximity to the New York art scene have a great place to live and work. There are regular shows in the large first floor gallery.

A young entrepreneur and promoter of Exotic Recordings, Merideth Di Menna, who lives in the building produces a musical concert series at the nearby Playhouse on the Green featuring nationally known acts with local artists as opening acts in the intimate 228 seat theatre. The Playhouse is a beautiful newly renovated historic building, which once was a bank. It has magnificent marble pillars outside and marble floors and walls in the lobby, along with gold leaf trim and brass light fixtures. I saw singer/composer/guitarist Raul Midon who gave an energetic, entertaining performance. The hit of the evening though was Kersten Stevens, a local Connecticut jazz violinist, who is a senior in music and African American Studies at Yale University. She is one of the best, most thoughtful violinists I've heard in a long time and did a great job with her trio of piano, bass and drums, playing fresh arrangements and improvisations of gospel, hip hop and jazz tunes. I want you all to know about her. She has two CDs available. Keep your ears open for her or visit her website at www.kerstenstevens.com. For more concert information from Exotic Recordings, visit www.exoticrecordings.com. For more theater information about Playhouse on the Green, visit www.playhouseonthegreen.org.

Another interesting performance venue in Bridgeport is the Downtown Cabaret Theatre where I saw the hysterical all-male cast of "Nunsense A-men." This venue is unique in that you bring your own food and wine and they provide the show.

There are a couple of other blossoming artists' work spaces in Bridgeport. One is in an old quilting factory and the other, N.E.S.T., is in a sock factory with an owner who believes in the arts.

While in the Connecticut area I attended the new incredible, phenomenal Cirque du Soleil piece "Delirium" which is the most technically complex work to date by Cirque du Soleil. It played the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport and incorporated giant video screens, hundreds of stage lights, outrageous costumes and sound, live musicians, acrobats and the grand presentations we've come to expect from Cirque du Soleil. Co-created by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, it features the best of Cirque du Soleil's music remixed. Seattle audiences may remember Michel Lemieux's original music and performance with La La La Human Steps, the dance company from Montreal, who performed at On The Boards in the 1980's.

To give you an idea of the colossal size of this production, it takes 20 eighteen-wheel trailers to transport the 130,000 lbs. of technical equipment needed. There are 44 multi-disciplinary artists who perform, including 11 musicians, 6 singers, 18 dancers, 8 acrobats, and 4 main characters. Twenty countries are represented in the group.

For more information about "Delirium" and other Cirque du Soleil productions, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

BLACK ROCK, CT

Black Rock, CT is a neighborhood which straddles areas of Bridgeport and the town just south, Fairfield.

Black Rock is also having a renaissance in housing renovation, art, restaurants, music, clubs and is the first area along the Connecticut shoreline north of New York that is actually still affordable for average income citizens, artists and young families. For example, in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, a 3 bedroom house on average would sell for $350,000. But if you go even 1/4 mile south into the next town of Fairfield, the same house might be selling for $900,000.

One special highlight of Black Rock is "The Soul of the World" tearoom, a very tiny teahouse with a big mission. Owner Polly Simpkins opened her tearoom a year ago with the idea of raising consciousness and promoting world peace. She features over sixty-five teas and blends named after leaders of world peace including Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon. All profit from the sale of her Indian-style Masala Chai blend "Amnes-tea" go to Amnesty International. She uses fair trade and organic teas as much as possible and features black, green, white and herbal teas.

Polly makes her own delicious scones and features other fresh baked goods. She fills her tiny space with fragrant fresh flowers all year and feels that flowers are a must for an uplifting experience.

There are tiny lights and lacy fabrics and a small silent Buddha in one of the steamy windows and only four small tables with chairs, two comfy upholstered high back wing chairs and gentle music playing. This place is really cozy. Her slogan is "Good Karma in Every Cup."

I was one of Simpkins very first customers when she opened and I enjoy that distinction. This is a place to get away from it all, for a quiet respite when you are in the area. You can also order Simpkins' teas in bulk by mail from Seattle. You can reach "Soul of the World" by calling 203-362-2306. The address is 670 Brewster St., Black Rock, CT.

FAIRFIELD, CT

South of Black Rock is Fairfield, CT.

I love Fairfield. The energy feels a bit like Seattle. It's low key, village like, has a lot of shops you can walk around to in the downtown area and the train station is really convenient, in the downtown area.

If you happen to be in the area when something is going on at The Fairfield Theatre, check it out. It is located conveniently next to the commuter train station. Founded by Miles Marek, Producing Director, and Stephen Stout, Artistic Director, the vision for this space is to present high quality, exciting, innovative theatre and other kinds of performance, including music and readings. The space also acts as a theatre lab for developing plays on their way to New York and celebrates the community by hosting benefits for good causes. Last year the theatre presented famed actress Susannah York in a one-woman show about Shakespeare's women.

I attended several fun events in the intimate theatre. One concert featured the David Amram Trio with special guests Keir Dullea (the Broadway and film actor well-known for his role in "2001: A Space Odyssey") and Mia Dillon, his wife, also a distinguished actress. They were reading from the writings of Jack Kerouac, an Amram co-hort in the 1950's and 1960's. David Amram, 75, is a renaissance man, composing classical orchestral works and jazz music, conducting numerous orchestras annually around the world. He was the first and youngest composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, appointed by Leonard Bernstein. Amram wrote the scores for the films "Splendor in the Grass" and "The Manchurian Candidate" as well as for the film "Pull My Daisy," a 50's beat classic with Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. He has written two books about his life experiences. Amram plays French Horn, piano, guitar, numerous flutes and whistles, percussion, and a variety of folkloric instruments from 25 countries. He has participated in major music festivals and has traveled from Brazil to Cuba and from Kenya to Egypt. He as been listed by BMI as one of the two Most Performed Composers of concert music in the United States since 1974. He is one of the first pioneers of blending different ethnic musical styles into what is now referred to as "World Music."

He's got great stories to tell about his friends and the who's who of the arts world which he has been a part of, including Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Leopold Stokowski, Joseph Papp and all his musical buddies he's played with, including Willie Nelson, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Eddie Palmieri, Pepper Adams, the Guthrie family, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Tito Puente, Lionel Hampton, Betty Carter, Dustin Hoffman, Elia Kazan, and on and on. He played "Farm Aid" in the Seattle area a couple of years ago with Willie Nelson. If you have a chance to see David Amram, ever, go see him. Not only is he a great musician with a great sense of humor and a brilliant mind (he speaks 7 languages fluently), but he is a unique living representative of America's cultural history spanning several periods of musical expression.

I attended another jazz concert that was one of a series of benefits put on by the local Fairfield Rotarians, this one, to provide books for children in a library in a town in Cameroon, West Africa, and featured the great Rex Cadwallader Trio with a guest trombonist. I also heard a concert by singer/songwriter Liam Bailey, who has just moved from Connecticut to Lopez Island, WA.

You can find out more about this great community arts venue by visiting www.fairfieldtheatre.org.

While in downtown Fairfield, also check out the "Las Vetas Lounge" for coffee, pastries or soups. It is independently owned and has lots of character. On some nights there is live music and it is one of the only cafes I've been to where middle-school-aged kids, teenagers, 20- and 30-somethings, baby boomers and seniors all seem to enjoy hanging out together harmoniously. "Las Vetas Lounge" is at 1462 Post Rd. Their phone number is 203-255-1958.

If you have a car, take a ride up to the bucolic, rolling hilled campus of Fairfield University for a performance at The Quick Center. I saw a terrific live re-creation of a 40's-vintage radio drama called "Radio Dames" which included a re-creation of "Candy Madson: Private Eye" and the scary classic "Sorry, Wrong Number."

I also attended a performance there of The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company of their new piece "Blind Date" which Bill T. Jones created as a comment and response to our current government's actions in the world and the death and destruction being created by our occupation of Iraq. This multi-media production is a powerful and important work, pointing out our interdependence with each other and the losses we suffer when we are isolated from one another. Here is a quote from Bill T. Jones about "Blind Date": "I started working on this piece at a time when I was really distressed by what I consider to be the eroding of the basic Enlightenment values - deism, tolerance and progress - these great and noble ideas that made modern society. These ideas are at the base of our notion of what it means to be a free person." After the performance Jones and members of the cast discussed the piece with the audience. Keep your eyes open for "Blind Date" since Jones brings his company here to Seattle intermittently. Visit www.billtjones.org.

The Quick Center also has a nice art gallery with frequent, festive art openings. For more information, visit www.quickcenter.com. Their phone number is 203-254-4010.

WESTPORT, CT

Westport, CT is just down the old Post Road from Fairfield going towards New York. Check out the Westport Arts Center at 51 Riverside Ave. This gallery is on the banks of the Saugatuck River, near its confluence with Long Island Sound. While you're looking at the latest and freshest new abstract work from Brooklyn, NY artists, for example, you can gaze out large windows at lovely graceful white swans gliding along the peaceful Saugatuck. Erin Hauber, Communications and Design Director of the Arts Center, told me about wonderful concerts, lectures and other events that happen all year (at reasonable prices) sponsored by the Center in their space or around the town of Westport. Visit www.westportartscenter.org. Their phone number is 203-226-1806.

One such event, co-sponsored by the Westport Arts Center and JIB Productions, is a regularly occurring series entitled "Play With Your Food" presented in downtown Westport. Now this is something I'd really like to see someone in Seattle take on. Seattlites would love this concept and it would probably be pretty successful here. This is how it goes in Westport. A sold-out house of about ninety people show up for a delicious simple gourmet lunch buffet with sandwiches and salads at a performance space and after eating, take their seats for the readings of three short, new one-act plays by contemporary authors performed by local and New York-based professional actors. Afterwards, there is a discussion between the actors and audience and any of the authors that are able to make the performance. This is a fantastic idea and very successful! Audience members get to know each other and look forward to their monthly get-togethers and there is enough time to enjoy it and get back to work, if you have to. This series has been so successful that the towns of Stamford, CT and Greenwich, CT now have their own sold-out version of "Play With Your Food."

If you can, take in something at The Westport Country Playhouse, which was founded in 1931. Newly renovated and reopened in 2005, it is beautiful and looks like a lovely, large old New England country barn. The renovation of the Playhouse is overseen by actress Joanne Woodward who was the director of the Playhouse until recently. Take a look around at the posters on the walls in the lobby, at the phenomenal history of this theatre and the outrageous line-up of actors who have performed here. It is so rich and full, so historical and amazing!

I attended an evening of "Selected Shorts," the National Public Radio show produced by Ira Sheffer from the 92nd St YMCA in New York. (We've had local and national versions of this event at Town Hall in Seattle.) Joanne Woodward was one of the readers of the three stories presented. For information about the Playhouse visit www.westportplayhouse.org. Their phone number is 203-227-4177.

MILFORD, CT

Also noteworthy, Milford, CT, very village-like, is the last stop before New Haven on the train from New York. The Milford Green is so picturesque, with well-kept old New England Colonial homes lining the Green and a gazebo on the Green. There are lots of good restaurants and cafes these days in downtown Milford, again, a town having a renaissance. The Rainbow Gardens Restaurant is a good restaurant and a great bakery in an old Victorian House on the Green at 117 N. Broad St. Their phone number is 203-878-2500.

One thing I noticed in southern Connecticut is how many of the historic and picturesque train stations are being used for art centers, galleries and restaurants. If it's around the holidays, the Milford Fine Arts Council Center for the Arts housed in the Milford Train Station at 40 Railroad Ave. S. has its warm and friendly Holiday Arts Sale.

Make sure to take time to explore the peaceful beaches along Long Island Sound while journeying around the towns of southern Connecticut. And have a great time!

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