Open Arts Alliance: Enjoying the Humanity of Post-Pandemic Live Theater

At Open Arts Alliance, the Greenwich based non profit theater group, executive director Rocco Natale said summer 2022 has been nothing short of joyful.

Rocco Natale at the headquarters of Open Arts Alliance inside River House in Cos Cob. Aug 18, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

“We did theater throughout the pandemic, but kids had to stay apart and wear masks,” he explained. “Everyone had missed the human connection.”

“This summer everyone could gather around the piano and sing again,” he added. “It was the most human experience you could have.”

In fact, Open Arts Alliance had triple the fun, performing three full musicals: Aladdin Kids, A Christmas Story, and the challenging Sweeney Todd.

Natale said Sweeney Todd was as challenging as it was rewarding.

Sweeney Todd is heavy material, but there was still an air of joy,” he said, adding that there were many new faces this summer, including youngsters from Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien, as well as Westchester County.

“It’s exciting to have the family grow,” Natale said. “It was rejuvenating.”

The summer performances were again held at Powerhouse Performing Arts Center in New Canaan’s Waveny Park. Rehearsals were held at River House in Cos Cob and there were several programs with the seniors there.

“We previewed the shows for them,” Natale said. “It was great because the kids got their nerves out and the seniors loved it. They got to hear music, and then we all had an ice cream party! How can you not be happy singing show tunes and eating ice cream?”

Natale explained that the inter-generational connection is an critical component of Open Arts Alliance’s mission.

“Those little moments of a child singing and bringing joy to other people, especially a community often overlooked – seniors with Alzheimer’s or Dementia – and watching them bond and connect was just wonderful,” he said.

Natale said that while Sweeney Todd was heavy material, he gave great credit to the Open Arts Alliance board of directors and advisory board who stood behind the difficult show choice.

“For Sweeney Todd, we told our kids that if they wanted to do it, they’d have to really step up to the plate musically. And they did,” Natale said. “What could have been a divisive process was a unifying one….There was really an excitement to push the kids beyond their limits.”

Natale credited Jake Lloyd, the Open Arts Alliance director of programs, who directed Sweeney Todd.

“His ability to bring live music into the organization has been such a step forward,” Natale said.

Fall 2022: Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Anne of Green Gables

As for fall 2022, Natale said there are plans in the works for a production of Matilda an a new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables that Mr. Lloyd is working on.

Anne of Green Gables is about an orphan who finds a new home. So does Matilda, but they do that in very different ways.

“Fall is our season of learning, workshopping and developing,” Natale said. “We’re excited to work with the students on new material. That is a skill they don’t often learn and don’t learn elsewhere.”

A great deal of time was spent considering the educational content to explore with the children, and the idea of a strong protagonist was appealing.

“The fact it’s a female protagonist was appealing,” he said. “It felt complimentary to have Matilda and Anne of Green Gables – the stories of self discovery, finding home and finding family.”

Many members of the organization have blended families or non traditional families, and the choices of shows allowed for exploration of the ways that families make a home.

Leadership Council

Open Arts Alliance’s student Leadership Council is in its third year, but since it was created during the pandemic, this fall will be the first time it takes place in person. With a Junior Leadership Council for students in grades 6-8, and a second group for students in grades 9-12, participants have an opportunity to learn about non profit administration and civic engagement. They also drive the community engagement element of the productions.

Last season the Leadership Council organized ‘stay safe bags’ for senior citizens and ran a toy drive for the Department of Child and Family Services targeting kids in adoptive or foster care situations.

“The idea that they identified children in foster care as an under served population really makes us proud,” Natale said. “So we jumped on their idea.”

In fact, Natale said his organization features students of widely varied backgrounds.

“What’s great about that is it’s not always apparent. The kids don’t always realize the home life of their peers.”

At Open Arts Alliance, students are seen for their ability, talent and spirit, as opposed to factors outside their control, creating a safe environment for everyone who walks through the door.

“All our kids have a great experience in a safe environment.”

Guest Teaching Artists

The summer of 2022 was the first season Open Arts Alliance had guest teaching artists teaching shows. Jack Brosnan directed A Christmas Story and Kendrick Weingast directed Aladdin.

“They brought diverse styles and backgrounds to our students, having worked professionally at other regional theater companies,” Natale said. “Our intention in bringing in a new coterie of teaching artists and faculty meant they’d learn different skills from different instructors.”

This is Open Arts Alliance’s 11th years of incorporation, and their 6th in terms of boots on the ground.

The first group of alumni are now in their first jobs and going into the world of professional theater.

Other alumni are now in college and return to work and volunteer at Open Arts Alliance when they’re in town. In fact, he said many alumni attended opening night of Sweeney Todd.

“They always stay in touch with us. We’ve not lost one alumni yet,” Natale said. “I hear from them whenever they’re in town. The younger kids love when they’re here. It’s like having celebrities in the audience and it brings a great energy.”

Natale said he was proud that the sense of community and family are what make Open Arts Alliance so special.

Registration for Matilda is now open. Classes start after Labor Day are divided into grades 1-5 and 6-8.

Classes meet once-a-week over a 10-week period (starting the week of Labor Day), culminating in performances where all the classes join together, alternating between lead roles and supporting ensemble. All classes meet at River House, 125 River Road Extension, Cos Cob. Performances and dress rehearsals take place in December at the Powerhouse Theatre in New Canaan).

Registration for Anne of Green Gables. This new musical, with book, music and lyrics by OAA’s Jake Lloyd, is based on the classic novel by Lucy Maude Montgomery. This new take on the show explores themes of family and acceptance.

Classes meet Sundays, 10:00am – 12:00pm, starting September 18 at the River House in Cos Cob, with dress rehearsal and performances at Powerhouse Theatre in New Canaan in December. There will be a special performance at Nathaniel Witherell in November.

Questions? Email: [email protected]