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Ancram Opera House

Ancram Opera House

by JOSEPH MONTEBELLO

Like many repurposed old buildings, the Ancram Opera House has had several incarnations, reflecting the needs of the time.

Built in 1927, it started out as Ancram Grange #955, a chapter of the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, to address the social, educational, and economic issues of the region’s local farmers. Some 50 years later, in 1972, the Grange disbanded, and the building was renamed the Ancram Opera House.

As an art venue it focused on light operatic fare, eventually turning to a variety of offerings, including film, vaudeville acts, lectures and, most recently, yoga classes. Fortunately, over the years the building was maintained in good condition, awaiting its next rebirth. Enter Jeff Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi.

Mousseau has an impressive career as a director, theater artist and producer that includes a residency at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where he developed a music theater adaptation of The Snow Queen. He has been a guest director/teacher at Brandeis University, Emerson College, University at Albany and Siena College, and was the founding artistic director of the award-winning Coyote Theater in Boston.

Ricciardi, an award-winning actor, director, teacher and voice/speech/dialect coach, received the 2018 Gold Medallion, a National Theater Education Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Additionally, he teaches at the City University of New York/ Kingsborough Community College.

When Mousseau and Ricciardi purchased the Ancram Opera House in 2015, they had a dream and took a chance to fulfill that ambition. “The idea of community has always been a central part of who I am,” explains Ricciardi. “When the Ancram Opera House came up for sale I thought this might be a way to satisfy my desire for being part of a community and using my training as an actor. I am also a full-time associate professor. Being able to teach at the Opera House as well has been a great combination of my skills.”

Mousseau and Ricciardi had lived in Hudson NY for several years when they decided to buy the opera house and move to Ancram. “The opera house fit perfectly into our personal theater aesthetics,” says Ricciardi. “The building only has only 95 seats and there is an immediate connection between the audience and the actor on stage—it’s that intimacy that we love. Finding the space that is your artistic vision is difficult, so, when you do find something that is right, you immediately go for it. We moved into a building that was ready to take us on.”

And vice versa. The new owners presented their first show in June 2016, a play called Les Moutons. It’s a show for all ages about how sheep spend their time.

“This delightful entertainment merges reality with fantasy through a captivating and wordless live installation that recreates a bucolic country scene,” says Mousseau. “It took place on the lawn and our goal was to reach a family audience, which we did.”

This year the theater will stage Tony Kushner’s Homebody on August 3rd-5th and 10th-12th (Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 4PM). The play is set in pre-9/11 Britain where an inquisitive middle-aged British housewife grapples with Afghanistan's turbulent history—and her own unremarkable life.

“We have been able to attract well-known artists to come and perform in our productions,” says Mousseau. “But we have also been able to attract other performers who want to try out new work in a small venue and then bring it back to New York. As an example, Taylor Mac appeared at the opera house with a new production and then brought it back to Town Hall in New York.”

The Ancram Opera House also has a community program called Real People, Real Stories. Twice a year, local residents are invited on stage to tell their stories.

“We coach each storyteller and help them prepare a piece and get on stage to tell stories about themselves,” Ricciardi says. “It’s become a real favorite and the essence of what our theater is about. And it’s a way to get locals involved in our mission.”

The opera house does six to eight productions a year; some run for several weeks, others are one night only. There is a mix of 25 to 35 performance days each season. Remaining productions this year bring include Barb Jungr and John McDaniel performing The Beatles on August 18th at 8.30PM and Diana Oh in concert August 25th at 8.30PM.

The small size of the theater offers intimacy and an opportunity for self-discovery. Mousseau and Ricciardi have created a synergy by supporting the artists, their process, and the drive to create but also recognize the central role the audience plays in the ultimate realization of any work. There is a concerted effort made to bring audiences and artists of diverse backgrounds together to help an evolution of understanding for both actor and observer.

And each production presents a chance to try something new, to float an idea, test new methods, break rules or challenge the actor and the audience. So far it, it appears that Mousseau and Ricciardi are achieving all of their goals and dreams for the Ancram Opera House.

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