Small Town Gem – Ancram Center for the Arts – Creates Community

The newly named, Ancram Center for the Arts (Ancram Center), in Ancram, New York, was originally established as the Ancram Grange in 1927, a community hub for local farming families.  In 1972, it was acquired and renamed the Ancram Opera House. Light operatic fare was presented until the Opera House changed hands in the 1990s. At that time, dance, film, and music were staged, and yoga and Alexander technique were taught. Jeffrey Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi, award-winning theater directors, purchased the Opera House in 2016. Ancram Center continues to serve the community, as it did in its earliest inception, and the community continues to be a vital component of Ancram Center’s success. In thanks and welcome Ancram Center hosts a free Spring Open House on June 1. 

The original Opera House and the new Annex, that comprise Ancram Center, attracts world-class theater artists to its stage. Not only is the programming robust, the physical plant attractive and steeped in history but the bona fides of Mousseau and Ricciardi’s are impressive. Mousseau was the founder of the notable Coyote Theatre in Boston, directs local productions from the Berkshires, to Hudson, as well as East Coast venues the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City. Ricciardi, in addition to numerous and laudable directing credits, is an accomplished voice, speech and dialect coach working in local, regional and New York City theaters.

During their relatively short tenure as stewards of Ancram Center, Mousseau and Ricciardi have established weeklong artist residencies that lead from the initial idea of a play to a first staging; the licensing and presentation of one play annually that is either new or existing; community storytelling; a radio series; young students presenting their own stories; and an annual music concert in a local barn. 

Renowned playwrights including, Tony Kushner, Young Jean Lee, Kevin Dyer, and Taylor Mac, and composer and performer Heather Christian have been presented in the annual theater production. For this occasion, actors are assembled, and either a guest director is hired or Mousseau or Ricciardi direct. 

Now in its ninth year, the 2024 season runs from April through November. Offerings include Summer Play Lab events Centuries, on July 7 with collaborators, Kate Douglas, Matthew Dean Marsh, and Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez, who present an immersive music event. Blending folk, chamber and soul the work questions our existence in a plastic world. On August 4, Martha Redbone with Aaron Whitby will present Conversations. Redbone, of Cherokee, Choctaw and African American heritage and a 2024 resident artist, sources material for her Roots Project by interviewing multigenerational Native Americans from across the country.

The Real People, Real Stories performance, led by Ricciardi, takes place on June 29. Storytellers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, the Capitol District and the Hudson Valley, pitch their narratives. Ricciardi works closely with those selected to “help them understand the story, and craft the structure,” says Mousseau. Improvisation lends the storyteller a sense of spontaneity and authenticity.  Ancram Center’s Real People, Real Stories fundraiser, May 11, supports community storytelling and education including the many free storytelling and songwriting workshops offered throughout the year. 

Crystal Radio Sessions with local writer Ashley Mayne features fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction and personal essays by Hudson Valley writers read by professional actors on July 13.

Ricciardi directs a personal narrative writing program at Taconic Hills, NY for 300 elementary students, grades 4, 5, and 6. Students choose a theme, such as getting lost, a friendship, or their pet, and write a story under the tutelage of Ricciardi and two teachers.  Students share their stories with one another. A self-selected group perform at the Opera House, free of charge to audience members. 

The Summer Concert headliner Rizo in Home, who “practically has the word ‘talent’ tattooed on her forehead,” Wall Street Journal, will be held in The Circa 1799 barn on Simon’s Road in Ancramdale on July 20. Rizo, a Grammy winning cabaret and burlesque star, entertains with a mixture of comedy, flamboyance, and the beguiling demeanor of a chanteuse.

Renovating and maintaining the existing structures and funding the programs takes visionary planning. Generous support from the Ancram Center board of directors and the local community, plus state and national grants assure the ongoing wellbeing and fulsomeness of Ancram Center. The Annex, the 1700s house next door to the Opera House, was purchased with the help of Dutchess and Columbia Counties Assembly member Didi Barrett, who identified a Dorm Acquisition grant. The wing, intended to house guest artists and provide a conference room, will be mixed-use and wheelchair accessible. 

Creating Ancram Center took foresight, grit, and comprehensive knowledge of the theater field. Says Mousseau, “People have been supportive across the board. They value what we bring to the community.” Given the inclusive programming, Ancram Center satisfies a wide reach of theatergoers. 

By Catherine Tharin, Writer & Reporter:The Dance Enthusiast, Side of Culture, WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, The Boston Globe

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