Theater Grows From a Love of Acting

Sep 5, 2008

By Susan Stewart | NYT 

Before motherhood, Melody Libonati was an actress, with a part on the soap opera “One Life to Live” (she was Samantha Vernon), stints on Broadway (Sandy in the traveling company of “Grease”) and big commercials: Dawn detergent, Comet cleanser, Campbell’s soup, and a memorable advertisement for AT&T.

Melody Meitrott Libonati

For that last one, she said, “I was standing on my head in a lotus position talking on the phone.”

Once her children were grown, Ms. Libonati, 56, toyed with the idea of returning to acting. “But can you imagine what kind of commercials I’d be doing now?” she said, rolling her large blue eyes. “Hemorrhoids?” Instead, she started a conservatory and a summer theater in New Canaan.

Now five years and 36 productions later, the Performing Arts Conservatory of New Canaan is a thriving arts school with a staff of 15, and the Summer Theater of New Canaan is going strong, or as strong as a nonprofit arts group can go.

“The school works,” Ms. Libonati said. “It’s the theater that’s a challenge. I feel like the theater is very fragile. It just needs to be supported.”

Luckily, support is close at hand. Harry Connick Jr., a New Canaan resident, held a fund-raiser in 2006 when he was starring in “The Pajama Game” on Broadway. Other New Canaanites, like Lucy Arnaz and Brian Williams, have also helped.

Though Ms. Libonati may not run in the same circles of fame as her donors, she has built up plenty of local good will, performing her cabaret act for other organizations’ fund-raisers, directing the Christmas pageant and the children’s choir at the Presbyterian Church and teaching at the King and Low-Heywood Thomas School in Stamford.

Ticket sales for theater productions (prices range from $13 to $20 for children’s productions to $25 to $55 for the big shows, like this summer’s “Music Man”) cover from 30 to 40 percent of the organization’s operating costs. “We’d like it to be 50 percent,” Ms. Libonati said, “but it never will be.”

Still, there is progress. This year, outdoor productions in Irwin Park in New Canaan were not at the mercy of the weather — a first, made possible by a new $50,000 covered stage. The park was the site for “Twelfth Night,” directed by Ms. Libonati’s daughter, Allegra, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. Allegra Libonati’s brother, Christian, played Sebastian and ran a summer apprentice program at the theater.

Christian Libonati, who just graduated from Northwestern, has had many starring roles, including Peter Pan. Any hard feelings toward the artistic director for casting her son? Ms. Libonati laughed. “No, that part involved flying on a wire,” she said. “It was very complicated. I knew I had to have someone who wasn’t going to complain.”

“It makes for some interesting dinner talk,” her husband, Ed Libonati, said of the family business. Mr. Libonati, who owns an advertising company, is the theater’s executive producer. “This summer we didn’t have dinner before midnight, and we’d have 10 or 12 people there from the company every night.”

Ms. Libonati did the cooking. “It’s lovely — families in the theater are not unusual,” she said, then added with a grin, “There are the Shuberts, the Nederlanders.”