The historic and newly re-opened Ancram Opera House serves the communities of Ancram, the Hudson Valley, and neighboring Berkshires, providing an alternative to the traditional summer theater fare typically seen in the region. The building was built as a Grange Hall in 1927 and rechristened The Ancram Opera House in the 1970s when it became a performing arts venue for light operatic fare. It has since served a number of different purposes, from lecture hall to yoga studio, and under new ownership is dedicated to offering contemporary theatrical performance in a rural setting. An intimate space with fewer than 100 seats, the Ancram Opera House gives patrons an immersive theater-going experience with excellent acoustics.
It recently underwent a change in vision and leadership when it was bought by co-directors Jeff Mousseau, a renowned director, and Paul Ricciardi, an actor and voice teacher. Together, they set out to program eclectic evenings of storytelling, music, and theater. One of the shows they brought to Ancram for their second season is WE’RE GONNA DIE. The show was a hit in New York City and ran to huge acclaim, particularly for its creator and performer, Young Jean Lee, a darling of the downtown theater scene. We spoke with Jeff, who also directed the show, about the venue, his thoughts on the future of the company, and why this show was right for his season.
Culturadar: Tell us briefly why you and your husband, Co-Director Paul Ricciardi, decided to open the Ancram Opera House, a small theater dedicated to presenting adventurous, contemporary plays and musical acts, in a tiny town in upstate NY?
Jeff Mousseau: Paul and I restored an old house in nearby Hudson, NY and lived there for over 10 years and loved it. But in 2015, the prior owners of the Ancram Opera House put the building on the market, we were immediately taken by the idea of restoring arts programming in this venerable and much-loved building. Several years previously, Paul and I had actually attended a production at the Opera House so we knew that the space offered everything we could ever want--an intimate performance experience, great acoustics and, most importantly, a really wonderful vibe. We love to juxtapose the rural, rustic nature of the space and our location with innovative contemporary performance. There's a vitality that is palpable when watching a show here and that, I think, lingers with you on the ride home.
CR: What is the Ancram community like and how have they responded to your work?
JM: We love being on a first-name basis with much of our audience and we're fortunate to have such an engaged community living within close range. Many are New Yorkers with second homes in Columbia County, or retirees who have moved up here full-time. They are knowledgeable about and appreciate the contemporary performing arts. Because NY has such a range and multitude of theater options, not everyone can see everything, so I love introducing artists that are off our audience's radar. Last year, the alternative singer/songwriter Joseph Keckler, who regularly performs at Pangea in the East Village, closed out our first season with an amazing, memorable evening; for many here, it was their first experience with him. Similarly, this year's The Holler Sessions reached audiences who wouldn't normally attend PS122 which is where Frank Boyd performed his tour de force in NYC.
CR: WE'RE GONNA DIE is a play with music about facing loneliness, pain, and death yet critics have called it surprisingly uplifting. How do you describe the show, and its message, to people?
JM: I truly do find We're Gonna Die a cathartic show as it recognizes, without sugar-coating, that we don't live forever, that life does come with its challenges, that pain is a part of living, that things don't always work out the way we want. For some, that might seem like a depressing litany for a performance but, for me, I take a little bit of comfort as it recognizes this side of our experience. We're Gonna Die also boasts a terrific--and extremely catchy--indie/pop song cycle that is interspersed with these incredibly touching stories so, as an evening, the show is quite energizing. I love watching audience members shaking their heads to the music, including the show's final number, which is also called We're Gonna Die.
CR: The role played by Maria-Christina Oliveras was originally performed by the playwright, Young Jean Lee, who's not an actress. MC couldn't be a more different type of performer in terms of her acting and singing chops. Why did you cast her? What did she bring to the audition that made you say, "Ok, she's the one?
JM: During callbacks, it was immediately clear to me that Maria-Christina was the one for us. We were very much looking for an authentic presence on stage and MC is so wonderfully present and herself in this piece. She's an amazing talent and effortlessly makes the show's stories, which are so personal and intimate and moving, her own. She is also such a phenomenal singer: she drives the piece musically with a ferocity that's complemented by the nuance and truthfulness of her storytelling.
CR: How have your audiences responded to this work in particular?
JM: Going into this show, I'll admit to some apprehension about how the work would be received. My impression is that in New York, the piece reached a younger audience, because Young Jean Lee and her band, Future Bride, performed it. It's a work that looks at death from a younger person's perspective so, for us, with an older audience, I wasn't sure how the show would land. Talking with audiences after the show has been gratifying: some have appreciated the younger vantage the show brings, or reminds them of. Many have lost spouses, or have encountered serious illness themselves so I worried if the show would seem insensitive to their losses. It seems the opposite is true: that they identify and know all too well that horrible things can happen. Older people can be incredibly brave about the reality of illness, decline and loss. My experience has been that they face it more realistically than we give them credit for.
CR: How does WE'RE GONNA DIE fit in with your greater programmatic vision for the Ancram Opera House?
JM: With its mix of song and storytelling, and its subtle experimentation, We're Gonna Die is an ideal project for us. We're very interested in how music and theater can inhabit the same performance -- without necessarily being "musical theatre." We feature storytelling regularly at the Ancram Opera House: we host a Moth Radio-inspired program with community storytellers. We hope to be a home for the most accomplished artists working today, as well as a place where we can engage the community as performers. As a matter of fact, we invited local residents to participate in a short choreographed dance that takes place at the end of We're Gonna Die. Our plans for the future include offering residencies so that artists can come to Ancram to develop new work, and engaging our local audience through the development of new pieces and stories of local significance. We're situated in a sleepy little village that used to be a bustling community, and we'd love the Ancram Opera House to be a revitalizing force in our neck of the woods.
For more information on the Ancram Opera House and its season, visit https://www.ancramoperahouse.org.
Top – courtesy of Ancram Opera House
Bottom - Left to right: Maria-Christina Oliveras, Claire Cluny, Patrick Robinson, Monte Weber. Photo Credit: B. Doktor
Nella Vera blogs for Culturadar and works in the professional theater in New York City. @spinstripes