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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Stage Lights Up: Topia Bringing Theater Back to Life

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, September 01, 2005

Topia Arts Center founders Caryn Heilman and Nana Simopoulos are eager to open the Topia Arts Center doors for real on Sept. 10 for a special performance.
Adams- Bring your regards to Park Street.

On Sept. 10, the Topia Arts Center, formerly the Adams Theater, will return the sparkle and light of live entertainment to the downtown.

A Grand "Door Opening"

A special “After 40 Years” premiere event will feature performances along the Armory Court and inside the renovations-in-progress 27 Park St. theater space. A highlight is a formal “door opening” that will mark the first public performance at the site in four decades.

Arts center Executive Director Nana Simopoulos and Artistic Director Caryn Heilman said during an Aug. 31 interview that they are eagerly anticipating the big moment when they open the doors.

“We are very excited,” said Heilman.

Armory Court will be blocked off so that ticket holders can gather for an African drumming and dancing performance set to occur along a brick-laid circle at the court’s eastern edge. Rain will not interfere with the performance, said Simopoulos.

“If it’s raining, we’ll dance and drum in the rain,” she said. “Ticket collection will start at 6:30 and we will be making an announcement. And then, we’ll be opening the [theater] door to the public for the first time in 40 years.”

The 7 p.m. performance will be followed by a fundraiser gala open to those who purchase $100 “premium seating” tickets. General admission seating tickets are $45 each, and standing room tickets are on sale at $25 each. Those interested in tickets may call 1-800-594-8499 or visit the www.topiaarts.org./Events.html web site.

Town Selectmen’s Chairwoman Myra Wilk said during a Sept. 1 interview that the event and the entire Topia project “is fantastic for the town.”

“This ties in with downtown development and will bring people here,” she said. “The arts center is our part of the Northern Berkshire cultural community. We are thrilled to have Topia.”

Wilk is a member of the Topia Arts Center Board of Directors; she abstained from an Aug. 31 Selectmen’s vote that approved closing Armory Court for a specific time period for the Sept. 10 event.

Featured stage performances will showcase “The Love Show,” described as “a circus and vaudeville show with a little burlesque thrown in.” Heilman and Simopoulos stressed that the show is family-friendly and will offer aerial, acrobatic, and juggling comedy performances delivered by former performers of Cirque Du Soleil, the Ringling Brothers circus, the Pickle Family Circus, and two International Juggling Association champions.

The show’s theme is “love” and is advertised as a performance that “thrills with high flying aerialists flirting, hysterical interludes of love gone awry, phenomenal jugglers on a flailing date, as well as a wife who stands on her husband’s head and other demonstrations of the vagaries and delights of love in all its’ shapes and forms.”

A Quantum Leap

Topia Arts Center Treasurer and town Downtown Development Committee Chairman James Wojtaszek termed the event “a quantum leap.”

“This is really just a beginning,” he said. “A year and a half ago this [theater/arts center project] was just a pipe dream and the [theater] building was falling in on itself. This is a quantum leap.”

The event is a huge moment for Simopoulos and Heilman, who have accomplished much in a little over one year. Café Topia, a Park Street eatery/performance space that has hosted regular weekend entertainment since its’ February opening, is gaining notoriety in the Northeast. In June, as principals of Topia Arts LLC, Heilman and Simopoulos purchased the building housing the theater, the café, and a Subway sandwich shop for $285,000. Private funds were raised for the purchase. The Topia Art Center is a non-profit organization and is actively developing partnerships with local groups such as the United Neighboring Interdependent Trusted Youth [UNITY] and Grooove initiatives, both affiliated with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, as well as Youth, Inc.. Partnerships are also being developed with local, national, and international cultural institutions and a number of local and regional tourism agencies.

Next Steps and Future Projections


A Topia Arts Center stage is undergoing final construction in anticipation of a special Sept. 10 performance.
The center issued a request for proposal to theatrical designers, architectural firms, and acoustical designers and according to a timeline, all three will be selected on September 30. Design work is scheduled for completion by Nov. 30, and a construction RFP is set to be issued on Dec. 30. Estimates put the cost of the overall project at $3 million.

While volunteers make up most of the predevelopment workforce, the center is expected to generate jobs including a box office manager, a development director, a publicist, a marketing and sales director, a technical director, and a host of assistants.

The town Community and Downtown Development office has allocated $120,000 for theater façade improvements, with the revenues generated through a state grant. The Topia group is also actively seeking additional grants for interior improvements.

Fundraisers are part of the revenue-raising effort. Arts center fundraisers to date include a Feb. 17 C.T. Plunkett Elementary School-based reading of Tony Kushner’s “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy” with Academy Award winning actor Marcia Gay Harden.


"Green Plans" for Former Pleasant Street Lodge

Simopoulos and Heilman are also in the midst of a planned renovation of the former Pleasant Street lodge and hope to open the site as a 10-room inn. The former rooming house was purchased for $40,000 and renovation plans are based in “green technology” such as photovoltaic, solar-powered hot water systems, and passive solar energy uses.

“This will be more efficient than my home in Becket,” Simopoulos said, and added that biodiesel fuel will also be used at the inn.

According to Simopoulos, the inn will generate enough energy during the summer months to actually return power to the power grid.

“The meter will be running backward,” she said.

Photovoltaic technology is also slated as part of the theater renovations.

The “green power” strategies are being funded in part by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which has established a renewable energy trust and offers funding mechanisms that include a “Green Buildings and Infrastructure” program.

The Key to Success

The art center agenda is diverse and eclectic; plans include the creation of programming that appeals to children and adults, and the Café Topia has hosted “LilTopia,” a weekly children’s arts camp, for the past several weeks. The theater space is being designed as a flexible arena for a variety of performances, something that bodes well for the project and the town, said Wojtaszek. Dance, theater, music, and circus art performances are all part of the plans, as are teen-age “dance parties” and art gallery exhibits. A state-of-the art production studio could also operate as part of the center, according to information contained in the center’s executive summary.

“The center will not be limited to one type of performance,” Wojtaszek said. “That’s what’s particularly appealing. And there’s nothing like the theater to bring people to a downtown, come out and make a night of it, go out to eat at a local restaurant and perhaps enjoy a cup of coffee afterward. The theater was included as part of the downtown development strategic plan, and we’ve always believed the key to success was to showcase a working theater.”

Simopoulos is an established musician and composer who has solid links with New York City-based cinema, theater, and performing arts entities. Simopoulos plays instruments including the sitar, bouzouki and didgeridoo and sings in Greek, Yorban, Hindi and English. She has performed world music with international opera companies and orchestras.

Heilman is an accomplished dancer who founded her own LiquidBody dance company and also performed with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

The theater history, the beauty of the town, and the artistic focus encompassing the Northern Berkshires drew Simopoulos and Heilman to the region and the multi-phase arts center project.

“We truly love this area,” Simopoulos said. “And the theater is wonderful, it’s just minutes away from so many cultural institutions. There seems to be a fresh arts focus in the Northern Berkshires that is so exciting.”

Additional information about the Topia Arts Center is available at the www.topiaarts.org Internet website.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush123@adelphia.net or at 802-823-9367.
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