by Gail M. Burns
For this, their second full season as owners and artistic directors of the Ancram Opera House, Jeff Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi have an exciting schedule planned, bringing some cutting-edge artists to the small rural community in southeastern corner of Columbia County.
The season already launched in June with another installment of Ricciardi’s Real People, Real Stories. Inspired by The Moth radio hour, Ricciardi helps storytellers to craft their tales into their best form for performance. This is a twice-yearly event with another evening of stories scheduled in December.
But the excitement really begins this coming weekend when Mousseau and Ricciardi bring The Holler Sessions, written and performed by Frank Boyd, created in collaboration with the TEAM. Staged as a live radio show, The Holler Sessions centers around Ray, an explosive Kansas City DJ, as he broadcasts his love of jazz from his shoddy studio with an infectious passion for this uniquely American art form. The show runs July 14-16 & 20-23; Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm.
“We first saw The Holler Sessions at the Coil Festival and it really left an impression on us,” Ricciardi explained. “We started talks last fall to bring it to the AOH. It is exactly what we are trying to find, that intermingling of theatre and music. At one point the theatre goes dark and you just listen to the jazz. It makes you think about what you see as well as what you hear.”
The show will go to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis after it plays Ancram, a process that tickles Mousseau and Ricciardi. “From Ancram to the world!” they laughed.
Next up on August 4, 5, 11 and 12 is We’re Gonna Die, a life affirming show about death, written by Young Jean Lee, with original music by Lee, Tim Simmonds, Mike Hanf, Nick Jenkins, and Benedict Kupstas. New York City-based Lee is a writer, director, and filmmaker who has been called “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation” by The New York Times and “one of the best experimental playwrights in America” by Time Out New York. Smart and catchy pop songs, heart-rending storytelling, humorous moments of standup and even a short dance break make We’re Gonna Die a powerful, even joyful experience.
“Our fundamental ideas of creating a space where people can present innovative ideas were good ones, they have some legs to them,” Mousseau explained. “We were encouraged by the solid attendance and participation during our first season, and really gratified by the response. We were proud to present the North American premiere of In Praise of Elephants last year, which was written to be performed in a small village hall in Britain.”
How do you come to own a rural performance space? It started in 2005 when Mousseau and Ricciardi moved from New York City to Hudson, NY. “We were introduced to the area by a friend who lived in the Berkshires. Then Hudson caught our eye and we reoriented ourselves and made that our home,” said Mousseau.
A few years later they attended a production of The Turn of the Screw at the Ancram Opera House and thought what fun it would be to stage a show there. The hall had been restored and was used for a time for the performance of elaborate operettas, but by the time Mousseau and Ricciardi visited those productions had ceased and the space was being used for a variety of community classes and performances.
Then in 2015 the AOH came on the market and Mousseau and Ricciardi jumped at the chance to buy.
“The decision was instantaneous,” Ricciardi explained. “It was just immediately clear as soon as we came out and visited the property that we were going to buy this building come hell or high water.”
The two sold their home in Hudson, took a true leap of faith, and now “live above the shop.”
“The Opera House is ideal. It provides a home for us, an apartment space for guest artists, and performance space,” Mousseau said.
The pair are equally passionate about their non-Ancram related careers. Both have impressive credits as performers, directors, and educators. Currently, Ricciardi is a full-time faculty member at CUNY Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn where he teaches voice and acting five days a week. And Mousseau works remotely as the General Manager of the Consortium of Asian-American Theaters & Artists, along with tackling numerous freelance directing jobs. He is currently developing a new piece with a Mexican performer.
While it is home to the longest continuously operating mill in New York State and one of the largest employers in Columbia County, Ancram is mostly farmland and second homes for city dwellers. Mousseau and Ricciardi estimate that about half their audience own homes in the immediate area – Ancram, Copake, Hillsdale, and Gallatin – with the other half travelling from a little further afield in Dutchess, Litchfield, and Berkshire counties.
“Owning a tiny theatre in the country is lots of fun!” Ricciardi enthused. “It is charming that the field that serves as our parking lot in the summer is great for cross-country skiing in the winter.”
The pair are looking ahead now and scouting shows they want to bring to Ancram in 2018 and beyond.
“We’re looking at plays we want to produce,” Mousseau explained. “Pangea and Joe’s Pub in New York City area good music connections for us. That’s where we met Joseph Keckler, who performed here last fall; and Barb Jungr, who will be performing her evening of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs Hard Rain on the evening of August 19.”
And they are currently working with playwright Darrah Cloud on an outdoor, site-specific piece for Olana, painter Frederic Church’s Hudson Valley home, which will be performed September 22-24. The piece draws inspiration from the artist’s painting, letters, family life and the celebrated landscape and is presented as an immersive experience in which performer and audience journey together into Church’s art.
Information on all current and future activities at the Ancram Opera House can be found at https://www.ancramoperahouse.org Tickets are $25 each to all summer events.