Over the past few weeks, The Colonial Theatre’s Founding Director and outgoing Director of Programming, Stephen Dignazio, has shared the history and vision of The Colonial with its new Director of Programming, Susanna Brent. Stephen and Susanna recorded one of their conversations, which took place during the soundcheck for the Bandemic Music Festival, and we share a portion of it with you here:
Susanna: How did you get involved with The Colonial Theatre?
Stephen: I moved here in 1970, went to Franconia college. Had a great college experience. Raised a family here. I found it was a really good place to live. I reinvented myself any number of times to continue to make a living here. I had an art and poetry career going. I was the bookstore guy for a long time, then I had this organic farm before anyone knew what organic was, then I started doing garden design and I was the garden guy. Then I got a job with the North Country Chamber Players, as their Executive Director. Then the people who owned The Colonial Theatre came to me and asked me if the North Country Chamber Players would like to purchase the theatre because they did a summer music festival every year. The Chamber Players weren’t really in a position to do that but I went anyway. I went in there and I was immediately struck by the fixed seating. Fixed seating! I had been putting up chairs in every grange hall and church basement, and the Sugar Hill Meeting House, week after week, after week. Fixed seating, it was like a new concept. I couldn’t believe it. I looked around at this falling down building which was literally falling down and I thought $400,000 and we’ll be all set here. Well, over a million dollars and twenty years later and finally we are almost there.
Susanna: If it was falling down, why did you do it?
Stephen: For me, it was two things, I wanted to continue to work in the arts and this was kind of a cool project, but the other thing was a sense of giving back. This area has been really good for me. I have raised a family here. I have lots of good relationships and I love living here. The only thing that was missing here for me was a certain cultural aspect. There are two things that you need here, I’ve found, you need a car that would run to get you out of town and a theatre, something that was going on. Thankfully, I have both things now.
Susanna: How did you get it started?
Stephen: Well, the first season, before we even opened we had a heavy snowstorm and the marquee fell off the building. People got interested because they saw all these pictures in the newspaper. People, particularly from Bethlehem, were interested because the theatre had been around for a long time, even though it had a pretty checkered history. So we opened without a marquee.
Susanna: What was it like in the beginning?
Stephen: We didn’t have a marquee for the first 5 years. We didn’t even have a concession area; on one side there were antiques and on the other side, there was a barber where the yarn store is now. We used to make popcorn underneath the portico, we had a little roll-out popcorn machine that we would plug it in and make popcorn for people at night. Inevitably, someone would leave the popcorn out and the raccoons would get in it and you would come in the next morning and there would be popcorn all over the place. I was doing projection three or four times a week. One of the really great decisions that we ever made was to ask Jim Severyn, Sep, if he would be interested in helping out. He had been a projectionist with the New York film festival and he was an electrician. He saved our ass so many times in those early years because the lights would flicker when the wind blew. Sep was there from the very beginning and he just retired last year.
Susanna: How did you keep it going?
Stephen: Eventually, incrementally, one step at a time, things started to change. People started to pay attention. It was a lot of hard work. The Bethlehem Redevelopment Association, under the leadership of Len Reed, helped us with 501c3 nonprofit status. We got an L-chip grant and we purchased the building as part of the match. We re-did the electrical system and put in a real lift. Built the patio and put in a real concessions area. Our donor list started to grow, our membership grew, and eventually, I got a handle on the movie industry and then we started doing live events. We started to see some success. One of the other crucial, really positive decisions that we made at The Colonial was when we hired Jane Storella. Jane does a fantastic job and has become the voice of the theatre.
Susanna: Why did you decide to leave The Colonial?
Stephen: Well, I had seen this coming for quite some time. I’m a 20th century kind of person, my aesthetic is a postmodern aesthetic and my abilities and skillsets are all late 20th century skills. It was really obvious to me that the Colonial needed somebody to move the theatre into the 21st century. I only have limited skills in that regard and limited interest in learning these new skills. I am great at putting up posters, but I am not so great at communicating with people through Instagram. That is what was needed. It was pretty obvious to me that it was needed and I didn’t want to stand in the way. I see so many nonprofits with Executive Directors who stand in the way of progress simply because they want to hang on. I didn’t want to do that. Now, Christine is here and doing an incredible job and you’re here and I am very excited for the future of The Colonial.
Susanna: What are the plans for celebrating your work? I think people want to thank you for what you have done for this community. Is there a parade?
Stephen: A parade; I hope not! You know, I understand that impulse but that kind of thing is not for me. First of all, I am not leaving, I will still live in town. People will still see me at The Colonial. I am very honored that people want to say thank you, but, really, come to The Colonial. That’s what I want. Come to The Colonial, support The Colonial. I notice when people attend and I am very grateful to our supporters, from our major donors to anyone who comes to the window and buys a ticket. When people do that, it’s the kind of thank you that means the most to me. This place was built on millions of small moments, a few big lucky breaks, and the connection of interacting one person at a time. I want that kind of personal feeling to continue long after I am gone. That is what I want for my legacy.
Stephen Dignazio’s twenty-one-year tenure at The Colonial concludes this summer and he departs with our gratitude and best wishes. To thank Stephen and celebrate his work, consider supporting The Colonial Theatre.