All the world's a stage at the Hudson Opera House

The Hudson Opera HouseIt's not a typical crowd at the Hudson Opera House. Parents still in their work clothes and young children still in strollers throng the lobby, not a black tie in sight. And as for admission, well, they pay what they can when they can. That's the whole point according to Executive Director Gary Schiro, to get everyone into the opera house, which hosts more than 1,000 events every year. From string quartets and chess clubs, to astronomy lectures and improv workshops, there is never a dull moment at this community arts hub.

“We're really good at actually being busy,” Schiro said. “This building itself has been an experiment. It's an artistic home for so many people.”

That includes teenagers. Near and dear to Schiro's heart is the Teen Theatre Project, which opens its arms to kids from all over the county and from all different backgrounds.

“We do pretty intensive recruitment,” he said. “For us, keeping the programs 70 percent free is critical. It is the best way to get diverse participation.” Twice a year, in the fall and spring, director Carol Rusoff transforms a group of some 25 acting novices into stage professionals.

“Usually it's a literary adaptation that they do; Kipling, Shakespeare,” Schiro said. “When they put this production together it's just an amazing thing to see. They are so enthusiastic and energetic.”

Jayne Anderson has been in the thick of that energy for the last three years. A recent graduate from Hudson High School, Anderson is headed to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in the fall, with a good head on her shoulders and a deep love of Shakespeare, thanks to the Theatre Project.

“I don't think I'd be the person I am today if I wasn't part of the project,” she said. “It helped me out with acting and with English. I read better and can interpret what it is I am actually reading and saying. I find double meaning in everything now, even when I look at artwork, I see it!”

While Anderson's onstage portrayals of Olivia and Titania have prepared her for a place in Bryn Mawr's all-woman Shakespeare acting troupe, her participation in the Teen Theatre Project has also opened her eyes to a wider world.

“I met people from all different cultures and backgrounds,” she said. “Everybody became so close as a cast. Carol could really relate to us, and she taught us that everybody was important, that when it comes to a production, everybody has their own moment.”

Schiro wants these moments to keep coming. In addition to the fine arts education that teen participants are getting, he sees the project as an essential resource for kids who may not have much else.

“This is actually critical for some of our young participants,” he said. “Many have very little contact with their parents, who are still at work when the kids get home from school. This program gives them another anchor in their lives. It also draws in their families, who show up to rehearsals with food and meals for the kids, and who otherwise have maybe never been to a theater performance. I always find it's the folks with the least who are the most generous.”

As with the teen program and other projects, Schiro continues to plow forward with the complete restoration of the Hudson Opera House. Currently, the second floor auditorium is still closed to the public, but as more and more artists of all ages make this their home, Schiro said that finishing the job is crucial, as the building itself has transformed from an experiment to a community necessity. He likens the restoration process to the teens' stage experience.

“They learn that the curtain goes up at 8 p.m., even if you're not ready.”

The Hudson Opera House has received many grants from the Fund for Columbia County for projects, most recently for the Hudson Teen Theatre Project, a program that teaches how to adapt, stage and produce plays.

Gary Schiro has participated in the Harvard Business School Nonprofit Management Program through sponsorship of Berkshire Taconic's Center for Nonprofit Excellence.

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Photo by Lear Levin. Story by Nichole Dupont