Burton Leavitt a true community theater

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Tue., Jan. 17, 2012
This photo montage hanging in the lobby of the Burton Leavitt represents some of the history of the theater, including a photo of its namesake at bottom right, and a photo of the original production of 'Frogs of Windham' at top left. Photos by Melanie Savage.
This photo montage hanging in the lobby of the Burton Leavitt represents some of the history of the theater, including a photo of its namesake at bottom right, and a photo of the original production of 'Frogs of Windham' at top left. Photos by Melanie Savage.

On Jan. 14, the Burton Leavitt didn’t much resemble the top-notch theater venue that local audiences have come to know and love. That’s because the building had been transformed for the annual indoor tag sale, one of many events held throughout the year that keep the venue, home of the Windham Theatre Guild, up and running.

“You’re not catching us at our best,” said Victor Funderburk, president of the Guild and the artistic director of the Burton Leavitt Theatre. The stage had been transformed into a staging area for toys and books, and audience seats had been temporarily moved to make way for tables filled with donated goodies. “It’s become quite an event,” said Funderburk. “There are no other tag sales going on at this time of year, and the prices are really good.”

A closer look revealed hints of the true identity of the building. Above the stage, darkened theater lights hung from black metal scaffolding. Behind the tables of books and toys were the beginnings of the set for the theater’s upcoming production, “The Boys Next Door,” which begins its run on Feb. 3. “They’re chomping at the bit to get in here and work on the sets,” said Funderburk, gesturing toward the stage. “As soon as we’ve cleaned up from the sale, they’ll be in here. We’re a very active group. The building is never quiet.”

The building, located at 779 Main St., in Willimantic, is a reincarnated bank, taken over by the theater guild at the suggestion of Rheo Brouillard from the Savings Institute next door. “He suggested the building and he has really supported us,” said Funderburk. “He made this possible.”

The Windham Theatre Guild arose from a production of “The Frogs of Windham,” put together by members of the community in 1983. “You’re looking at the only living producer of 'The Frogs of Windham,'” said Funderburk. The operetta, based on the famous story of the frogs of 1754 (read a Windham Historical Society version here: http://www.windhamhistory.org/frogs.shtml), was written and originally produced by Burton Leavitt, a graduate of Windham High School in the 1880s who was the very first student to graduate from the music program at Yale University. “He and his father traveled throughout New England producing ‘The Frogs of Windham,’” said Funderburk. “They would round people up and produce the play with whoever was available locally.”

When Funderburk, inspired by the success of the 1983 production, organized the formation of the Windham Theatre Guild, he was reminded of Burton Leavitt. “There’s a remarkable community of people here who are all connected,” he said. When the Guild began work on its permanent home years later, the natural choice was to name it after Leavitt. “I think we captured the spirit of Burton Leavitt here,” said Funderburk. “Just the joy of bringing people together, taking the local talent and putting together a show - it’s magic.”

And there is plenty of local talent, with shows drawing in folks from all walks of life. Like Henry Millman, formerly a professional set designer in New York City. “[He] walked in one day and has been involved ever since,” said Funderburk. “He’s just an example of one of the people who came to the theater from a professional background. It’s just an example of the way the theater works.”

There are plenty of novices involved, as well, both in on-stage and technical capacities. In fact, Funderburk sees teaching as the primary role of the theater. “It’s a real chance for novices to work with professional people,” he said. “It’s great that they have an opportunity to share their talents. Watching people grow is wonderful. Everyone should do theater at least once.”

Currently, the Windham Theatre Guild has a 13-member board, and about 160 active members. They produce shows year-round, focusing mostly on comedies and musicals, with an occasional drama thrown in. They are supported by a small grant from the Department of Economic Development’s Office of the Arts, with most of their operating budget coming from revenues, fundraising and donations.

There will be an open house at the Burton Leavitt Theatre on Jan. 22, from 3 to 5 p.m.; the public is invited. The next production, “The Boys Next Door,” begins on Feb. 3. For a full listing of shows, or to purchase tickets, go to www.windhamtheatreguild.org, or call 860-423-2245.


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