For the young people participating in the Youth CONNection Players, helping put together a play every summer in Shelton is an integral part of their lives.
“The Scarpas are family and Center Stage is home,” said John Corraro, 20, of Shelton, who is playing one of the male leads in this year’s Youth CONNection musical.
Founded by husband-and-wife Gary and Fran Scarpa in 1983, the Youth Connection summer theater program is designed to teach local youth in their teens and early 20s about acting, singing and dancing as well as how to work together to create high-quality productions.
Youth CONNection is part of Center Stage, a nonprofit community theater in Shelton that also was founded by the Scarpas.
Now marking its 30th season, Youth CONNection is performing the recent Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone at Shelton High School (SHS) through this weekend.
Upcoming performances are Friday, Aug. 2, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 3, at 2 and 8. For ticket information go to centerstageshelton.com.
Gary Scarpa is a former teacher at SHS. He left his post at Shelton High in 1983 to pursue more lucrative job opportunities but he missed directing the SHS Drama Club, which he had founded seven years earlier.
With the assistance of Fran, a theater professional, the Youth CONNection’s first show — West Side Story — was produced in 1983 on a small stage at the community center.
“It really all began without a plan for the future,” Gary Scarpa said. “We missed directing the kids. That summer went fabulously well and we were sold out every night, even though we were in this tiny place that had no air conditioning.”
Since then, Youth CONNection has staged its summer productions at the spacious, air-conditioned Shelton High School, except when that building was being renovated.
Center Stage recently received a $125,000 grant from the Valley Community Foundation. Each show costs about $30,000 to $35,000 to produce.
“We’re a growing organization and we’re really hopeful about our future,” Scarpa said. “We started out 30 years ago just trying to put on a show and now we’re an important arts organization in the Lower Naugatuck Valley.”
He said they have to begin to think about handing over the reins of Center Stage and the Youth CONNection to a successor. The couple’s two daughters, Mia and Gina, are involved in both the summer theater company and Center Stage.
However, Scarpa isn’t sure they would like to devote their lives to overseeing every aspect of a show, as he and his wife have done for more than three decades.
“Fran and I have learned to do everything — the costumes, lighting, set construction, design,” he said. “And, it has been me and Fran directing.”
Performers repeatedly return to participate in “a Scarpa production” because they like the family atmosphere.
This will be John Corraro’s 20th production with the Scarpas, at various venues.
“The Scarpas care about you and teach you about more than acting,” he said. “They teach you how to be a good person.”
Kayla Giampaolo, who also tackles a leading role in The Drowsy Chaperone, performed in her first Scarpa production with Corraro when they were eight years old. As part of a children’s theater class, they performed on stage in Frog and Toad.
Giampaolo said the Scarpas foster a sense of camaraderie that she didn’t find in her college’s drama club.
Scarpa said the summer productions provide “a great social experience.” Over the years he has observed shy teens “come out of their shells” and shine onstage.
He’s also seen kids who used to sit alone in the school cafeteria acquire “a really wonderful social group who really care about [them].”
“Theater is a wonderful thing,” Scarpa said. “I can’t count all of the many ways I think the kids benefit. In a Scarpa production, everyone dances We want everyone to participate fully.
“You get immediate feedback from the audience that may include applause and a standing ovation,” he continued. “This makes the kids feel positive about themselves.”
They also get lessons in teamwork, responsibility, commitment and discipline. Scarpa said cast members are all expected to be at every rehearsal and they are required to complete homework, such as practicing choreography or vocal harmonies.
Actors rehearse five days a week for six to seven weeks for a Youth Connection show.
The only downside he can think of is the disappointment some teens feel when they’re not cast in a desired role.
Even then, he and his wife put a positive spin on the situation by providing feedback, when asked by the young people.
“We work with them and talk about their importance in the production, even if they’re not playing the role they wanted,” he said. “They eventually get over it and work really hard on the show.”
The Scarpas initially met at Southern Connecticut State University. Although Gary eventually returned to Shelton High School as a guidance counselor, and he and Fran continue to head SHS drama productions, they both have a soft spot for Youth CONNection.
“I have an addiction to teens in theater,” Gary Scarpa said. “I have to continue to do this.”