'Noble work' - Shelton native's Shakespeare fest a labor of love

SHELTON — It’s been nine years, but Tom Simonetti still becomes teary eyed as he watches hordes of people come for his Shakespeare productions.

Valley Shakespeare Festival, Simonetti’s creation back in 2013, is spending this weekend regaling residents from throughout the Valley and as far away as New York City with its latest Shakespeare in the Park presentation at the Riverwalk in downtown Shelton.

“I never thought anyone was going to show,” Simonetti said, recalling that first production of Comedy of Errors nine years ago. “That first person showed up, then another, another. I teared up, and I still do when I see all the support.”

He said he would never forget the group’s first performance in the park.

“It was like 98 degrees,” he said, “But hundreds came out- literally hundreds. I had some friends from New York come and perform. It was incredible. Look where we are now.”

This year’s free offering, once again directed by Simonetti, is The Adventures of Pericles by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins.

The Adventures of Pericles is running at 7 p.m. in Veteran’s Memorial Park through July 18. The production then heads to Quarry Walk in Oxford from July 22 to July 25, also at 7 p.m. each day. Shows are free with a suggested donation of $10.

Social distancing is encouraged, as is mask wearing for those who are not vaccinated.

Simonetti said the real joy of the annual productions is that Shakespeare’s work can easily be adapted for all venues. The Bard’s work can be performed in family settings like parks, with scaled down productions, to bars, where the work can get a tad colorful with the language, he said.

“That’s what makes his works so brilliant,” Simonetti said, “They can play anywhere and everywhere.”

Actor Matt Mancuso, in just his second festival production, said what prompted a return engagement on his part was Simonetti’s creativity from the director’s seat.

“Tom has found so many ways to bring arts to the people, even last summer during the pandemic, and it is so important,” Mancuso said. “I think 2020 made us all realize how much we need to escape in tough times and the arts and companies like VSF do that.”

Mancuso said Simonetti and Valley Shakespeare Festival provided entertainment and also exposure to and a fostering of love for the arts.

“That’s big for small communities that don’t have that access readily and it is noble work,” Mancuso said.

“This is my first show post pandemic so it’s very emotional for me,” said Segovia, in her third performance with the festival.

“I’ve always thought of live theatre as being magical. In a short amount of time, adults are transported to a childhood frame of mind being told a story. To be able to see their faces again, in person, is a magical feeling.”

Actor Kendall Segovia praised Simonetti for carefully crafting the cast and aiding in her professional development.

"Tom makes it very clear that he takes no behind the scenes drama within his company and that the actors all work well together,” she said. “Most directors just hire the best actor for each part which can be dangerous to the cast as a unit. I believe Tom looks at the cast as a whole and we all have to fit well with each other to complete the piece. It’s a very safe and comfortable environment to work within.”

Zak Risinger said he enjoys performing with the festival because of the supportive crowds.

"It feels like a safe place to explore and grow as an artist,” he said. “It’s always great to get out of the city and do work with a supportive director and a group of artists you trust while providing top notch entertainment to the Valley.”

Risinger said, after this past year and half, it has been great to be back in front of a live audience.

“There are so many times we address the audience in Shakespeare and it is great to be able to actually look them in the eye as opposed to the blackness of an actually theatre,” he added.

Valley Shakespeare Festival is currently in its ninth season of presenting Free Shakespeare in the Park. Throughout the year the group tours schools, farms, libraries and homeless shelters, in addition to the popular Shakespeare in the Bar series.

“I’m a proponent of the arts. I think the arts need to be in the forefront of every community,” said Simonetti, a trained performer who has showed off his acting talents throughout the United States and Europe before taking the directorial reins. “I figured, let’s try this - and Valley Shakespeare Festival was born.”

All actors in this run of Adventures of Pericles are members of the Actor’s Equity Association, a labor union for actors. The cast consists of five actors - Eric Bermudez, Andie Lerner, Mancuso, Segovia and Risinger. The five play all the roles in the show.

Simonetti said, since its inception, the festival has brought talent from as far away as New York, looking to hone their theatrical skills.

“The fellow artists I have met here are just amazing and really inspiring,” Mancuso said. “The process itself is just fun, we put these plays together really fast but we are still given space to play and create and when the final product is seen by the audience it is the absolute best to get to experience their enjoyment.”

Mancuso said he truly enjoys performing for these crowds.

“It’s free Shakespeare,” he said, “So people can choose to stay or go, but so many people make the choice to come and either experience something new or be entertained. It’s very fulfilling and even more so when we get a passing runner to stop and listen for a bit.”

For any questions or weather alerts, visit www.vsfestival.org or call (203) 513-9446.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com