John Reid has been all over the world, and it’s a pleasure hearing him talk about it in his relaxed, luxurious basso profundo that still carries the lilt of a boyhood spent in Laurel, Mississippi. Now he’s introducing himself around Fairfield and gathering steam for plans for the Fairfield Theatre Company (FTC). StageOne is packing them in four nights a week, and there are bigger catfish to fry. This producing artistic director has ideas.
Reid had been a singer-songwriter himself once, and played, he recalls, juke joints and moose lodges all over the South. He grew up on the entirely eclectic stewpot of music you’d hear in those days, where old-time country music smacked into raw blues and the afternoon might finish off with a dulcet folk song.
Sitting backstage recently in the warehouse-like dressing-room area, he relates the most transformational event in his life, the weekend in mid-puberty when friends took him backstage to the 1969 New Orleans Pop Festival. It wasn’t just the electrifying moment when Janis Joplin looked him straight in the eye. “I was standing in the wings of the stage, watching the whole festival. Santana, Country Joe—that music festival more than anything else moved me to want to become part of the whole thing.”
Now he surely is, and he brings to the town a lot more than just a love of music. He has spent thirty years working for humanitarian relief agencies such as CARE and World Vision. He understands how nonprofits work, and FTC is just that, even as it has made such a big mark in the community.
There might be a few solid citizens in Fairfield who don’t much like the idea of some well-oiled college kids hitting the town bricks after a rousing concert, but don’t tell that to the proprietors of the local restaurants. Those crowds coming to town to take in a show at StageOne have been a godsend to nightspots that welcome them. It’s a shifting mix, depending on who’s playing at StageOne, and, according to one beaming waitress at neighboring Archie Moore’s Bar & Restaurant, it’s always a damned happy crowd.
In its eight years as a music venue on Sanford Street, lodged in an unassuming industrial building just off the Fairfield train station, the FTC has built up a fine reputation not just with local music fans but with nationally known acts which view it as a nice stopover between Boston and New York.
“They know they’re going to get a great audience,” says Reid. “John Mayall described it like playing in your living room. We had another artist here who said, ‘You walk in and feel like the room is giving you a hug.’ The artists love the venue because you’re literally ten, fifteen feet away.”
This tender feeling of satisfaction would explain how a little ol’ Fairfield stage with 225 seats can bring in the likes of Mayall, who continued on down I-95 to do four sold-out shows at Lincoln Center, or Delbert McClinton, Leo Kottke, Tab Benoit, not to mention all the rising acts just getting traction.
When the bright lights were first turned on in the converted space a decade ago, the original intention for the house, a public-private venture, was for dramatic theater. Fairfield’s downtown was a lot quieter ten years ago, and the managers, unable to fill the seats, brought in the occasional musical act. Under the guidance of recently departed director Miles Marek, suddenly there were crowds, the neighboring boîtes had customers, and—who knew?—eventually the once moribund downtown Fairfield had cosmopolitan riffraff jollying it up.
Reid hopes to spearhead an expansion that will turn the spacious, 8,000-square-foot warehouse on the property into an additional 500- to 600-seat theater. This would allow the nonprofit to not just bring in more robust acts and different genres but also restore the original venue to its intended purpose as a theatrical stage. The new stage will be called simply “The Warehouse” to keep, he says, the “gritty, grassroots feel.”
For now FTC holds its big shows at the 1,400-seat, Art Deco theater called The Klein in Bridgeport. This summer’s concerts feature Cheap Trick (July 10), Dennis Deyoung (July 21), the B-52s (August 7), Umphrey’s McGee (August 11) and Blues Traveler (August 24). “Our goal is to do four shows a week,” says Reid. “So we have about 20,000 people come to this venue, plus another 20,000 who go through the Klein.”
Reid’s background in nonprofits helps when it comes to lining up sponsors. “Only half of our revenue comes from ticket sales,” he says. When companies sponsor a show, they get first dibs on tickets, plus other perks. There are also various membership levels that allow the more devoted patrons an early opportunity to get seats at shows.
THE WIDER VIEW
About forty nights a year, the FTC is turned over to charity fund-raisers for nonprofits, which get a reduced rental rate. The most charming happening, though, is the Saturday program in which Bridgeport kids come down for one-on-one music tutoring with local Fairfield high-school students.
“We are also planning to bring in a curator to create an art gallery in the space formerly occupied by the Fairfield Arts Council,” says Reid of the neighboring location. Artist David Pressler, vice president of the Art/Place Gallery cooperative, has been negotiating with the FTC to turn the gallery into a gathering place for workshops, exhibitions and networking. “It could be a good, synergistic operation,” says Pressler, who was still waiting for the final papers.
Who would be on the bill on his dream concerts? “The staff does the picking. I’m still learning what people here like, although we do know there is a love of blues and New Orleans music like Tab Benoit. People here love music and the artists can tell. For me, I’d love to see Willie Nelson come up here and do a night of old standards. And wouldn’t it be great if just once John Mayer made another guest appearance in his old hometown?” Reid smiles at the notion. As he confronts another sellout at the FTC, though, he does know that all things are possible.