May 4, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

It’s frigid and windy as Amy Ryan works the lock of the Benson Theatre’s glass doors. The theater, which has been closed for decades, sits in the heart of Benson’s Maple Street corridor, and when it’s cold, the old lock sticks. Ryan thrusts the doors open finally, and we step inside. The space is vast and empty—our voices bounce along open-faced brick walls and bare steel trusses—and we can still see our breath. “I’m going to take you down below,” Ryan says, as she leads me past the main stage and down a dark staircase. We step gingerly on the old wooden slats, and the air turns humid and musty.

“It’s kind of built like the hull of a ship,” Ryan says, pointing to a small stage buried 16 feet below the main floor. Splashes of teal, burgundy, and gold paint are still visible on the old proscenium arch: remnants of the building’s original days as a vaudeville playhouse.

“Vaudeville, in French, means ‘voice of the city,’” Ryan says. Vaudeville often served as a platform for civic conversation—and that’s one reason Ryan says she feels so drawn to the building. When it went up for sale a couple years ago, she jumped at the chance to buy it—not only to restore it to its grand beginnings but to build a community anchor.

“One thing I’ve learned from 19 years of hustling pizza,” says Ryan, who owns the Pizza Shoppe next door, “is that when you have a physical space, you can help anyone.” Ryan currently supports a growing number of artists in Benson’s now-bustling entertainment district through her adjoining P.S. Collective—a venue for poets and musicians. “You have all these artists who are incredible—the genius of the people in this town in music, in writing, in film and theater,” she says. “But they work three jobs. They’re waiting tables, and they’re struggling.”

Ryan says she wants to provide performance and artistic space in the Benson Theatre—by hosting such a sky’s-the-limit slate of events as opera, chamber and symphonic music, theater productions, independent films, spoken word, and performance art.

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But like its vaudeville roots, the mission of the new Benson Theatre will be more than a vehicle for the arts. Ryan, who was a social worker before she inherited the Pizza Shoppe, plans to host educational workshops for artists, entrepreneurs and Benson’s underserved—seniors, people with special needs and the impoverished. The connection: self-sustainability. “We live within social systems that don’t work for people,” Ryan says. “We can change those by just practicing something differently. To me, it’s teaching people how to generate their own revenue because really—all of us just want to be self-sustaining in life.”

The workshops will focus on financial lessons—from basic job interviewing to writing business proposals. “As writers, as artists, as social workers and caregivers of others, we can learn how to be successful in those things that we do,” Ryan says.

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