Ira Sakolsky & Riverway Studio
Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis
Ira Sakolsky is on the phone getting direction from his client about the intonation his voice should reflect for a don’t drink and drive commercial. He places the receiver back on the hook, does some warm up exercises he learned from his voice coach, and begins recording. Once the tracks are laid down he edits the best takes together. Later that afternoon, football goers at the UConn Husky game will hear his recorded pleas to take alternate transportation if consuming alcohol, as the commercial is broadcast to thousands.
The Shiny Lapel Trio, a local Connecticut band, needs an audition demo to present to the producers at ESPN. They have worked with Sakolsky many times, and in one session record two songs that earn them a performance on Monday Night Football.
On a different day a call comes in to inform Sakolsky that an original musical he wrote and developed into a Grammy-nominated CD, will be performed this holiday season at the Warehouse Theatre in South Carolina.
These are just a few examples of Sakolsky’s varied talents and many achievements. As with everything in his life, Sakolsky has paid particular attention to his intuition, allowing it to guide from one link to the next. So while he may be somewhat amused to find himself the owner of a successful recording studio that he shares with one ancient horse, a miniature pony, and a ridiculously cute Papillon named Louie, he is not surprised.
Sakolsky came to East Haddam where he built Riverway Studio with his late wife Monica Gaudio Sakolsky, via a circuitous route. He was working as an actor in New York in regional stage shows, on Broadway, off Broadway, in soap operas, and in films. He studied method acting with George Morrison, a student of Lee Strasberg, but it was his teacher Paul Sills, founder of the first improvisational theater troupe in the country, The Second City, that ignited his passion for improv.
“I liked improv. It released me. It was a wonderful combination of freedom and having access to the imagination,” says Sakolsky. “You are in the moment playing your heart out, and the audience is responding to your energy. It really breeds true connection with people.”
So when Sakolsky saw the National Theater of the Deaf (NTD) was having open auditions he went, because he knew they performed a lot of improvisational theater.
“I auditioned for them; but they were interested in my music credits,” says Sakolsky, who at that time also worked as a singer / songwriter and a traveling musician playing guitar, drums, and harmonica.
Then some very synchronistic things happened, as Sakolsky points out. He got a job at a school for the deaf leading children through theater games.
“I had never been in touch with deaf people before. I was very moved working with them. In that silence was such force and energy,” recalls Sakolsky.
He received a call back from NTD and ventured to Chester where they were based. The artistic director had him read a script for “An Italian Straw Hat”, and asked him what he could do with it musically. Sakolsky presented his ideas and was hired to score the play and voice the lead character.
He had never written a score before. So not only did he have to teach himself how to write one, but he also had to purchase the equipment he needed to execute the job and learn how to use it.
“I had to figure out how to play what I wrote because it’s two different animals. What your technical capacity is as a musician is separate from what you can hear in your head and your imagination,” Sakolsky says.
The show was a success. Sakolsky scored other plays for NTD and began his “full court press wooing” of Monica Gaudio who worked as a sign language interpreter at NTD. Sakolsky and Gaudio eventually married and built a house together. Out of necessity, Sakolsky set up a small 10×10 bedroom as a recording studio when The Bushnell in Hartford, that was producing the “Curse of Sleepy Hollow”, required a narrative recording.
“Zelda Rubenstein came to act in that. She had been in the movie Poltergeist,” Sakolsky says. “She came to the house with the director, and I was running wires into the bedroom. Zelda was like 4 feet tall, and she is sitting on my bed with a microphone bouncing up and down and said, ‘This is the most comfortable recording studio I have ever been in’.”
Riverway Studio evolved organically. Sakolsky was still at NTD but trying to fill in other work. At the post office one day he was approached by songwriter Chris Lorello who wanted to record his music. Sakolsky squeezed a sax player, drummer, guitarist and other musicians once again into his 10×10 room. But after his celebrity CD “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t” was nominated for a Grammy, Monica suggested they build a proper studio in the basement.
More work came in, and when NTD moved to Hartford, Sakolsky did not follow. Then another synchronistic opportunity occurred. Sakolsky received a call from the Valley Railroad in Essex.
“They wanted to create theater on the train and had this idea of “Theater in the Rectangle.” So now my directing, writing, and music skills suddenly all come together,” says Sakolsky, who had directed an Off-Broadway adaptation of Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth”, and had turned the Stephen King story “Fall From Innocence” into a stage production with the Aaron Copeland Music & Arts Program.
The Valley Railroad, which operates the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, wanted to raise the level of entertainment for their North Pole Express, a special train that runs at Christmastime.
“We felt having professionals like Riverway would give our customers a first class experience. Ira and I had a lot of brainstorming sessions and felt original music, games, and interaction was the answer, a real performance,” says Robert Bell, president of the Valley Railroad Company, Essex Steam Train and Riverboat. “Growing up in the New York City area, both Ira and I attended plays that were “Theater in the Round”. It was a more intimate experience than “stage” plays. We create that intimate experience not in the round, but in a “rectangle” on our passenger train cars. Our customers love it.”
Sakolsky took the poem the “Night Before Christmas”, and turned it into a song so passengers onboard are treated to a live musical performance as the train journeys to the North Pole. While underway, the actors invite the audience to join in and be part of the story, play games, perform, and sing.
“I empower the actors to create fantastical, magical characters that are related to Christmas whether it’s Princess Snowflake, who grants children’s wishes with her wand, or Mary Christmas, who is in charge of gift-wrapping at the North Pole,” says Sakolsky.
The first year the North Pole Express sold out 9,000 seats and has since added an additional 30,000.
“You have this moment in time with thousands of people who have chosen to have this experience and also gather with their families. It’s a way to connect to the joy of the Christmas spirit. It’s very present,” says Sakolsky.
Over the past eight years Riverway Studio and the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat have co-produced several “Theater in the Rectangle” products that have included a Murder Mystery Series, a Fright Train at Halloween, and a Circus Train where participants ride to the event grounds in an authentic circus car for an acrobat and puppet show, amusement rides, clowns, and a petting zoo.
“Circus Train was Bob Bell’s idea. I was in charge of the clowns. Bob wanted to use bubbles so I called Casey Carle, the bubble genius of the world, to teach us some bubble routines. It was very successful,” says Sakolsky.
Another cooperative project between Valley Railroad, Riverway Studio, and Sirius Thinking LTD was “Lomax: The Hound of Music,” which aired on PBS. Lomax was a puppet dog that travelled the countryside by steam train to teach children about music.
“I watched 13 episodes and came up with a stage concept I could do on the train,” says Sakolsky. “Each car had one of my performers in it, and the storyline was woven into each of the cars through sequences. It was all based on musical interaction with call and response.”
Sakolsky is now busy working on the Shiny Lapel Trio’s fourth album, recording a didgeridoo player, and a Christmas story with actor Peter Walker, among other projects. His business has gotten to a place where he can continue to grow the studio while completing personal work like a album featuring his own love songs and a one man play whose working title is “Methods of Madness on the Road to Redemption”.
“Life is short. It goes by real quickly, so do what you can to choose what matters most to you and pursue that. I am very appreciative and grateful for all the work I have been able to create with people,” says Sakolsky.