And what better way to welcome the weekend than with Stacy Waldman Bass’ photo of this morning’s sunrise over the Sherwood Mill Pond?
Enjoy the day!
And what better way to welcome the weekend than with Stacy Waldman Bass’ photo of this morning’s sunrise over the Sherwood Mill Pond?
Enjoy the day!
It was the mid-1990s. Tyler Paul is not sure of the year, or his grade. But 2 decades later, he vividly recalls a day at Long Lots Elementary School.
A group of actors and puppeteers arrived for a “very special school assembly.” The troupe used original skits and puppets to talk about bullying.
Tyler remembers other special assemblies over the years, too: an original presentation of Maya Angelou’s works. A presentation on Chinese traditions. And many more.
Those events were only part of Westport’s long history of fostering and encouraging an arts environment. Between the Westport Country Playhouse, the PTA’s Cultural Arts Committee and the superb drama departments at Staples and the 2 middle schools, arts have been integrated into the curriculum at nearly every level.
Today, Tyler is executive director of the Northeast Children’s Theatre Company. Earlier this year he was contacted by a member of the Cultural Arts Committee. They wanted to bring his professional theatrical programming for young audiences into the elementary schools.
Coincidentally, NCTC had just commissioned and premiered a new musical. They were looking for a partner to pilot it in schools. With Julia Gannon and Diana Sussman, they brought “Jack and the Giant” to all 5 Westport elementary schools in March.
The musical teaches youngsters about perseverance, heroism, courage a self-identity. It fits in well with the curriculum core standards. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Looking back on his own in-school and after-school theater arts enrichment here, Tyler calls it a “full circle moment.” No other town that he knows of boasts the in-school enrichment program that Westport does. That early exposure to the arts, he believes, is a large reason he now works full-time in that field.
Of course, every organization needs funds. On Saturday, October 25 (8 p.m., StageOne Theater in Fairfield), NCTC sponsors its 2nd annual “Broadway in Connecticut” gala. The evening of music is hosted by the Tony Award-nominated songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Yes, Justin is Tyler’s brother. He too has benefited greatly from Westport’s arts environment.
The concert includes performances by Broadway stars from “Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Bridges of Madison County” and “Next to Normal,” too. A live auction includes house seats to “If/Then,” followed by a backstage tour.
Proceeds from the gala benefit artistic programming for school audiences — and educational initiatives for underserved children in disadvantaged communities.
So that youngsters everywhere in the region — not just in Westport — can have the same awe-inspiring experience Tyler Paul had, back when he sat in his own very special school assembly.
(For tickets — which are limited — and more information, visit www.nctcompany.org/gala.)
Today is the International Day of the Girl Child. In honor of the UN-sponsored event, NPR asked 5 photographers — all renowned for documenting the lives of global girls — to share photos with special significance.
Though known as a public radio network, NPR’s website is robust and thought-provoking.
Lynsey Addario — the MacArthur “Genius Grant”-winning/world famous photographer/Staples graduate — does not disappoint. Her photos include a 13-year-old Syrian girl at her engagement party, and another young teenager from Sierra Leone who died delivering twins.
Check out Lynsey’s haunting photos — and many others — at the NPR website.
(Hat tip to Siobhan Crise)
From the outside, Westport looks like a typical suburban community. A bit more McMansion-y now than in years past, but a suburb nonetheless.
Gone, we think, is much of the “artists’ colony” vibe that made this place special back in the day.
But there are still plenty of studios, tucked away in basements, cottages and carriage houses. A lot of art still goes on behind closed doors.
Sometimes, that art takes extra-special form. Alert “06880” reader David Meth recently forwarded a post from HowlRound, an artists’ blog. In it, actor/ singer/dancer/puppeteer Emma Wiseman writes:
I grew up an hour outside New York City in Westport, Connecticut. The house I lived in my whole life was built in the 1930s on several hundred acres of land bought by John Dorr, a wealthy mechanical engineer, and his wife Nell, a photographer whose work was included in the 1955 landmark exhibition The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art. The Dorrs were attracted to the vibrant arts community that existed in Westport in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Today Westport has one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States. A hedge fund responsible for $120 billion of the world’s money is nestled in the woods there….The Dorrs’ land was long ago divided into 2-acre chunks that can barely fit the mansions built on them.
In this gilded environment, my family has always been slightly out of place. We inherited Nell and John Dorr’s offbeat cottage from my grandfather, who came to town in the ‘60s to serve on the faculty of The Famous Writers School, a wildly popular — and ultimately controversial — correspondence course.
Though now winterized and expanded, our house is one of a dwindling number of non-mansions on the street. My parents, too, are unusual in that they have both made lives for themselves in the arts, and while they haven’t seen the financial success of many of their fellow townsfolk, I think they would argue that they are spiritually rich.
I was lucky enough to be (spiritually) supported by my parents as I struck out for New York after college to pursue a life in the theater. One of the things that keeps me in the Big Apple — despite soul-crushing rent and constant questioning of a sustainable artistic life — is the proximity of that support, both spiritual and physical. The house is for me now not only a place to see family, but also to write, to make giant puppets in the yard, to generally spread out. I have begun to think of my house as a legitimate artistic resource.
Recently, my parents and I decided to experiment with sharing that resource, thinking other artists might also benefit from the opportunity to get away and spread out. We invited 2 dear friends of mine to stay for a week-long, makeshift residency. Each individual artist, myself included, would have a bed, a desk, and a door to close. We would all have dinner together, but the rest of the day was ours. The 3 of us were working in different disciplines: screenwriting, puppetry, and visual art.
A residency is an opportunity for a young artist to come face-to-face with his or her process in a vacuum. While ours was a pretty casual enterprise, being alone in a room with your thoughts for 5 days straight is incredibly daunting. It is also a privilege, and we were all excited. Instead of squeezing art-making in around the margins of our New York City work lives, we had a chance to view it as an actual job.
There were no showing or performance requirements for the “West Branch Residency,” as we called it. We all came with our own private plans and goals for the week, and were under no obligations to share them, or even accomplish them. The point was just to give this side of our lives our undivided attention.
While all 3 of us got a lot out of our time alone, I was surprised at how non-monastic the experience felt. As the week went on we started organically congregating in the kitchen at the same time in the afternoon.
It might sound like we ran away from our responsibilities, but I think we stopped feeling as if we were under the gun. One of the residents spoke to me about feeling constantly burdened by a vague feeling of guilt that I think affects many artists; the “art” we always think we should be making but have no time for follows us around like a storm cloud. During our week together that guilt was alleviated somewhat; a new normal was created in which everyone was confronting their own personal storm cloud. The social moments between the 3 of us were evidence that we had let go of some of that ongoing artistic anxiety.
Recognizing your own community of artists and making space for that community to grow together is just as much the responsibility of an artist as the creation of individual work. I am lucky enough to have access to a physical space outside the city, which is an amazing resource to be able to share. If we cultivate a broader understanding of what our “work” really is, we can all create space and opportunities for one another, whether they be large or small, in the city or out.
My dad described Westport in the ‘30s to me as a “romantic refuge” for New York City artists. It’s a less hospitable place for the creative class nowadays, just as New York City is, but artists will always be welcome at our house.
Terry Brannigan’s mother Ann died peacefully this week, surrounded by loved ones. She lived in Westport with her husband Robert for nearly 60 years. Terry writes:
Many people kn0w Ann as a mother of 3 and grandmother to 9 Westporters, or for her selfless contributions to the town.
Few know the story of Ann’s wonderful career in dance, musical theater and television. In an era of reality TV fame and extreme divas, her modesty is rare.
She was born in Pittsburgh during the Depression. It was devastating to everyone and every city, but none suffered more than a single mother in a steel town. Times were hard, but Ann was gifted. At 15 she graduated from high school and moved to New York City, along with her mother and grandmother, to pursue an extraordinary career in dance, theater and the newly emerging media called television.
For more than 15 years Ann did not miss a day of work on Broadway. Her credits include Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, High Button Shoes and countless others — including an early stint as a Rockette.
Along the way she fell in love with a handsome stagehand named Bobby Brannigan, while working together on the Broadway production of Two on the Aisle. He was a World War II submariner who left Pittsburgh at 17, and came from a long line of stagehands. Ann and Bob were married at Mahachy’s Actor’s Chapel, between the matinee and evening performances of the shows they were working on.
In the 1950s, Westport was famous for its arts community, culture and proximity to New York. Eager to start a family but not ready to slow down, the time was right for the young couple to move here.
Another connection to the theatre led Ann to her beloved Old Mill cottage. Working together on a show, Ann, Robert, Darren McGavin and another cast member all discovered the peaceful cove, and bought their houses at the same time. Ann described Westport — and Old Mill Cove in particular — as “heaven.”
Bob commuted to New York to work backstage, and Ann performed for years. Bob’s career included senior roles at Lincoln Center and City Center. Ann transitioned to television, and for many years was part of the regular casts of pioneering shows like “Your Show of Shows,” “Jimmy Durante” and “Danny Thomas.” She finally retired from the stage to raise her 3 children, then cherished her role as grandmother.
Ann turned her focus to her husband, children, grandchildren and community. She never missed a game, performance or chance to be part of her family’s activities. Ann took great pleasure in helping choreograph school performances from Hillspoint Elementary through Staples. But in her unassuming fashion she shunned any reference to her contribution.
What was most striking about Ann’s accomplishments is that she never spoke of them — even when asked. For example, one day she was appalled by the poor health of Kenny Montgomery, owner of the Old Mill Market (now Elvira’s). The former ballerina tended to his medical needs, and volunteered behind the counter until he died.
The performing arts did not pay what it does today. To help put her children through school, Ann worked for years in administrative roles. She served others who had absolutely no idea of the stages she had danced on, or the talent she collaborated with. She was never one to brag.
Westport is full of treasures, some more conspicuous than others. In a town rightfully proud of the famous people who live here or pass through, I am sure many will read this post and say, “Ann Brannigan, from Loretta Court? Ann, who always talked about her grandkids? Wow! Who knew?”
Maybe that says it all.
A memorial service for Ann Brannigan will be held this Saturday (October 4, 10 a.m.) at Assumption Church on Riverside Avenue. A reception will follow.
Lia Ices just got a nice shout-out from Entertainment Weekly.
On her 3rd album — called “Ices” — the singer-songwriter “still sounds like that art-school girl you had a crush on,” EW wrote.
“But her songs have gotten fuller and lusher. [The album's] warm wash of ethereal vocals and electronics belies its chilly title.”
Lia Ices is the stage name of Leah Kessel. She’s a former Staples Player who acted in “Runaways” and “Heidi Chronicles,” before leaving for private school and NYU (where she earned a degree in experimental theater in 2007).
Her influences include Iggy Azalea, the Cocteau Twins and — this will resonate with older “06880” readers — Steely Dan.
According to Elle magazine, she splits time between the Hudson Valley (where she records) and Sonoma, California (where she lives with her winemaker boyfriend).
“I can be super reclusive and hermetic, and then I can be in California and host dinner parties and drink wine,” she says.
The track below — “Higher” — is “a chirpy schoolyard melody spliced with a killer guitar riff,” Elle says. It’s her 1st radio single.
Let’s hope “Ices” turns hot as hell.
On many weekends over the past few years — probably while stuck at the Post Road/Compo Road traffic light — drivers have noticed a man and an easel in Winslow Park.
He’s set up on the grass. Facing banks on the other 3 corners, he’s been hard at work, painting.
Who is he?
Alert “06880” reader Russell Sherman reports that his name is Stanley Lewis. An accomplished artist, he’s finally finished his work.
It’s on display at the Betty Cunningham Gallery in New York, through October 25.
Lewis and his wife Karen live in Northampton, Massachusetts. But they spend a lot of time in Westport. Two of their 3 children — daughter Catherine and son Tim — have moved here.
Lewis loves Westport — and not just because he’s got 4 grandchildren in town, and the scenery is beautiful.
There are little things, like this: A year or so after he began painting, the town put up a new Winslow Park sign. It was right in the line of sight he was working on.
When Parks & Recreation director Stuart McCarthy heard of the problem, his crew moved the the sign.
Who says Westport is no longer an arts community?
In many communities, no one wants to live next to the railroad station.
Westport is not “many communities.” Here, Stony Point is one of the most desirable spots in town.
Ann Sheffer — a longtime resident of that winding, riverfront peninsula whose entrance is directly off the train station parking lot — sent along a Westport News clipping that tells the fascinating back story of Stony Point.
Written in 1977 by Shirley Land — who knew everything about everything — it describes a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.
It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.
The Cockerofts’ was one of “the 3 great showplaces” in Westport. The other 2 were the Hockanum mansion on Cross Highway, and the Meads’ estate on Hillspoint.
After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad inquired about purchasing some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)
The sisters agreed, but only if the railroad built a solid brick wall, 1675 feet long, to provide privacy and quiet.
When the 2nd daughter died, she bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).
But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to Birmingham and Asti, real estate developers.
Around 1950, Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed tried to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy there. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.
The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.
But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)
The theater was never built in Westport. It opened in the aptly named town of Stratford, Connecticut in 1955, and was moderately successful until ceasing operations 30 years later.
In Westport, the Cockeroft estate remained empty.
In 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the property for residential development. Before they could start, however, vandals attacked the main house. They ripped out bathtubs, hacked up fireplaces, and smashed mirrors and statues. The developers asked the fire department to burn what remained to the ground.
All that remains of the original estate, Land wrote, is “the charming gate house, an immaculate gray and white Victorian structure just inside the gate; a pair of antique marble urns on the site of the old mansion where a newer home now stands; and the fine carriage house-garage, remodeled to be sure, but bearing the visible imprint of bygone grandeur.”
Oh, and a few small doors set into the long brick wall. Once upon a time, they must have provided an amazing view.
In the wake of Westport’s selection as Connecticut’s “Fan Favorite Town of the Year,” plenty of praise was heaped on 3 elementary school girls. They conceived the idea for a promotional video touting the contest, then starred in what ultimately pushed our town to the top.
No one’s talking about Claudine Brantley, who filmed and edited the video.
That’s fine with her. Claudine, who graduated from Staples last June, calls her young colleagues “enthusiastic, adorable and very easy to work with.” They came up with the locations highlighted in the video, and “starred” in it.
But Claudine’s very professional work should not go unnoticed. And her back story deserves to be told.
Born in Georgia and raised in New London, Connecticut, Claudine came to Westport in the middle of sophomore year. Her mother wanted to provide better opportunities for Claudine and her brother Malik, and made considerable sacrifices to get here.
Claudine quickly got involved in the school. She joined the literary magazine Soundings, and the Gay-Straight Alliance. She found a job shelving books at the Westport Library.
And — through a Staples course called Narrative Film — she discovered a passion for video.
“I really like being able to tell stories visually,” Claudine says. “You have so many interactions, and ways to create a vision of something.”
Instructor Jim Honeycutt ranks Claudine with “Staples Hall of Fame filmmakers” like Adam Marcus, Luke Greenfield and Daryl Wein. “The only difference is that she is not in Hollywood — yet,” he says.
He calls her work “unlike most student films. They are intensely personal and profound.”
Claudine cajoles Staples Players into acting in her films. She scours the internet to find people to do voiceovers. Her sound tracks are “ethereal and haunting,” Honeycutt says.
She finds extraordinary royalty-free music to use legally. It sounds like it was written just for her, Honeycutt adds.
Her films “An Interloping Dream” and “Abraham” have been selected for the 2014 All American High School Film Festival.
“Claudine works incredibly hard at developing her craft,” Honeycutt says. “She is very devoted and serious. She has a wonderful heart, and a willingness to fight.”
That heart was on display when she agreed to help 3 Westport girls fulfill their “fan favorite” dream.
“I’m impressed with how involved those kids were, and how at a young age they had such love for their town,” Claudine says.
She credits them with helping her learn more about Westport.
Clearly, Claudine has learned plenty on her own. Now a freshman film and photography major at Parsons The New School for Design, she hopes to focus on documentaries.
In the years to come, she’ll no doubt make films far more important than the one that earned Westport its “fan favorite” honor.
And, no doubt, they’ll make Claudine Brantley a “fan favorite” in the video world.
(A collection of films by Claudine Brantley is available on YouTube.)
With school back in session, Broadway.com has scoured YouTube for its Top 5 high school musical performances.
Among the “A+” shows is Staples Players’ 2011 production of “West Side Story.”
The website says:
In a high school musical, finding a bunch of guys willing to even try on a pair of jazz shoes is a rarity. But bafflingly, Staples High School in Westport, CT has assembled a whole team of hoofing high school dudes who pirouette and leap around the stage with ease. Wow, check out those Shark high-kicks!
Very cool — except for the “bafflingly” part.
At Staples, “hoofing high school dudes” are everywhere.