Craig Matheson — founder of the legendary Staples Players’ drama organization; a former teacher and administrator at Staples High School, and a beloved educator, director, and wonderful, ever-smiling human being — died peacefully yesterday morning, surrounded by his family. He was 81.
He remained a Staples Players friend throughout his life. The last show he saw was “You Can’t Take It With You,” in May. Fittingly, that was the 1st Players production he ever directed, more than 5 decades ago.
A service is tentatively planned for Sunday, August 11, 2 p.m. at Green’s Farms Congregational Church.
In 2004 I interviewed Craig for my book, Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ History. Here is that chapter.
In 1957 I had a been a public school English teacher for 4 years, in Southington and Woodbury. I had just finished my master’s degree in theater at Wesleyan, when I met [Staples English teacher] Gladys Mansir and [principal] Stan Lorenzen at a conference. She said Staples was building a new high school, and would I be interested in doing theater there? I said yes. Then she told me I wouldn’t have a stage for another year.
I came, and taught on Riverside Avenue for one year. I helped with the plans for the new building, but there wasn’t much I could do. It was more of an auditorium than a theater. The emphasis was on concerts, not plays, because the music program was so strong. I couldn’t change much, because it was already close to completion.
When I came to Staples there was no drama program – just the senior class play. Gladys and Edna Kearns had done them. They were trained in English and Latin, and were anxious to find someone to do the plays. The kids wanted drama, but they didn’t know anything about it.
The first year Stan wanted something, anything, so I did a production number – “The Night Before Christmas” – for the Candlelight Concert, which in those days was at Long Lots Junior High. We ended up alternating that and “Amahl and the Night Visitor” every year, for years. I also taught five English classes.
I found Christopher Lloyd. He was a marginal student, but he was interested in theater. He came to my small apartment on Turkey Hill Road, and we had a long conversation about theater. He helped me get started with our first production later that year. It was also at Long Lots, on the stage in the gym. It was more of a theater revue – not really a play.
The move to North Avenue changed everything. There was no high school in the state that I knew of with a theater program. Most were like Staples – they had a senior class play, with a faculty advisor who got dragooned into it. They were awful plays, but the kids loved them.
I told the kids we’d start a theater program, and they chose You Can’t Take it With You from play books. It was an intimate comedy. I had no production director, so I did that too. I had no idea how to mount it, how to bring it down on a stage that large. I did very well from an acting point of view, but as a production director I stunk. The set was much too large, so the play lost its intimacy. And it was pink, so it looked even bigger. We put it on for one weekend, and were very glad to get an audience both nights. But people thought the show was fine.
Lu Villalon was the editor of the Town Crier, and his son Andy happened to star in that production. His sister Ann was in plays too. Lu reviewed the shows for the Town Crier under the name “Robin Goodfellow,” and that stirred a lot of interest in theater at Staples.
The next year we did two major productions. The Teahouse of the August Moon was very successful. It ran for two weekends. People from the New England Theatre contest came, and it won a New England award. It also won the Connecticut Drama Festival award, so we started with a bang. That created lots of interest and excitement in the theater program too. And the local papers were great . They gave us full pages of coverage, with photos for every show.
We had a lot of support from Stan, from superintendent Gerry Rast and the Board of Education. Gerry was a musician – he played the organ – and his wife was too. They were very arts-oriented people. He wanted a theater program comparable to the music program that was already established, and I was his man to do that.
All the administrators I worked for supported what I was doing. Stan, Jim Calkins, Gerry, Gordon Peterkin – without their support, I would have been dead. They all saw the value in what we were doing, and they were all there at our performances. They were very loyal supporters – and it was not just lip service. The community and the Board of Education really made a difference too.
Anything I asked for, I got – including release time from the classroom. That was almost unheard of. By my third year my teaching load had been reduced by half. I had two English classes, and one Play Production. The next year I had only theater classes. They got so big, Floren Harper was hired to help teach them too. She came from Andrew Warde High School in Fairfield, and she worked so well with movement and dance.
At that time, I don’t think any Connecticut high school had play production classes. I team-taught with Stephen Gilbert. He was an art teacher with a great interest in theater – a very talented guy. He taught stage design, costuming and makeup.
Steve was so important to the high school. He was a young man with a great sense of color and lighting and costumes. He got kids so excited about projects. He was like a magnet. He had more kids on his technical staff than I had on stage. They always worked so hard. He was a godsend to the program.
Steve and Floren and I were such a team. There was no intrigue. We all had a sense of humor, and we loved the kids.
We also had help from Liza Chapman Heath, a skilled actress who did workshops with us. And Ian Martin, a theater writer and actor, would come speak to the kids about theater opportunities.
Hal James, the Broadway producer, was wonderful. His daughter Melody was in our program – so were his sons Beau and Mike, but she was the most talented of the three. He saw the potential of our program, and what needed to be done. He saw the stage needed work, and through his influence we got Ralph Alswang – a Broadway theater designer – to cut holes in the side panel to mount stage lights. Originally, we could only light the tops of heads.
Ralph became the consultant for redoing that monstrous auditorium building. We’ve had three renovations since, and now it’s what I envisioned 40 years ago – it’s got a green room, a dressing room, a large stagecraft area, and a new lighting board.
The program grew because of the reputation it began to get for excellence. We won five consecutive first-place awards in the Connecticut Drama Festival, and two New England Theatre awards. Audiences grew – from 400 that first weekend in 1958, to over 5,000 for War and Pieces. We toured 14 high schools and six colleges with that show.
Kids saw that theater was fun. They got recognition from audiences. Sports had always been big at Staples, and I wanted athletes to be in theater too. [Choreographer] Joanne De Bergh was wonderful working with the guys. So was Bambi Lynn, who played Alice on Broadway and did our choreography for Alice in Wonderland.
We had a number of significant plays. Peter Pan was an absolutely delightful show. It was the first year we got Saugatuck families involved. Antoinette Sarno – the barber’s daughter — was Peter. She was marvelous. She’s now a theater teacher.
The Foys of New York, who did the flying for the original show, came to help us with the staging. The town turned out in force to see it. They were so excited to see Antoinette fly around the stage. But that flying required a lot of sophistication. Five kids flew, and no one hit anyone else. After the fifth show, I was so thankful no one got hurt. It was high risk. The Foys showed us how to do it, but the football players backstage did all the pulling. It was aerial ballet, comparable to Broadway.
We didn’t enter the Connecticut Drama Festival that year. We were too far beyond the other schools. So we hosted it, and while the judges were deciding the winners the final night, we performed it for the rest of the audience.
We had a few flops. The Madwoman of Chaillot was much too difficult. That was a bad decision on my part.
Today they do musicals. The cooperation between drama, music and art is wonderful. Some of the people I worked with were more guarded about their areas. I always had to fight to get time on stage.
When I moved into administration, it was at the request of [principal] Jim Calkins. I didn’t want to, but with three kids the money was attractive. I’ve regretted it the rest of my life.
Then I got an offer from Darien to head the drama department. And then when they asked me to be an administrator there, I did the same thing again. I made the same mistake twice!
But it was so nice a few years ago to be asked to go to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh with Judy Luster, Dave Roth and Joanne Kahn. I absolutely loved it. It was so nice to be asked, and to sort of tie things back to the beginning of Staples Players.
Al Pia was a great find as a director, and of course [current director] David Roth was Al’s student. It’s almost incestuous. All of us, including [former director] Judy Luster, have influenced each other for almost 50 years.
The theater program is the lifeblood of that high school. I never miss a performance. It’s made such a difference in people’s lives. One night I was watching TV, and I saw seven kids who have come through the program. Being able to instill love for an art form has been inspirational – that’s what it’s all about for me.
To know him was to love him.
I well remember Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and also Once Upon A Mattress. I went to The Madwoman of Chaillot, and had no idea what that was about. But the productions were amazing. A number of my friends were in them, and it was no surprise that the drama department received so many awards. Staples was one special high school. I was very happy to be a part of the music program, to me about the best in the state (maybe the best). I love the picture of Craig Matheson in 2010 playing the role of Daniel Nash. I never took a class he taught, but I can look at his face in that photo and remember him well in the late ’60s. (He didn’t change all that much, and I love his smile.)
Well, God bless him. I was crushed when he promised me I’d be Joan in “The Lark” and then changed his mind. But I stayed in, and my experience overall with Players was a high point in my education and I am very grateful. Class of ’67.
I learned from Dan Woog’s “06880” of Craig’s passing.
While so many people will join me in mourning Craig’s death – a wonderful man like him should have lived forever – and with no illness or pain! – I wish to celebrate his fabulous life.
Of course, I didn’t know Craig for all of his life – only for the last 45 years. When I left the Ridgefield Public Schools for Staples H. S. in 1968, it was Craig who led us new-to-town teachers on the bus tour of Westport. His enthusiasm set the stage for what would be my 25 year career in the schools and 45+ years working and living here.
And while Craig’s entry in Dan Woog’s Staples H.S. book indicated his regret for his move to school administration – and I can appreciate his sadness in the move away from his love for theatre and working directly with students – whenever I went to him in my role as a Staples Guidance Counselor and in his role as a Staples Administrator, I was assured that my student would get the most honest, caring and fair result possible. And years later, when my son, Marc, was a new teacher at Darien H. S., Craig was always a wonderful exemplar of what school administrators – at their best – ought to be. Even when Craig was not doing what he most preferred, he was being wonderful to young people and to all who came into contact with him. He was such a mench.
And, of course, he wonderfully brought me to Norwalk Community College many years ago to run a program for the faculty, and was terrifically supportive when I did a program for the Y’s Men.
I have to say that each and every time that I saw Craig taking his walk in our neighborhood – each and every time! – I smiled. He simply brought out that reaction in me – and I am sure that scores – hundreds – of people responded the identical way.
While the world is poorer for the loss of Craig, it has been immeasurably enriched by his presence. I hate that he is gone. I treasure that he lived – and that I knew him!
My deepest condolences to you and your family on your loss.
Craig was my mentor to the theater. When the Players mountd “Our Town,” Craig had me, an up-country boy at the time, teach Mrs. Webb and Mrs, Gibbs how to “string” fresh green beans in pantomime… Craig…always a gentleman. –Karl Decker
Shocked and saddened all week with this news. Craig was an inspiration, mentor, friend. He was gracious, generous, always ready to talk and laugh. Many memories surface and the gifts he gave his students indelible. Not mentioned in history–Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth and Arsenic and Old Lace preceded Teahouse of the August Moon. If you saw Kip Martin charge up the stairs as Teddy you didn’t forget that show! How vivid the memories of all the Players productions still are for me. I still remember my line as Higa Jiga in Teahouse and a beautiful monologue from Madwoman. What’s up with that? When it’s hard to remember so much that came after? Craig lives in our hearts, in the theatrical work his students continue to make.
Yes Karl! I was that Mrs Gibbs, the scene vivid in my hands to this day.
Craig Matheson was a remarkable man. He and his colleague Steve Gilbert were my drama and stage mentors when I attended Staples in the 1960s with some truly wonderful people. As a result of Craig’s foresight and guidance in creating The Staples Players generations of Westporters have benefited.
The entire town has benefited by enjoying a tradition of theater unparalleled in virtually any high school setting in the country.
The school has benefited by having decades of seamless integration of the arts into the academic environment and cohesive blending of talents from throughout the entire student body.
The students have benefited be experiencing a level of support throughout the school environment where their fellow students, administration and entire community provided the sort of encouragement that allowed them to be who they dreamed they could be.
And all this is because more than 50 years ago Craig Matheson recognized that while all the world’s a stage, high school kids could use a talented, compassionate director to actually learn act.
Few people in my life had a greater impact on me than Craig, and I told him so when we’d meet at coffe n’ in recent years. I know I was not alone, many of my friends also found their lives changed for the better because of him. He took shy, awkward teenagers and taught us grace and self assurance through his plays. He was the patriarch of today’s Staples Players and generations of us are in his debt.
Tonight the stage lights are dimmed by his passing, but at least for me, remembering Craig will always bring a smile, and a bow of gratitude.
Adam, lovely commentary. My cousin Kirk Robbins was in Peter Pan, but I can’t remember what character he played.
Pretty sure he was Smee. Kirk was a super guy and hilarious as a pirate
You are no doubt correct, Adam. Thank you for that. Kirk was pretty hilarious. I was so surprised he was in that play, so far from what he truly excelled at, which was academics. Thank you for remembering him. Kirk is very much alive and living in Seattle, Washington, where he has been for a great many years. Your name sounds familiar to me, so I must have known of you back then.
I can say without hesitation or doubt that I was by far the most pitiful actor who ever disgraced the Staples stage during Craig Matheson’s tenure. Fortunately for him and for the reputation of the Staples Players, I only “acted” in three plays: “Alice in Wonderland”, where I was the 8 of Spades who vaguely painted the roses off-red, “Madwoman of Chaillot”, in which I had a mercifully-tiny role as a member of a crowded cafe and “The Mouse That Roared”, in which I was a bungling Secretary of State who pretended to blow his nose but forgot to pretend to wipe it afterwards, which served to totally gross out every audience unlucky enough to witness my so-called performance. Seriously, the warmth that radiated from Craig’s every fiber was genuine, all-encompassing and the magnitude of which I haven’t experienced before or since. He was charming, intense in a giving, caring way, and had the most endearing, contagious laugh, to go with a dry, twinkle-eyed wit. The expressiveness of his beautiful hands was only matched by the loving expertise woven into his honest and perfectly-chosen words. Every time I saw him, since graduation, the last time being at our 45th reunion, our conversations always began with the word “and.” Craig Matheson was my dear friend, a true one-of-a-kind, indeed, and embodied all that a real mentor should be. I miss him already.
A wonderful tribute, Jon.
This is a wonderful piece of history! What a great man and what a great program he started!
Judy– You said it all in seven words. And just so you know, I feel the same way about you.
Craig was the keeper of the flame that passed from ‘our’ Players to the current day — never more so than when David’s cast of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM invited our 1966 cast to join them on the Staples stage…and of course Craig was there! It’s our responsibility to pass his passion and caring guidance on to future generations of Players and Westporters…
Craig, my friend for 50 years —
Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of Players sing thee to thy rest.
Our wonderful Craig ~ He took a chance on me, a kid new to Westport, and cast me in Peter Pan, igniting my involvement in, and life-long love of, all things theatre. He was exemplary at fostering collaboration among us all and it is a great tribute to his life that so many people are stepping forward with their thoughts and memories about this wonderful person who meant so much to so many.
I am so saddened by his death and hope to figure a way to get to Westport this Sunday, though I wonder if the GF church is large enough to hold his spirit and all those who benefited from it along their way….
Craig had high standards and high expectations. He taught me to always work to meet and to maintain them. I have actively carried those lessons through my entire life – none of it related to the theater. He had a big heart, and he poured the love out to all his students. My sincere condolences to Craig’s wonderful family. [Tourist, The Mouse that Roared; Hippolyta, Midsummer; company, Milkwood; chorus, Mattress; student director; War & Pieces.]
He was an inspiration and will be missed.
Craig Matheson was a fabulous mentor to entering faculty. He was the ultimate gentleman and a great example of great teaching. He lives on the memory of those many teachers and students who loved him
Craig, You were a true gentleman and friend. You shall “play ” with the angels now.
Dan, what a terrific tale of Craig’s contribution to the growthof Staples in the early years…you, and only you, could capture his true nature to the arts…Thanks for letting us share it with the rest of the former staff.. Ciao from Coach Joe Folino and Lorraine too.
I met Craig about 10 years ago at Norwalk Community College. He was clearly a man who had contributed so much, yet he was engaged in every sense in the present. When he did speak about his personal history it was with a great sense of humility and appreciation. Thank you Craig for your decency, kindness and friendship.
Craig Matheson was our neighbor growing up. I did not appreciate until I was older that we had neighbors in Craig and Ann who were unusually kind, decent, witty, easygoing and principled. I feel blessed to have had my life intersect with Craig’s. The world is less rich now that he has left us.
I was on a 4-week wilderness hike in August, and just received this sad news when I returned. I cannot put into this small space all that Craig meant to me, during my Staples years and throughout my life. Suffice it to say that Craig and the nurturing, challenging, creative environment he lead in creating at Staples was the finest I have ever experienced in 23 years of formal education, K-12, college, grad and post-grad. One’s appreciation of quality and importance of what Craig did at Staples grows and deepens over the years, its very endurance a testament to the importance of his work and life. The shows come and go with the raising and lowering of the curtain, and even specific memories can fade, or at least evolve. But Craig’s real work, the real gifts of education, both formal and personal, live forever in us and in those to whom we are fortunate enough to pass on these treasures.