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Remembering Craig Matheson

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.

Craig Matheson was known as the founder of Staples Players. But he was very involved in local affairs too. In 2010 — for the 175th anniversary of the chartering of the town of Westport — he played the role of founding father Daniel Nash.

In 2004 I interviewed Craig for my book, Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ History. Here is that chapter.

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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.

Christopher Lloyd, in Staples High School.

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.

Craig Matheson (right) and technical director Steven Gilbert.

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.

At Staples Players’ 50th anniversary celebration in 2008, Craig Matheson (right) reunited with Peter Hirst (left), who played Everyman in the 1967 production of “War and Pieces.” They worked with then-current Player Adam Bangser, who reprised that role. (Photo by Kerry Long)

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.

At Staples Players’ 50th anniversary celebration in 2008, director David Roth (right) announced that the Black Box Theater would be named in honor of Players’ founder, Craig Matheson (left). (Photo by Kerry Long)

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.

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