White Barn Theatre’s Dramatic Vanishing Act

Local residents  are justly proud of the Westport Country Playhouse. Since 1931, an old cow barn and tannery in an apple orchard has been transformed into a historic and influential piece of American theater history.

For years, Westport was also home to the White Barn Theatre. Less known — and operating only on weekends — the small stage in a former horse barn boasts plenty of its own history. Founded in 1947 by noted actress and theater producer Lucille Lortel, it premiered works by Eugene Ionesco, Athol Fugard and Edward Albee.

The White Barn Theatre.

The White Barn Theatre.

When the White Barn closed in 2002 — 3 years after Lortel’s death, at 98 — Westport lost 1 of our 2 theatrical jewels.

Or so we thought.

Recent press reports — including the New York Times — about a battle to save the theater building from demolition, and conserve acres of nearby woods and streams — place the White Barn Theatre in Norwalk.

They’re right.

Most of the 15-acre property lies in Norwalk. A back parcel — around 2.5 acres — is in Westport.

Lucille Lortel, outside her White Barn Theatre.

Lucille Lortel, outside her White Barn Theatre.

The theater — which still stands, unused, with Al Hirschfeld’s drawings of the many famous playwrights, actors and visitors on the walls  — was on Norwalk land. Apparently, years ago, Lortel persuaded the Westport post office to deliver mail there.

She must have figured a Westport address meant more to theater-goers than a Norwalk one.

How much longer the decaying theater — and Lortel’s handsome home — will remain standing is in doubt.

A long-running fight over the property — encompassing old-growth forest, trails, meadows, a pond and waterfall — may be coming to a head. Various factions are fighting over its future. A developer wants to build 15 houses.

A map showing the proposed 15-home development. Cranbury Road (left) marks the border between Norwalk and Westport. Click on or over hover to enlarge.

A map showing the proposed 15-home development. Cranbury Road (in red on left) marks the border between Norwalk and Westport. Click on or over hover to enlarge.

Meanwhile, Lortels’ grand-nephew — 25-year-old Waldo Mayo, an actor himself — is trying to buy the land and revive the theater. He’s got support from folks like Kevin Spacey and Kelli O’Hara (who really does live in Westport). Raising the $5 million-plus purchase price has been slow — but a major fundraiser is in the works.

The Save Cranbury Association — a longtime neighborhood that includes nearby Westport residents — is backing Mayo. They’re concerned about the impact of 15 homes on wetlands and wildlife.

A portion of the Cranbury property.

A portion of the Cranbury property.

Demolition of the theater has been temporarily delayed. Earlier work — including asbestos removal — had already begun.

It’s a true-life story. One that would make an intriguing play.

Set either in Westport or Norwalk.

Though like the White Barn Theatre itself, where it is is less important than what it means.

(To learn more about saving the White Barn Theater, click here.)

11 responses to “White Barn Theatre’s Dramatic Vanishing Act

  1. Elisabeth Rose

    I hope that this is one landmark that people will fight to save. It, along with the Playhouse, are reminders of the thriving arts community before it began to be overdeveloped. It would be great to see the White Barn restored and used as a theater again and even -perhaps additionally-, a community performing arts space like Silvermine is for the visual arts. Kids and adults could come from neighboring Norwalk and Westport to take classes in any or all of: acting, voice and diction, lighting, costume design, directing, writing. and dance/stage movement. And perhaps there some programs could be offered that interface with local schools or youth groups, always important as funding for arts programs in schools is always threatened to disappear.

    Another great -and related- use for barn could be series which build visibility for the Barn that would feature interviews with well-know actors, directors, and screenwriters or playwrights, much as they have at The New School in NYC and The Avon Theater in Stamford. (With no money, In the beginning the series would need to rely on actors, etc volunteering their time to come and speak…)

    Preserving the surrounding land is also another great objective, and it would be nice if it could continue to be connected to The White Barn so the two could operate together, for example, offering plays outside or acting as a summer day camp.

    Please let us know how and where people can donate money and also to whom we should speak if we would like to be part of the operation to save the White Barn. Thanks.

    And the land

  2. Elisabeth Rose

    Oops. Just now saw donation link.

    And my apologies about typos. Was typing from my phone and hit “send” before I should have!

  3. This property was occupied for a while by The Connecticut Friends School, which had the intention of preserving the theater and making modest use of the rest of the land. Sad that the economy tanked and the school could not realize its vision. It’s a wonderful building and all-around beautiful spot. I hope Mr. Mayo et. al. prevail.

  4. Matthew Mandell

    Crossing my fingers. This would be great.

    The Partrick Wetlands group has fought side by side with the Save Cranbury Association for a decade to preserve this land. 6 acres and pond were saved back in 2007, with the rest to be a low impact quaker school who were to adaptively reuse the theater. They failed to follow through and the developer came back with 21 houses, this became 15, but still unacceptable as Norwalk pz granted all and ignored reasonable setback back and environmental issues. Norwalk is not westport. 4 houses encroach on the pond and should not have been approved.

    FYI the Westport portion of the property was sold off in the deal to save the 6 acres around the pond and school concept.

    The barn is in bad shape, neglected during all this time. Hopefully a deal can be worked out.

  5. don l bergmann

    Once again, Matt Mandell, RTM District One Representative, is on the side of the angels, having worked and continuing to work to preserve The White Barn and its site. While large donations would be great, so are the smaller ones. Spaces like this that are so worth preserving should be preserved.
    Don Bergmann

  6. This is what I don’t understand: Ms. Lortel left the property to a foundation; weren’t they supposed to keep the theatre a going concern? Why did they sell it? Weren’t there restriction on how the property could be used? Where did the $$$$ go? To the arts?

    Many years ago I worked as the secretary to the GM of the Theatre deLys, which was later re-named The Lucille Lortel Theatre. She was a fabulous character and loved the every aspect of live theatre. That’s why I am surprised that she would leave this legacy to a foudation that would and could sell it to a developer. Neither this accont or the NYT link addresses this issue.

    • Matthew Mandell

      Technically they did keep the theater going by handing it off to the Westport country playhouse to run. The land and physical theater were left in a lurch. A better outcome back then was sought, but the trustees did what they felt was right.

  7. Here is a link to the Lucille Lortel Foundation Inc’s IRS Form 990-PF for the tax year ending June 30, 2014:

    http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2014/133/036/2014-133036521-0b920999-F.pdf

  8. I won’t engage on the argument about preserving the barn or the land, but I want to argue against the indiscriminate use of the term “old growth forest.” Words have meaning, and this term has a meaning, and “a bunch of trees” is not among them.

    An old growth forest is one that has been undisturbed by clearing for upwards of 150 years, more commonly upwards of 250. Clearing in this context includes logging, farming, development, or fire. There is no old growth forest in Connecticut, and precious little anywhere in the northeast.

    That barn was not build in the woods. It was built in land cleared for farming. All those stone walls we see marching through the woods were there before the woods were there. The stones were unearthed, laboriously, by man and animal, in the process of clearing the land for farming. All of Connecticut was cleared for farming by settlers in the 17th and early 18th century. We have more forest now than we have had probably since 1700, certainly since the Revolution. But we have no old growth forest.