Westport Community Theatre Welcomes Kids, Worries About Future

For nearly a century, the Westport Country Playhouse has stood proudly as one of the nation’s leading regional theaters.

For many decades too, Staples Players has pushed the boundaries of what high school actors can do.

Since 1956, the Westport Community Theatre has quietly served as our town’s “other” stage.

Low-key, little-publicized and itinerant until 1978, the WCT produces 5 mainstage shows a year, plus readings and workshops. Its productions draw small but devoted audiences to its spare, intimate auditorium in the basement of Town Hall.

westport-community-theatre-logo

Now — as town officials examine whether to reclaim that space — one woman is reaching out to a demographic the WCT has long ignored: kids.

Cindy Hartog studied film and television at NYU, then got a degree from the Neighborhood Playhouse conservatory. But she realized she preferred teaching to acting, and after earning a master’s in educational theater from NYU, Cindy organized drama workshops for children and teens.

She married Mark Hartog — best known locally as deputy director of Westport EMS, but also a community theater guy. Cindy worked in the Temple Israel nursery school for over a decade, taught cooking to kids, then a couple of years ago created the WCT Juniors program.

In less than 2 years it’s grown to encompass a 12-week program of performance skills, theater games, improv and scene work, as well as weekend master classes in improv.

A Westport Community Theatre improv class, directed by Heather DeLude.

A Westport Community Theatre improv class, directed by Heather DeLude.

Unlike other theater programs, these are not performance-based. The goal is to teach confidence, public speaking and performance skills, along with scene-writing and technical expertise.

Cindy’s Juniors classes draw youngsters from 6 to 16. On Friday afternoons they warm up together, then split into 3 age-appropriate groups for voice work and other activities. They come together at the end for improv and games.

The older kids are not involved in their own high school theater programs. One, for example, attends Hopkins; 2 are home-schooled.

Cindy notes, “They find a place here, and end up making great contributions.”

Cindy Hartog

Cindy Hartog

She believes in the power of theater to change lives — whether youngsters perform a play onstage or not.

Cindy’s program “tries to help kids become better people,” she says. “We want them to be well-rounded, confident and happy.”

Yet as she uses theater to prepare youngsters for life, she worries about the future of the Westport Community Theatre. Town officials are studying how space is used in Town Hall. When its yearly lease is up, the WCT — which before 1978 bounced between Westport, Weston and Fairfield — may be forced to find a new home.

It’s a search many Westporters are oblivious to.

“We put up lawn signs,” Cindy says of the WCT’s publicity for its mainstage shows.

“We have a banner on Main Street. We march in the Memorial Day parade. But a lot of people still don’t know about us.”

Interested in learning more? Click here. For info on the Juniors program, click here


Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

10 responses to “Westport Community Theatre Welcomes Kids, Worries About Future

  1. We just saw a terrific performance of a very timely play at the WCT. I think the WCT is an integral part of the arts scene in Westport and it contributes to Westport’s longstanding reputation as a community that strongly supports the arts. I hope the town is able to find a way to let the WCT remain there. It seems like a perfect fit.

  2. I sure hope the town doesn’t take that wonderful old auditorium and turn it into an office or meeting room!

    As a Bedford El kindergartner and 1st grader, I loved that space. On rainy day recesses, our principal, Mr. Flynn, showed us old TV shows including Frank Capra’s “Bell Telephone Hour” science films and “Rin Tin Tin”

    Of course, performing in school plays on that real stage — not a gym or “cafetorium” like all the other elementary schools — was a special treat as well.

    As an adult, I loved attending WCT productions there, especially ones featuring an old family friend, Chilton Ryan. There aren’t a whole lot of small intimate theaters like this one.

    Hope it can be saved.

    • I had forgotton our principle’s name until you wrote of it here.

      We students saw Marian Anderson perform there. (The opera singer integral to civil rights). The concert took place during the day whilst we were in school. Our teacher explained to us beforehand how important she was (to music & civil rights) but I was too young to understand completely then. (The exlplanation was brief — not part of classroom teaching which would have been more illustrative). A lot of adults from outside of the school attended the concert as well. I think they must have had it during school hours so that we children could see her — due to her importance to civil rights. (Otherwise I can’t think of a reason for that). I was at Bedford from Autumn 1966 through Spring/Summer 1972 — so her performance was between those years.

      I loved that auditorium also but I’m pretty sure that it has already been altered — as I remember it had a balcony above (in the back only — which those stone stairs lead to from the side of the foyer before the auditorium). That was a beautiful building to attend school in. I especially loved hearing the bells from Christ & Holy Trinity and being able to walk to shops & for pizza etc. after school. It made us more independent at a younger age than children at schools farther from town & by age ten & eleven nearly feral!

      • I didn’t notice the balcony was no longer there. Too bad. You’re right, it was a great old school. Too bad I moved to Coleytown after 1st grade. Never got a chance to walk to downtown when we were that young!

        • That is so interesting Mr.Blau — because I went to 1rst grade at Coleytown and then they reconfigured the districts & I began 2nd grade at Bedford. Then crazily BACK to Coleytown JH (beginning w/ 7th grade) vs. other of my Bedford El classmates who went to Bedford JH.

          I was Staples class of 78 (& began 1rst grade in 66). Were we in school around the same time? Unlike others I attended school w/ I kept having to lose a set of friends. Funnily though — when I went to Coleytown JH I fell right in w/ the friends I remembered from nursery school / Kindergarten / first grade.

          I suppose they removed (walled in) the balcony — due to the safety issue of town officials speaking on stage (or in front of it). Hoping to avoid a President Lincoln type tragedy. (That is my best guess). The balcony made it a proper early 20th c theatre auditorium though — so I was unhappy about that alteration when I first saw it (in a photo online).

          Do you remember the cloak rooms (like in the Madeline books w/ the cloak hooks)? & the massive windows that had to be opened w/ a special hook on a pole? & best of all the wooden desks w/ decades of children’s names carved into them & w/ the holes which had held inkwells?! Inkwells… hahaha… that school was a WORLD away from Coleytown. Even the local dialect of the children from town was sometimes different — peppered w/ older local CT pronunciations. My mother who had learned the King’s English in Berlin had her work cut out for her once I started there & began coming home w/ a lot of lovely Connecticutisms!

          It’s so nice that someone else appreciates that solid stage as well. I too performed on it as a child 🙂 I really hope the Community Theatre keeps performing there!

  3. PS I don’t know Cindy Hartog, but I do know Heather Delude, who directed my kids in theater and improv at Weston High School a few years ago. Heather is amazingly talented and I happy that she’s still working with local kids.

  4. Dina Fleischmann

    Go Cindy!

  5. The Westport Community Theater is one of those “must haves” for our culture. It is a real asset to the town and a wonderful thing that it is hosted in town hall. – Chris Woods

  6. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    I do hope that the Westport Community Theater continues. Just a foot note: I went to Bedford Elementary. I remember the auditorium well. In the late 1940’s or early 1950 there was a group called The Nutmeg Little Theatre that put on productions. Mariette Hartley got her acting start in he Nutmeg Little Theater. I remember being fascinated watching her perform in Jack and The Beanstalk.

    • We all seem to have really loved our auditorium! For years after leaving that school I had recurring dreams about it!

      I really love community theatre. My dad began his radio career in community theatre in Youngstown Ohio… if that makes sense… before the radio I mean… (Some well known actors came out of The Youngstown Players as well. It is quite a well known one — I discovered only recently).

      A really lovely local community theatre is ‘The Newtown Players’. They used to have shows in an old rustic barn (outfitted w/ seats — like our Playhouse was years ago prior to renovations: just basically an old barn w/ seats!). I’m not sure if plays are still held in the barn — but it was/is a traditional barn theatre experience. I prefer community theatre over larger more commercial productions (Broadway & off Broadway etc.). There’s something more romantic about the whole experience. Also the acting is often amazing…