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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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