Celebrating 90 Years Of Westport Playhouse: Lawrence Langner Remembers

On June 29, Westport Country Playhouse opens its virtual season with the regional premiere of “Tiny House.”  (Some in-person seats are available too.)

It’s very 2021-ish: a new comedy about downsizing, going green, escaping urban life, and fresh starts.

Which makes it a far cry from “The Streets of New York.” That was the first Playhouse production ever. But it too was right for its time: Set in the Depression of 1837, it was extremely topical during the Great Depression.

The Playhouse curtain rose for the first time on June 29, 1931. Ninety years to the day — and over 800 plays — later, a new season begins. 

Twenty years after founding the Westport Country Playhouse, Lawrence Langner published a memoir: “The Magic Curtain.” Here is an excerpt, about that very first year.

While the Theatre Guild was undergoing periods of varying fortune during the depression of the thirties, Armina [Langner’s wife] and I were carrying on parallel activities during the summers at the Westport Country Playhouse. We built the Playhouse in the year 1931, in order to establish a Repertory Company of our own, and to carry out our own ideas as regards plays and production.

The Westport Country Playhouse is situated in a 100-year-old orchard just off the Boston Post Road. A more attractive spot for a country theatre could hardly be imagined. This red barn nestling amid old, gnarled apple trees was a haven of peace and tranquility compared with Broadway, and some of the happiest days of my life have been spent driving to and from our farm [in Weston] to the Playhouse and rehearsing in the open air under the old trees.

The original barn — later a tannery — in an orchard.

There we were free to try out our creative ideas without interference, and without facing financial disaster if they failed. New plays and the classics could be essayed without reference to the tastes of Broadway. Actors could attempt new roles without facing the terrors of the New York opening nights, and new directors and scenic artists could be given a first chance to show their talents.  And furthermore, the younger generation could have an opportunity to gain experience in the theatre.

The dramatic critics of the local papers welcomed us as a relief from the tedium of movie going and transmitted their pleasurable experiences to our audiences, who enjoyed us as a gay addition to the life of the community. Even the stagehands, the traditional enemies of the managers in the large cities decided, after a few preliminary skirmishes, to make their peace with us, and became our personal friends and collaborators in our happy undertaking.  And the spirit which animated the beginnings of the Country Playhouse continues right down to today, as each new season brings fresh talents into the theatre and offers new opportunities in untried fields to the older actors and stage directors.

Early days at the Westport Country Playhouse. (Photo/Wells Studio)

Some of this spirit of pleasurable accomplishment undoubtedly springs from the atmosphere of the Playhouse itself. Remembering the toy theatre of my youth, and especially the “tuppence-colored” theatre with its gay proscenium of bright red and gold, its bright red curtain and red-and-gold-curtained side boxes, I asked Cleon Throckmorton, noted scenic designer of the Provincetown Players, to carry out this idea in a barn theatre.  Throckmorton, who had designed the famous Cape Playhouse at Dennis, Massachusetts, responded with enthusiasm and made the stage the same size as that of the Times Square Theatre in New York and elsewhere.  This gave our Playhouse a distinction over most summer theatres, and made it possible to use it as an incubator for plays for the theatres in other cities.

The first experiment in Westport was to be Repertory with an Acting Company which was to compensate me for the loss I felt with the disbanding of the Theatre Guild Acting Company. Armina and I threw ourselves with enthusiasm into forming this company, which we christened the New York Repertory Company.

The interior, 1933.

I asked Rollo Peters, who had done such invaluable work in the early days of the Theatre Guild, to become a member of the Company and to put his varied talents as a scenic artist, actor and stage director at our disposal. He did so, and also helped find the large red barn and unearthed the script of [Dion] Boucicault’s old Victorian melodrama, The Streets of New York, which was to form our first offering.

Other actors who joined the Acting Company were Romney Brent, Dorothy Gish, Winifred Lenihan, Moffat Johnston, Fania Marinoff, Armina Marshall, Jessie Busley and Tony Bundsman. As I wished to open the Repertory Company in a great hurry, for sixteen hours a day the carpenters and electricians were busy at work transforming the red barn (which had formerly been used as a tannery for leather hatbands) into our theatre.

Another view of the Westport country Playhouse, 1930s.

Our opening play, “The Streets of New York,” which had been played all over the world, and which appropriately dealt with the depression of 1837 and was hence topical in the depression of 1931, was produced with incidental music selected by Sigmund Spaeth, and colorful Victorian painted scenery and drops by Rollo Peters, who also played the leading role opposite Dorothy Gish.

On Monday night, June 29, 1931, the theatre was opened by old Daniel Frohman, then in his 80s and Dean of American producers, who made a charming speech with a crackling thunderstorm as an obligato accompaniment. But the storm subsided, and soon the audience fell under the spell of the delightful acting and singing, and the colorful costumes and scenery.

“The Streets of New York”: the very first Playhouse production.

Both our play and our Playhouse were instantaneous successes, and the play itself was performed twenty-one times in our repertory. It was followed by “The Comic Artist” by Susan Glaspell and Norman Matson.  Then came “As You Like It,” with Rollo playing the part of Orlando and Armina as Rosalind, followed by Ibsen’s “Pillars of Society” and Will Cotton’s “The Bride the Sun Shines On.”

At the end of the season we had a repertory of these five plays running in Westport and ready to bring to New York, and I conceived the daring plan of opening them one right after another in the same week, just to show New York what an Acting Company could actually do.

(“Tiny House” streams on demand from June 29 through July 18. Some tickets are available for an in-person viewing of the virtual production, on a big screen, on Tuesday, June 29 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 each. For more information and ticket purchases, both in-person and virtual, click here. or email boxoffice@westportplayhouse.org.)

The original program.

One response to “Celebrating 90 Years Of Westport Playhouse: Lawrence Langner Remembers

  1. Brad French

    There are still remnants of the old orchard in Winslow Park. Apple trees now dominated by taller trees.