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Westport Country Playhouse: Next Act — Or Final Curtain?

For over 90 years the Westport Country Playhouse has entertained, inspired and awed theatergoers.

From the opening curtain in a converted tannery through the rest of the 20th century, “the Playhouse” became a launch pad for Broadway shows, an important stop for hundreds of actors, and an iconic Westport jewel.

Now, in its 92nd year, the Westport Country Playhouse is limping through a truncated season.

It might not make it to 93.

Classic shot of a classic theater.

I love the Playhouse. I was introduced to live theater there, through children’s shows. I’ve seen countless productions, plus concerts like Arlo Guthrie.

A highlight of my life was performing on its stage – the same one used by Henry Fonda, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Eartha Kitt and James Earl Jones – for a “Moth” taping 3 years ago.

It is painful to write this story.

It would be more painful to lose the Playhouse entirely. But that may very well happen.

And it could happen very, very soon.

The Westport Country Playhouse is on precarious footing. The last 2 shows of its planned 5-play 2023 season have already been canceled. The third is in jeopardy.

In recent years, not enough seats have been filled. (Photo/Robert Benson)

Attendance has plummeted; so has the subscriber base.

As the core audience aged, there was little outreach to younger and newer residents. The Playhouse has virtually no social marketing – the best way to create buzz, and reach today’s theater-goers.

Artistic director Mark Lamos’ selection of plays failed to resonate with patrons. Now he’s departing, leaving no one at the helm.

If the theater goes dark, it will be almost impossible to put the lights back on.

All is not lost, however. A rescue plan has been floated.

As in past crises – most recently the early 2000s, when Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward rode to the rescue – this one has quintessential Westport roots.

Andrew Wilk, in the “Live From Lincoln Center” production truck.

Andrew Wilk is a 5-time Emmy-winning executive producer and director of television programming (and a renowned playwright, director and symphony conductor).

He moved to Westport 17 years ago, attracted in large part by the town’s support for the arts.

Wilk produced PBS’ legendary “Live from Lincoln Center” series for many years; served as chief creative officer for Sony Music Entertainment, and executive vice president for the National Geographic Channel (among many other accomplishments).

He created and developed last year’s 3-part PBS entertainment specials, shot at the Playhouse. (He worked on that project for almost 2 years – pro bono.)

Wilk spent months developing a new business strategy and turnaround plan. Covering everything from programming to union contracts, it outlines a path toward recovery and sustainability for an institution that for years has spent more than ticket sales, donors and grants bring in.

Wilk devised the plan on his own time. He’s willing to oversee it in the coming months – gratis.

So far, the Playhouse board has not accepted his broad, generous offer. Perhaps they think they must “save” the Playhouse, before creating a new artistic model.

Wilk proposes to save the Playhouse by reimagining it. First, a transitional season would begin rebuilding the audience through a robust season of well-known musical titles “In Concert.” They’d be headlined by a small number of Broadway stars, with an orchestra.  Concerts include evenings of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jerry Herman, Rodgers & Hammerstein and others.

Those concert productions would be augmented by smaller, fully professional productions of recognizable shows, like “The Fantasticks” and “I Do! I Do!,” as well as classic comedies and dramas.

Back in the day, crowds lined up for comedies, dramas — and shows that were headed to Broadway. (Photo/Wells Studio)

There would be student productions too, with actors from Staples and area high schools and colleges, of shows like “Rent,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Falsettos,” plus “Jesus Christ Superstar” using local community groups, and Broadway stars in a few primary roles (thanks to Wilk’s extensive contacts).

Wilk estimated costs for every show, right down to transportation and rights fees. He’s addressed the thorny question of union contracts, and even figured out rehearsal schedules.

His plan appears to be the only one addressing the theater’s many urgent challenges.

The Westport Country Playhouse has been on the brink of disaster before. They’ve always pulled rabbits out of the hat (and, in the case of Newman and Woodward, conjured up a production that – harkening back to the Playhouse’s mid-20th century heyday – moved on to Broadway).

The world has changed since then. It’s changed even since Newman and Woodward’s “Our Town.”

This is our Westport Country Playhouse. It is our town.

But unless the people in charge of our town’s historic gem act quickly, decisively and creatively, the theater that last week was honored as a Literary Landmark may soon become just one more theatrical memory.

(The Westport Country Playhouse was asked to comment on its future. Board chair Anna Czekaj-Farber said: “Nothing new at the moment. We are getting ready for our New Works reading (Monday, June 5) our next Script in Hand on June 12, and Patti LuPone’s  great evening June 15.”)

Twenty years ago, Paul Newman helped save the Westport Country Playhouse. Can it be saved again?

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