Playhouse Appoints New Chair; Plans Campaign To Save Historic Theater

Ania Czekaj-Farber is no longer chair of the Westport Country Playhouse board of trustees.

After a week of questions about the future of the 91-year-old theater — which just a week earlier earned “Literary Landmark” status — newly elected chair Athena Adamson says:

Since the day our barn doors opened in 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse has been graced by the brightest of stars — heroes of the theater like Liza Minnelli, Eartha Kitt, Jessica Tandy, Henry Fonda, Gene Wilder, Olivia de Havilland, James Earl Jones, and Eva Gabor.

Under the guidance of Playhouse founder Lawrence Langner and legends like Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, we have stayed true to our mission, yet continually evolved.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward helped save the Westport Country Playhouse in the early 2000s. Their production of “Our Town” soon moved to Broadway.

I personally am forever grateful to Ania Czekaj-Farber, Mark Lamos, and all the Playhouse leaders, past and present, who believe in the power of live performance and cherish this special place.

Earlier this week, the board of trustees elected me, a new vice chair, and executive committee members to pursue a clear objective: fill this Playhouse and fulfill its mission.

I know it won’t be easy. The past few years have been a rocky time for theaters nationwide.

Pandemic shutdowns, streaming media, and younger generations’ entertainment preferences present real challenges. The costs of first-rate productions have skyrocketed, and ticket revenue has not kept pace. As attendance drops and audience connection frays, engagement and donations wane.

For several years, the Westport Country Playhouse has struggled to fill its famed seats.

Unfortunately, our community is not immune. Our Playhouse is in a tenuous
financial position.

But as I introduce myself to you, I am full of constructive optimism. Despite the changing landscape and challenges we face, I’m confident that together we will manage through this crisis and emerge stronger.

I say that because I know 2 things to be true:

  • People of every generation live fuller, more joyful lives when they connect in person through live performances, artistry, and the exchange of ideas.
  • Our community rallies when it matters.

Our plan is to make this your Playhouse. We envision a place for Westport and its neighboring communities to gather and enjoy world-class live performance – from theater, music, dance and comedy, to a speaker series with artists, thought-leaders, athletes and industry titans.

If you love the shows and programming we’re delivering, you’ll come and you’ll want to come back.

You’ll buy tickets, you’ll invite your friends, you’ll get involved, you’ll donate, and you’ll help us grow.

We will soon launch a fundraising campaign to save and transform the Playhouse. With your input and support, the board and our wonderful staff will deliver exciting and educational programming to engage every generation.

We ask you to join us, come to our beautiful theater, and help us ensure that the Westport Country Playhouse lives up to its legacy and flourishes for generations to come.

A new beginning for the Westport Country Playhouse? (Photo/Molly Alger)


12 responses to “Playhouse Appoints New Chair; Plans Campaign To Save Historic Theater

  1. brad lamensdorf

    I have spoken to many in westport and its clear its been mis managed and the venues that have been brought in recent years is not what westport wants Id suggest giving the people what they want, NOT what the play house committee wants

  2. Certainly the pandemic crippled theaters, and fundraising is always crucial, but the real challenge facing the Playhouse and similar small theater venues is…the plays.

    My family loves theater, but it is incredibly rare to find a new drama or non-musical comedy that gets us to click through to the ticket-buying web page.

    Theater has always been about social consciousness, but of the already sparse supply of new non-musical play, most seem to be produced solely because they check off the right boxes on race, gender or other social issues, with little else to recommend them.

    Old works by the likes of Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein told great stories combined with a social message. Comedies such as Neil Simon’s might have been lighter on the message, but explored serious human foibles while they made us laugh.

    Were these authors alive and working today, they’d probably be writing for HBO and Netflix, but that’s not the fault of technology as much as a theater industry that only cares about big money-making musicals, and relegates the smaller stages to demonstrating their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

  3. Yesterday’s memories, excuses and platitudes.
    Where’s the beef?
    Good luck ‼️

    • Tom, the beef is in the content. A theater needs to seek out plays that are powerful, engaging and enjoyable. More than that, it needs to market that content, so theater-goers have some hope they’ll get a decent return on their investment of 2 hours and 200 bucks. I don’t say it’s ever been easy. Going to the theater has always been a crapshoot and no theater-goer expects to be satisfied 100% of the time or even 50% of the time.

  4. Phillip Perri

    Before I get into my opinions (as I will probably lose some people), a couple of suggestions. This past week I attended a showing of the YMCA Aqua-fit documentary (which was excellent). People have been talking about a movie theater in Westport for years. Why not add movies to the playhouse? With the loss of the only intimate movie house in Norwalk, this could be a great, low capital investment addition to the playhouse off-season. The movies don’t have to be first run, be family friendly early as well as more adult offerings later at night, keeping ticket prices low and thereby also keeping the audience to a manageable size.

    I don’t know the politics or financial issues involved but why not combine the Playhouse theater group with the Westport Theater group from Town hall? The Playhouse is certainly a much better venue for them.

    As a 25 year subscriber I can offer that the choices of productions and the disconnect with the demographic of Westport has eroded the subscriber base over the years. I’d suggest a better mix of classic material and more cutting edge, thought provoking material is welcomed, however in recent years the slant has been to far forward, in my opinion, for the typical Westport demographic. A lot of this new material comes with increased sexual content, horrible language, social preaching and uncomfortably loud (and explicit) music. Again, this doesn’t create a family-friendly atmosphere for parents to introduce their kids to live theater (a key to longevity of the Playhouse) and turns off Westport’s older population. In addition, our society is so divided and fractured socially at this point in time the theater should be a pleasant getaway for a few hours. Let the material on stage stand on its own, stop the gratuitous announcements and political rhetoric before the performances. Lastly, I suggest newcomers to Westport look into the history of the Playhouse both locally and nationally. Just visit and look at the posters in the lobby, drink in the history that has past through those doors. Minor example, I remember an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke show” where Rob’s boss (Carl Reiner) calls him, needing him to “get on a train to Westport” to punch up his dialogue where he’s performing summer stock theater………at “the Westport Country Playhouse”.

    We’ve seen the culture of Westport erode over time in various ways, but It would be especially devastating to lose the Playhouse.

  5. Karen Spheeris

    Would it be possible to have more live music? The Levitt does an amazing job getting incredible acts to come and play. We have many musicians/singers in our backyard to help. How fun would it be to have an intimate setting for this. Many nights could be sold out.

  6. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Those involved and particularly those accountable would be well advised to do a full blown SWOT analysis of the current situation before any decisions are made or any fund raising initiatives organized. This is equally true for the “traffic problem” the “housing affordability problem” and the re-engineering of the downtown as to commercial development and associated traffic flow. The simple fact is that the townspeople have chosen to do other things with their time and money than support the Playhouse. What was once a priority no longer is.

  7. Lynda Shannon Bluestein

    When my husband and I moved from So Calif to this area 30+ years ago, the first thing we saw on stage was Dr. Cook’s Garden (a WCT production) then became subscribers to the WCP. Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronin were still attending plays in those days which were glorious. Until they weren’t.

    It was very hard to give up our subscription. It was’t the money it was the plays. The choice of productions often left us… actually caused us to leave at intermission. Until they stopped having intermissions and we stopped going.

    The big fundraising drive in the early 2000s sucked the air out of fundraising campaigns by other arts groups at the time. It was a success, but the theatre is now in serious financial trouble.

    I agree with other comments, that thinking long and hard about another all-out push for funding the Playhouse, beloved as it is to so many of us, is risky business without a plan for what kinds of entertainment will be put on stage.

    Will the Playhouse be a producing theatre or a venue showing movies and featuring live music and dance?

    If the Playhouse were to become ‘just” another venue, all I can say is, BEWARE. There are lots of venues in our area better suited for music and movies. I know. My husband and I go to all of them. But a venue is just a venue. Not a source of devotion capable of attracting the most generous sources and amounts of philanthropic revenue streams.

    I have supported, worked in, and served on the boards of various arts organizations in Fairfield County in the past 30 years and appreciate the struggle the newly elected Board President and her team face. Yesterday my husband and I went to Ivoryton to see the final performance of “On Golden Pond” featuring Westport familiars – James Naughton and Mia Dillon. It was superbly acted, an audience pleaser as expected, and there was a full house for a Sunday afternoon matinee. I immediately looked at the back of their program to see the donor and sponsor list for the Ivoryton Playhouse (founded in 1911). It took my breath away. The list of contributors in Ivoryton is quite impressive.

    I used to work for Disney, even attended Disney U where I learned, if you want to succeed, study success. Not earthshaking advice but still a good idea.

    I certainly hope the Playhouse finds a way back from where it turned off in the wrong direction, which I think did appen.

  8. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    The “tannery” had its day. Maybe “the Playhouse” has too. Westport is currently doing live theatre in a number of places as documented in this blog: The Levitt, the new library’s new auditorium, MoCA, Staples. There were even several posts by Dan last week about local artistic talent performing at other summer stock locations than the Playhouse. Where were they now that the Playhouse needs them? According to many commenters on this blog it now takes 30-60 minutes to get from anywhere in Westport to anywhere else in Westport. So why bother humping to the Playhouse when you can take the train to see a 1st run play on Broadway? Maybe it’s time for Back To The Future.

  9. OK, so what is the plan?

    “Our plan is to make this your Playhouse. We envision a place for Westport and its neighboring communities to gather and enjoy world-class live performance – from theater, music, dance and comedy, to a speaker series with artists, thought-leaders, athletes and industry titans.

    “If you love the shows and programming we’re delivering, you’ll come and you’ll want to come back.

    You’ll buy tickets, you’ll invite your friends, you’ll get involved, you’ll donate, and you’ll help us grow.”

    . . .

    OK, so what is the plan?

  10. Clark Thiemann

    Two of the best things I’ve seen on stage in the last 5 years were at the Playhouse. Their production of “In the Heights” was as good as when I saw it on Broadway (and even better since I was so close to the stage) and Shoshana Bean’s TV taping in 2021 was the best of the best of what theater-related things should be and were perfect for the playhouse. I also attended the production of “Straight White Men” last year with my mother at a weekend matinee where a group of primarily octogenarians in the audience were 1.) greeted by a pre-show playlist of extremely loud, very explicit rap music 2.) while the lighting was designed to be pitch black before the show and so I saw a number of people almost trip getting to their seats and then this group was 3.) presented a show that seemed designed to please no one other than a hardcore alt-theatre aficionado. I saw a bunch of people not come back after intermission.

    As a result, I think I’ve probably been to more shows at the Downtown Cabaret in Bridgeport than the WCP in the last few years. The shows were just more appealing (and cheaper).

    At the same time as I say “don’t be too weird”, we have a ton of great music venues in the area (FTC, Ridgefield Playhouse, Wall St Theatre, Place Theatre in Stamford, Bridgeport HH amphitheatre etc.) so I hope they don’t just try to generically do what everyone else does. Bringing the world of theatre to people is hugely important! Just do it in a way that you make people want to come back!