Athena Adamson: New Playhouse Chair Leads Fight To Survive

The first show Athena Adamson saw at the Westport Country Playhouse was “A Christmas Carol.”

It was 2006. The historical theater had just reopened, after a $30 million renovation turned the drafty former barn into a 21st-century jewel.

And saved it from the threat of closure.

Nearly 2 decades later, the 92-year-old institution is again imperiled.

When the curtain rises next month on “Dial M for Murder” — the second show in this truncated season — Adamson will again be there.

This time, she’s interested in more than entertainment. Earlier this month, she became chair of the board of trustees.

Athena Adamson

The future of the Westport Country Playhouse — more uncertain now than perhaps any time in its fabled but sometimes fraught history — lies in her board’s hands.

And in the willingness of audiences — including those the Playhouse lost, and those it never reached out to — to help.

Adamson grew up around New York theater. Her father was an actor; she was raised in Greenwich Village.

She met her husband while at Yale. Her first jobs were with the university development office, then Food & Wine magazine. While in New Haven and New York, they came here for WCP shows.

They moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote screenplays. Nine years ago they came back to Connecticut. Living in Easton, then Southport, she got involved with the Playhouse through then-chair Barbara Streicker.

Adamson chaired the gala; then she joined the full board. She raised 3 children, and calls service to the Playhouse “my job.”

As nominating committee chair, she helped find new trustees. They — and the other, longer-serving members — will now play critical roles, as the board tries to fundraise and program the Playhouse out of its dire predicament.

Fortunately, Adamson says, “new and older members work pretty well together. There’s respect for what the institution has been and is, and also an eagerness to see change.”

In the 1950s, the Westport Country Playhouse was a launching pad for Broadway shows.

Adamson takes the reins from Ania Czekaj-Farber. The new chair calls her predecessor “a friend. No one is more dedicated to the theater than she.”

But, Adamson notes, “this is a transformative time. It’s good to have a new leader.”

The new leader’s most pressing concern is “raising dollars. We need to get through this immediate phase.” The goal is see “world-class plays” return to the stage by September of 2024.

She knows the Playhouse must offer a “wider range of choices, for the Westport audience and beyond.

“The community is changing. We need to adapt. I want this to be a Playhouse for the entire community, with enough on stage to appeal to everyone. We haven’t always had that.”

Many new residents are unfamiliar with the Playhouse.

Why not?

“That’s a good question,” Adamson says. “We started to see changes in the community even before the pandemic. But that accelerated it. There’s a huge number of new families, from the city. We want to keep our audience, and add them to it.

“We’re responding to that change now. Maybe we should have done it earlier.”

As the Playhouse’s woes became public this month, Westporters criticized programming choices of the past few years as out of step with audience tasts.

“I am proud of our programming,” Adamson counters, while acknowledging, “It may not have appealed to audiences as much as we’d like. We’ve learned a lot. We have to be mindful of our audience.”

Though musicals are audience-pleasers — and Adamson calls “In the Heights” one of her favorite all-time WCP productions (“Red” was the other) — they are costly. “We can find ways to be less expensive,” the board chair promises.

“In the Heights” was a smash, in 2019.

The recent Patti LuPone benefit — “high energy, and sold out” — offers another way to bring music to the stage. Adamson envisions similar concerts, “scratching an itch that people have.”

Though that sounds like the Ridgefield Playhouse model, Adamson says there must be additional programming — cabarets, Q-and-As, comedy shows, play readings — on the Westport Country Playhouse stage.

Those could begin next January. A 3-play season would begin that fall, in 2024.

The immediate need, Adamson notes, is to “raise dollars. We have to do it. I’m optimistic, or I wouldn’t be here.”

Meanwhile, the board begins searching for an acting interim artistic director.

The Westport Country Playhouse has a more storied past than perhaps any regional theater in the country. Yet that may not be enough to save it alone. And is that heritage perhaps a burden?

“No. Not if it’s thought of in the right way,” says Adamson.

Westport Country Playhouse cultural archivist Bruce Miller, with some of the 500 head shots underneath the stage.

“There’s a desire to be proud of our history, to preserve it. But there’s also a real desire for growth, change, the next chapter.

“I definitely feel that from the board. We’re all behind the plan of offering different programming and shows. The Playhouse history is something we should celebrate, as part of our campaign.”

The goal of that campaign is to raise $2 million by July 30.

“Spread the word that this is an institution worth saving,” Adamson says.

“No dollar is too small. Go to our website. Email (interim managing director) Gretchen Wright ( if you have large gifts, a naming opportunity. or ideas for programs.

“And go see ‘Dial M for Murder.’ It’s a great show!”

13 responses to “Athena Adamson: New Playhouse Chair Leads Fight To Survive

  1. John F. Suggs

    What about Andrew Wilk and his generous offer to assist the Playhouse through this crisis? I would feel much more confident if she would addressed that issue rather than mindlessly tell us to email the interim managing director “if you have large gifts, a naming opportunity or ideas for programs.” Her – and the Boards – silence is deafening!

  2. Kathy Kagan Laufer

    Loved the photo from the 1950s. That’s when my family moved to Westport. That’s how I remember the theater.

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    She has inadvertently disclosed the “rescue” plan: If 2000 Westporters attend Dial M For Murder at $1000/ticket by July 30 then it’s party time. Back to “the plan”: WTF do they need a “cultural archivist” for? I’d thank him for his service and RIF him out of there faster than a Biden press conference. I hear the history and culture crew over on Avery Place could use a good historian.

    • Maria Paventas

      The cultural archivist is a volunteer.

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

        OK. That changes things. Leaves the whole $2MM for the rest of the gang to take when they split on 8/1.

  4. Phillip Perri

    +1 on the question of why not work with Andrew Wilk. We’ve been subscribers for 25 years and although each season has had its ups and downs the last few, even before the pandemic, were heading in the wrong direction. Definitely obvious the directors were not mindful of the majority of the audience. We enjoy modern and thought-provoking material but the bent towards more “progressive” offerings of limited quality and story and the accompanying preaching has been unnecessary. A night at the theater should be a respite from the division in today’s society and open and welcoming. Most of these came with exceedingly loud music, sexuality and profanity. One performance blasted horrible music before the production and then explained that it was on purpose to make the audience feel as socially uncomfortable as certain groups do. Hint: assault tends to make people less open to hearing your message. We didn’t think twice about taking our kids to the theater in the past, but not anymore. Parents should feel comfortable introducing their kids to live theater and the playhouse should encourage this for future subscribers. Love the idea of (clean) comedy shows, kids programming but why not movies? Saw the “Y” documentary there recently and it was intimate and fun. Let’s bring an inexpensive, neighborhood movie theater vibe back to the area, especially in the winter. The Playhouse is an historic gem and represents the artistic founding and heart of Westport. Losing it is unthinkable and the board needs to put ego aside and align with the community to save it. All I hear from folks is this is only the same old board with the same ideas and there will be no real changes. The board needs to meet with the community and prove that perception wrong……..and LISTEN. Please!

  5. Clark Thiemann

    It still feels like the plan is “give us $2MM and we’ll then let you know what the plan is”.

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

      And you know what Clark? Westport will probably take the deal.

  6. Peter Hirst

    So. Keep asking for money and ideas promising programming for the community, looking to the future, high quality and expect a different result. Great plan.

    Instead of contributing, I think I’ll send a bill for the time I put in free in the 60s. I could retire in high style
    on the net present value of that.

  7. Chris Grimm

    My fun (not) morning activity was catching up on what’s going on with the Playhouse.

    Am I correct in understanding that the Playhouse needs $2 million, something that was seemingly unknown until earlier this month? I get that two productions were cancelled back in January, but those were presented as decisions driven by both COVID health concerns and the pandemic’s impact on attendance – understandable concerns faced by many arts organizations.

    I’m not clear as to how this festered until it suddenly became the June crisis. That makes no sense to me.

    What is the Playhouse’s endowment, if that is public information? And how does that compare with the annual budget?

    I appreciate Mr. Wilk’s credentials and efforts, but I don’t assume he possesses the magic bullet (unless it comes with $2 million). I mean no offense, but the “let’s take him up on his offer” comments on all of the threads seem a little… shallow.

    My free advice would be to present more contemporary plays that appeal to a more contemporary audience – fill a void left by the downsizing of Long Wharf Theater. Avoid musicals because of the cost. Remember that you can present modern plays without putting off long-time supporters. (It sounds as if the Historical Museum programmed a couple of the plays, from local response.)

    Then look for other activities with which the space can be utilized, which aren’t more easily filled by other venues. Music is probably out – unless it is under-presented (locally) genres like classical and jazz. Venues from FTC to Wall Street have other genres covered. Stand-up and speakers make a lot of sense.

    I am a film lover but have been skeptical about the Westport film initiative in the age of streaming. Big cities still have a few revival houses, but I think that is a tough sell. But if the community believes in trying to bring film back downtown, this is where it should be done.

    Finally, the moneymaker for the space should be private events.

  8. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    The reality regarding the Playhouse is Grimm indeed.

  9. Chris Grimm

    Here are the latest IRS filings, from October 2022, for the fiscal year ending December 2021. (It’s all part of the public record.)