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.
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.
“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 (email@example.com) if you have large gifts, a naming opportunity. or ideas for programs.
“And go see ‘Dial M for Murder.’ It’s a great show!”