Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

How Not To Be A Racist

Or, more specifically: “How to be an Anti-Racist.”

That’s the topic of tomorrow’s (Sunday, January 14) 12th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration in Westport. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi — winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction — keynotes the 3 p.m. event, at the Westport Country Playhouse.

He’ll be joined by Chris Coogan and the Good News Gospel Choir, along with the Weston High School Jazz Ensemble. Students from the Regional Center for the Arts will present a dance piece too.

Kendi’s book — “Stamped From the Beginning” — examined the history of racial ideas in the US.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

An assistant professor of African American history at American University, he’s spent his career studying racist and anti-racist ideas and movements. He speaks nationally on issues like #BlackLivesMatter, and social justice.

Kendi began his research assuming that the major adherents of racist ideas were hateful and ignorant, and that racist policies like slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration resulted directly from them.

But as he dug deeper, he realized that political, economic and cultural self-interest lie behind the creation of racist policies — which, in turn, lead to racist ideas that rationalize deep inequities in everything from wealth to health.

Kendi’s address is free, and open to the public. It will be followed by an audience Q-and-A session. He’ll also sign books, which are available for sale at the event. The Westport Weston Family YMCA will provide childcare and activities in the studio adjacent to the theater.

The MLK celebration is co-sponsored by the Westport Library, Westport Country Playhouse, TEAM Westport and the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council.

Friday Flashback #72

The new tax bill signed by President Trump may devastate Newman’s Own Foundation. Since 1982, the Westport-based organization has donated $512 million to charities helping veterans, children with cancer, low-income students and many other causes. (Click here for the full story.)

That news reminds us of the actor/food and lemonade manufacturer/automobile racer’s enormous, longtime impact on our town.

From the time he moved to Coleytown in the late 1950s — attracted here by the movie “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” — he and his wife Joanne Woodward — were good, giving neighbors.

From the Westport Historical Society and Westport Country Playhouse to speaking with middle school students about substance abuse, the couple did plenty for all of us.

Everyone who’s lived here a while has a Paul Newman or Joanne Woodward story.

But I’d sure like to know the one behind this photo, taken shortly after he moved around the corner from the elementary school:

(Photo courtesy of Dave Parnas via Facebook “Exit 18” page)

Nora Guthrie: “Woody Sez” …

Nora Guthrie cannot remember when her father was not sick.

From when she was 2 until he died 15 years later, Woody Guthrie battled Huntington’s disease. It robbed the legendary singer/songwriter of his ability to walk, swallow and speak.

Nora went on to a career in modern dance — her mother’s medium. But around 1990, more than 20 years after Woody died, Harold Leventhal — a Weston resident, and Woody Guthrie’s longtime manager — gave Nora boxes full of material.

They were Woody’s archives.

Nora Guthrie (Photo/Tina Tschirch)

Harold was retiring, and he’d retrieved them from storage. “You should look at these,” he told her.

Unlike other relatives — including her older brother Arlo — Nora had not followed in her father’s footsteps. Her main connection with his legacy was signing legal papers a couple of times a year.

She picked a piece of paper from one of the boxes. It was written by Woody — and seemed to be aimed directly at her.

“He was sick my whole life. So I never had any deep conversations with him,” Nora recalls.

“But I pulled out this wonderful poem he’d written, called ‘I Say To You Woman and Man.’ It had lines like ‘Go dance’ and ‘I go up to your office.’

“I’m a dancer. I was sitting in my office. This was a man I never knew, speaking in a language I never heard. This was a father I never had.”

Woody Guthrie (Photo/Al Aumiller, courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications Inc.)

As Nora delved into the boxes, she discovered — for the first time — her “healthy father.”

The impact of her discovery soon went far beyond her own life.

The boxes were filled with 3,000 lyrics Woody had written in the 1930s and ’40s — the prime of his career. Some were complete; others unfinished. Some were one or two lines; others ran up to 85 verses.

Nora showed them to Pete Seeger, one of Woody’s oldest friends and most cherished collaborators. He’d never seen them — or heard of them.

No one else in the American folk music world had, either.

There was other remarkable material, like a letter to Woody from John Lennon. Each box offered a previously unknown look into Woody Guthrie’s life.

In 1996, Nora co-produced the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute series honoring Woody. Bruce Springsteen headlined a star-studded concert. There was also a scholarly symposium.

Listening to the presentations, Nora realized that “80% of what people were saying was incomplete, or incorrect.” Even Woody’s closest friends and fellow musicians had not seen the archival material.

Fred Hellerman

For instance, Fred Hellerman — a Weston resident who as a member of the Weavers helped lead an American folk song revival — said that Woody “hated love songs.”

“But Fred hadn’t seen Woody’s 150 love songs,” Nora says.

She knew she had to get the story right.

“Not everyone wants to hear songs about unions or boycotts,” she says, invoking some of her father’s most famous causes. “He wrote 100 songs about Hanukkah and Judaism. I wanted to find a way to bring everyone into the fold.”

Nora has spent the past quarter century “connecting various spokes to the hub.”

She produced 3 groundbreaking Billy Bragg/Wilco collaborations of previously unknown lyrics.

She curated “This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,” in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. It toured for 3 years at major museums throughout the country, displaying previously unseen notebooks, diaries, artwork, lyrics, photographs, instruments and memorabilia.

And for several years, “Woody Sez” has provided audiences with one more way to understand and appreciate the life and music of “America’s greatest troubadour.”

Part of the cast of “Woody Sez.”

From January 9 to 20, the show will be here. It’s the next big event at the Westport Country Playhouse. Nora is excited.

“It’s unbelievable how true Woody’s music is for our world today,” she says. “There’s every major issue: immigration, refugees, tax reform, religion, greed, freedom of speech, politicians, the environment.

“But there are also love songs, and songs about family. It’s all delivered from Woody’s point of view: personal, friendly, funny, familiar and accessible. You come out feeling empowered and exhilarated — not depressed. You feel your own little self is important.”

It’s family-friendly too. “Woody cut his teeth on Will Rogers’ humor,” she notes. “Children will chuckle.”

Nora has seen “Woody Sez” 100 times. Each time, she is inspired.

Nora Guthrie discovered her father’s “lost” material, and shined a light on a man she — and America — never really knew.

Now “Woody Sez” is doing the same.

“In dark times like these,” Nora says, “I don’t believe the American spirit is dark. Even after all these years, Woody’s light humor, light wisdom and light spirit is important.

“This show reminds us that there have always been amazing people, all over our country. It wakes up the part of you that wants to feel — and do — good.”

(For more information on “Woody Sez” — including tickets — click here.)

Clay Singer’s “Romeo And Juliet”: A Play In 2 Parts

Last month, “06880” profiled Clay Singer. The 2013 Staples High School graduate was getting ready to play Peter in the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

His background — including starring roles in Staples Players, and as a Carnegie Mellon musical theater major — sure paid off.

Last Sunday at 1 p.m. — while driving from New York for his 3 p.m. matinee — Clay learned he’d have to step in for an actor who was ill.

In addition to his own role, he’d play Prince Escalus.

Clay got a quick costume fitting, learned all his lines and blocking with his scene partners, and went on stage.

Clay Singer and his new costume.

He’d already planned to arrive at the Playhouse early — to watch football games on the green room TV.

Instead, he asked his family to record them.

The show, after all, must go on.

And it has, with Clay playing his — and Prince Escalus’ — roles, ever since.

Madison Lemone’s Theater Links

Chris Lemone was Staples High School’s beloved outreach counselor. His death 2 years ago from a heart attack — at age 49 — left a hole in the lives of countless students who found his office to be a warm and welcoming place for advice, support, compassion, love (tough and gentle) and laughter.

It also ripped a hole in his family. Chris’ middle daughter Madison was a Bethel High School sophomore when her dad died suddenly that October weekend.

Madison’s passion was always dance. Ballet, tap, jazz — she did it all with Broadway Method Academy. The Fairfield-based non-profit offers classes, private coaching and performance opportunities to children and teenagers interested in acting, singing and dancing.

One of the Broadway performers Madison worked with was Westport star Kelli O’Hara.

Madison Lemone

After her father died, Madison says, “I struggled a lot. But BMA helped me through a really tough time. The arts have always been there for me, and it was one place I could really express myself. It was like an encouraging community that kept me sane.”

So Madison is especially pleased that BMA is now the Westport Country Playhouse‘s resident conservatory.

The partnership will help the Playhouse offer musical theater training, masterclasses and a mainstage show.

The collaboration began in July with 3 days of seminars, panels and activities, all focused on the technical world of theater prior to the Playhouse production of “Grounded.”

The Westport Country Playhouse.

For the upcoming November 27 “Broadway Sings” fundraiser, BMA students will share the Playhouse stage with Broadway talents.

During the mainstage production of “Evita” (January 28 through February 11), professional actors will team up with BMA students.

Also ahead: a 6-day March masterclass.

“My dad had a strong influence on Westport,” Madison says. “I’m really excited to see how my world combines with his in Westport.”

She adds, “I know I’m not the first person with a story. BMA allows each person to come out of their shell. A lot of times, we hide what we’re feeling. BMA lets each student show what they’re going through. It allowed me and others to heal, onstage and off.”

Now, through the Playhouse, Madison says, “I’m excited to see BMA influence other kids, in Westport.”

An enthusiastic Broadway Method Academy performance.

She has found a home in Broadway Method Academy. She looks forward to feeling grounded at the Playhouse too.

Madison graduates from Bethel High in June. She’s applying to musical theater colleges. If that doesn’t work out, she may study psychology.

“My dad loved shows,” Madison says. “But he really knew a lot about people too. We’re a lot alike.”

Wherefore Art Thou, Clay And Peter?

When Clay Singer was a musical theater major at Carnegie Mellon University, regional theaters often visited campus. Seeing “Westport, Connecticut” on the 2013 Staples graduate’s resume, they’d mention the Playhouse. That’s when Singer realized the major impact his hometown has had on the theatrical world.

In 2008, freshman Peter Molesworth saw nearly every Staples Players production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale — the 2 leads — awed him.

Now Singer and Molesworth have their own chances to star.

In “Romeo and Juliet.”

At the Westport Country Playhouse.

Singer plays Peter, and Molesworth is Balthasar, in the Playhouse’s first-ever production of William Shakespeare’s classic. It opens October 31, and runs through November 19.

Clay Singer

Singer — who has been busy doing new works and studio shows in New York since graduating last spring from Carnegie Mellon — always dreamed of acting on the Westport Country Playhouse stage. When he heard they were casting “Romeo and Juliet” he sent in his head shot, freshened up his monologues, and auditioned for artistic director Mark Lamos.

Three days later, Singer was in rehearsals.

“Mark knows everything about Shakespeare,” the young actor says. “And our dramaturg, Milla Riggio, is amazing too. We break down every scene, talking about literary structure and rhetorical devices. I’m so lucky to be experiencing all that.”

Singer calls this production “a wonderful transition from theater education to my career. I feel like I’m back in a classroom, but in a professional setting.”

Of course, he’s also back in his home town.

After his first rehearsal, Singer “almost laughed” as he drove down the Post Road. It reminded him of all those years driving home from Players events or voice lessons.

He lives in New York now. But his Playhouse role brings him back to Westport.

And his mother is happy to make him dinner.

Peter Molesworth

Molesworth feels equally happy to be back in town. He appeared in several Players shows, then spent senior year at Walnut Hill in Massachusetts.

After graduating in 2011, he attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He studied in Florence, then started a theater company called Cue for Passion Collaborative. They concentrate on Shakespeare.

In 2008, Moleworth had served as a Joanne Woodward Apprentice at the Westport Country Playhouse. He did tech work, helped on the run crew, manned the concession stand and took acting classes.

He continued working concessions and in the box office for the next 3 years, and loved it.

Like Singer, he auditioned for Lamos. Now Molesworth feels he’s come full circle.

“This is the place where I first invested in my career in a substantial way,” he says. “Having one of my first professional acting jobs at the Playhouse is wonderful.”

He’s come full circle in another way too. As a Staples junior, Molesworth assistant directed “The Children’s Hour.” Singer — a freshman — was in the cast.

Of course, Molesworth will never forget those “Romeo and Juliet” productions he saw when he was in 9th grade. One of the most compelling scenes was when Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead. Now it’s his role.

“I remember so clearly seeing that at Staples,” he says. “That alone makes it serendipitous for me. This is a classical play. It’s re-entered my life, with potent meaning.”

(For tickets and more information, click here or call 203-227-4177.)

The cast of “Romeo and Juliet,” at the Westport Country Playhouse. Clay Singer is standing, 3rd from left; Peter Molesworth is standing, 3rd from right. (Photo/Peter Chenot)

 

Candidates, Voters Meet And Mingle

If — as Tip O’Neill said — all politics is local, then Westport was the center of last night’s political universe.

A “meet and mingle” event — co-sponsored by the Westport Moms and Westport Front Porch social media groups — drew several dozen candidates, and many more interested voters, to the Westport Country Playhouse.

The 4 first selectperson candidates (and 2 running mates) spoke. Board of Finance, Board of Ed, Planning and Zoning and Zoning Board of Appeals hopefuls introduced themselves. RTM candidates were there too.

This is a decidedly local election. Aquarion’s water towers, the Cribari/Bridge Street Bridge, Compo Beach, taxes, historic preservation — those and many other issues are on voters’ minds.

We all had a chance to ask questions, get answers, and assess the men and women seeking our votes.

We looked them in the eye, and they looked in ours.

Locally at least, “politics” is not a dirty word.

Author Jane Green — founder of Westport Front Porch — addresses the large Westport Country Playhouse crowd.

Ann Sheffer: A True Westport Playhouse Star

In the mid-1960s, Steve Gilbert was a beloved Staples High School art teacher. After school — as technical director for Players — he taught students how to create the remarkable sets that gave that drama troupe some of its early renown.

Each summer, Gilbert had another job: general manager of the Westport Country Playhouse. His Staples connection gave him an easy pipeline to willing workers. He hired set builders, ushers, even parking lot attendants.

Some of Gilbert’s teenagers — like Lindsay Law and Ann Sheffer — went on to careers in theater or TV.

Nearly all recall those summers as defining moments of their lives. They learned so much about the arts. They interacted with stars, and struggling actors. They hung out there together after work, and formed lifelong bonds.

“That’s where we grew up,” Sheffer recalls.

Staples Players received a replica of the Globe Theater. Steve Gilbert is at far left; Ann Sheffer is on the far right.

On Saturday, September 9, she returns to the Playhouse. As part of the annual gala — which this year features “Hamilton” Tony Award nominee and Grammy winner Jonathan Groff — the 1966 Staples grad receives the Leadership Award.

It’s been in the works even before Sheffer was born. 

Starting in the 1930s, her grandparents spent summers and weekends in Westport. (Their property, on the corner of Cross Highway and Bayberry Lane, predates the Merritt Parkway and Nike site — which became the Westport Weston Health District and Rolnick Observatory.)

As a child, Sheffer’s grandparents and parents took her to the Playhouse. She still recalls sitting in those red seats, for Friday afternoon children’s shows.

The Westport Country Playhouse, back in the day.

At 15, she became one of Gilbert’s ushers. The Playhouse calendar included 12 shows every season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The set would be struck Saturday night. A new one was constructed on Sunday. On Monday, the next play opened.

Going to the Playhouse was “the social event” of the week, Sheffer remembers. “People kept their own seats, and their own days of the week, for years.”

Much has changed — from summer habits to entertainment options to theater itself.

But Sheffer’s commitment to the arts — and the Westport Country Playhouse — never wavered.

Ann Sheffer

After graduating with a degree in theater from Smith College, she earned a master’s in theater administration from Tufts, and an MBA from the University of Washington. Sheffer worked with many non-profit arts groups, serving on boards at the local, state and national levels.

In 1999 — after decades assisting a variety of Westport organizations — Sheffer was asked to help plan the Playhouse renovation. During that long but fruitful process, she championed its history and cultural significance. That includes preserving posters from the Playhouse’s long history. They’re now displayed in the lobby.

She helped procure $5 million in bond money from the state. She also negotiated a $2 million grant to name the adjacent barn for Lucille Lortel, along with annual funds for new plays.

Sheffer has long supported the Playhouse’s education programs. Her brother Doug was a props apprentice in 1968. (That’s why every play featured furniture and other items from the Sheffer’s home — including Sheffer’s mother’s high school diploma, which hung on the wall when Shirley Booth starred in “The Desk Set.”)

In 1968, the Westport News profiled Playhouse apprentices. Doug Sheffer is shown in the photo at right.

Sheffer was a trustee until 2015 — “15 amazing years working with Joanne Woodward, Annie Keefe and a dedicated board” that completely transformed an old, leaky and unheated barn into a theater for the next generation.

When she accepts her award at the September 9 gala, Sheffer will no doubt speak about what the Playhouse has meant to her, for so many years.

She may also weave together some of the strands that continue to tie the Westport Country Playhouse to the rest of the community. For example, the Susan Malloy Lecture in the Arts — named for Sheffer’s aunt, and set for September 11 — will feature a panel discussion on “Falsettos.”

Interestingly, in 1994 Staples Players presented that groundbreaking show about gay life as a studio production. The principal did not want it to be shown at the high school — so the Playhouse offered its stage.

The same stage that — 30 years earlier, and more than 50 years ago now — was a home away from home for a generation of Staples Players.

Including a very passionate, and impressionable, Ann Sheffer.

(The Westport Country Playhouse Gala on Saturday, September 9 begins with a 5:45 p.m. cocktail party. A presentation to Sheffer, a performance by Groff and a silent auction follow. All proceeds benefit the WCP’s work on stage, with schools and throughout the community. For more information and tickets, call Aline O’Connor at 203-571-1138, or email aoconnor@westportplayhouse.org.)

The Westport Country Playhouse today.

 

Beneath Playhouse Stage, A Hallway Of History

The list of actors who have graced the Westport Country Playhouse stage is long and luminous.

Alan Alda. Tallulah Bankhead. Richard Dreyfuss. Joel Grey. June Havoc. Helen Hayes. James Earl Jones. Liza Minelli. And of course our own Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Their head shots line the walls beneath the famous stage. Before every performance, actors in the current production walk out of their dressing rooms, past those photos.

Westport Country Playhouse company manager Bruce Miller, with some of the head shots near the dressing rooms underneath the stage.

Many of the 500 head shots show less famous actors. They too are part of the Playhouse’s wonderful history of 87 years, and more than 800 shows.

But on one wall — at the end of a hallway — hang 25 images. They are men and women who appeared at least once on the stage above.

The unidentified photos hang at the end of a hall.

They have no tags. Their names have been lost to the ages.

Yet one by one, company manager Bruce Miller is figuring out who they are.

The story begins with that very 1st show in 1931:”The Streets of New York.” Dorothy Gish’s photo went up in the wood-paneled lobby. For more than 70 years, dozens of other head shots joined hers.

For the 2003 renovation, Playhouse officials cleared the catacombs of photos, programs and other records. About 20% were moldy; they were thrown out.

The rest were stored off-site, in Bridgeport. When a sprinkler head bust, half of those items were lost.

Do you know this man …

During the renovation, someone decided to switch the locations of the head shots and the posters advertising previous shows. The idea was that the actors would appreciate seeing photos of their predecessors right outside the dressing rooms; theatergoers, meanwhile, would want to see the posters.

Now — thanks largely to those patrons — the gaps in the Playhouse’s history are being filled in.

Once a month, Miller says, someone calls or emails with something like this: “We were cleaning out my grandmother’s attic. We found a poster for this old show. Do you want it?”

… or this woman?

Playhouse staffers help too.

John Mosele was intrigued by the photo of an unknown mustached man. Working only with a partial name and Google, Mosele found the name “Emil Bundesmann” on a Spanish website.

Bundesmann turned out to be a member of the Playhouse’s original repertory company. He appeared in — and served as stage manager for — that 1st-ever show, “The Streets of New York.”

Anton Bundesmann, looking very suave.

After staging 3 plays in New York, Bundesmann was hired by David O. Selznick as a casting director — supervising screen tests for “Gone With the Wind.”

Under the name “Anthony Mann,” Bundesmann then directed films for Paramount, RKO and MGM, including 7 with James Stewart. His final 3 films were “Cimarron,” “El Cid” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Meanwhile, for years the only thing anyone at the Playhouse knew about the 1934 production of “The Virginian” was that Henry Fonda was in it. One day, Miller’s wife was talking to someone, when the Playhouse was mentioned. The woman said her mother had acted in “The Virginian.” She gave Miller her mother’s head shot. It now hangs near Fonda’s.

A young Henry Fonda.

But what about those photos the Playhouse has always had — yet remain unidentified?

Each year during the springtime open house, someone peers closely and says, “Oh, that’s so-and-so.” Miller searches online to confirm. Often, he can match the actor to the show.

Surprisingly, Miller says, the folks who know these long-ago actors are baby boomers — even millennials. They recognize the faces from movies — not plays.

A few of the identifications come from older actors. No one, however, has yet identified him or herself.

That would be a great plot twist.

Now Appearing On The Playhouse Stage …

Living in Westport, we sometimes get jaded.

We take the beach, Longshore, our schools and our good fortune for granted.

But I’ve never lost my awe of the Westport Country Playhouse.

And once a year — when one of the oldest regional theaters in the country throws its annual open house/block party — I make sure to go.

I love being able to wander the narrow hallways beneath the stage, where 9 decades of head shots honor this remarkable building’s history:

I’m honored to walk through the green room (spiffed up more than a decade ago, thanks to Paul Newman). If those walls could talk!

And I’m awed to stand on the stage — the same one where Henry Fonda, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, James Earl Jones and so many others have appeared.

The block party continues through 7 p.m. tonight. There’s free beer, food trucks, and more.

But be sure not to miss that stage!