Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Community Theatre Welcomes Kids, Worries About Future

For nearly a century, the Westport Country Playhouse has stood proudly as one of the nation’s leading regional theaters.

For many decades too, Staples Players has pushed the boundaries of what high school actors can do.

Since 1956, the Westport Community Theatre has quietly served as our town’s “other” stage.

Low-key, little-publicized and itinerant until 1978, the WCT produces 5 mainstage shows a year, plus readings and workshops. Its productions draw small but devoted audiences to its spare, intimate auditorium in the basement of Town Hall.

westport-community-theatre-logo

Now — as town officials examine whether to reclaim that space — one woman is reaching out to a demographic the WCT has long ignored: kids.

Cindy Hartog studied film and television at NYU, then got a degree from the Neighborhood Playhouse conservatory. But she realized she preferred teaching to acting, and after earning a master’s in educational theater from NYU, Cindy organized drama workshops for children and teens.

She married Mark Hartog — best known locally as deputy director of Westport EMS, but also a community theater guy. Cindy worked in the Temple Israel nursery school for over a decade, taught cooking to kids, then a couple of years ago created the WCT Juniors program.

In less than 2 years it’s grown to encompass a 12-week program of performance skills, theater games, improv and scene work, as well as weekend master classes in improv.

A Westport Community Theatre improv class, directed by Heather DeLude.

A Westport Community Theatre improv class, directed by Heather DeLude.

Unlike other theater programs, these are not performance-based. The goal is to teach confidence, public speaking and performance skills, along with scene-writing and technical expertise.

Cindy’s Juniors classes draw youngsters from 6 to 16. On Friday afternoons they warm up together, then split into 3 age-appropriate groups for voice work and other activities. They come together at the end for improv and games.

The older kids are not involved in their own high school theater programs. One, for example, attends Hopkins; 2 are home-schooled.

Cindy notes, “They find a place here, and end up making great contributions.”

Cindy Hartog

Cindy Hartog

She believes in the power of theater to change lives — whether youngsters perform a play onstage or not.

Cindy’s program “tries to help kids become better people,” she says. “We want them to be well-rounded, confident and happy.”

Yet as she uses theater to prepare youngsters for life, she worries about the future of the Westport Community Theatre. Town officials are studying how space is used in Town Hall. When its yearly lease is up, the WCT — which before 1978 bounced between Westport, Weston and Fairfield — may be forced to find a new home.

It’s a search many Westporters are oblivious to.

“We put up lawn signs,” Cindy says of the WCT’s publicity for its mainstage shows.

“We have a banner on Main Street. We march in the Memorial Day parade. But a lot of people still don’t know about us.”

Interested in learning more? Click here. For info on the Juniors program, click here


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Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #92

John D. McCarthy, Richard Stein, Vanessa Bradford and Susan Huppi all knew that last week’s photo challenge showed the rooster that sits cockily atop the Westport Country Playhouse.

Patricia Blaufuss nailed it too.

Of course, she should. She’s the Playhouse PR person.

Helpfully, Patricia added this information in the “Comments” section:

For many years, the rooster weathervane has had a watchful presence over the Playhouse, a former barn. Beginning some 40 or more years ago, the rooster was such a WCP icon that Rocky the Rooster (usually an intern dressed in a rooster costume) became the adored mascot and genial host of the WCP children’s presentations.

In the 1980s, local artist Stevan Dohanos drew Rocky on the playbill cover. A Rocky logo was used in advertising. Former executive producer Jim McKenzie honored outstanding contributions to WCP with Rocky Awards. When the Playhouse was renovated in 2005, the rusted weathervane was meticulously restored to its former glory and placed atop “the barn,” continuing the tradition.

Who knew? (Click here for last week’s photo.)

This week’s photo challenge is seen by even more people than the rooster. Hundreds — probably thousands — pass by it every day.

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

If you recognize it, click “Comments” below. And — like Patricia Blaufuss — please add as many background details as you can.

Westport Arts Center Offers A Bully Pulpit

Whether you’ve got a school-age kid or not, these days it’s tough to avoid hearing about bullying. Its causes, its effects, how to change it (or whether we’re overreacting) — bullying everywhere, from our schools and the media to the presidential campaign.

Soon, even the Westport Arts Center will tackle the topic.

WAC - More than WordsAn exhibition called “MORE Than Words” opens September 9. Utilizing artists, speakers, panels and films, it examines bullying within a broad cultural context. The exhibit focuses on courage, resilience and empowerment in the face of bullying, and considers how imbalances of social, physical and political power can marginalize others.

The WAC show includes artistic expressions of gender, racial, religious, geopolitical and age inequality, and includes cyber-bullying. The goal is to inspire dialogue and change.

Recognizing that the best responses to bullying are community-wide, the WAC has enlisted the help of important local organizations. They include the Westport Country Playhouse, Westport Library, SKATE/K2BK, Neighborhood Studios of Bridgeport, Anti-Defamation League and Norwalk’s LGBT Triangle Community Center.

Also involved: Athlete Ally and the National Charity League.

WAC exhibition - Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer’s piece in the “MORE Than Words” exhibition.

The exhibit was conceived by board member — and father of 2 young girls — Derek Goodman.

“We’ve all dealt with bullies,” he says. “At the same time, a number of well-known, influential artists have used their work to address it. We hope we’ve put together a platform to open dialogue, so that people in Westport feel comfortable discussing it.”

As the WAC partners with a variety of local organizations, he says, the town has an opportunity to take a leadership role in the battle against bullying.

“We’re not the experts,” he notes of the Westport Arts Center. “But we’re honored to put together a show for experts to help lead the conversation.”

(An opening reception is set for September 9, from 6-8 p.m. The exhibit runs through October 29. For more information on “MORE Than Words,” click here.)

Friday Flashback #1

If you’ve lived in Westport for more than a day, you know what a visually intriguing place our town is.

If you’ve lived here for a while — or lived here once, before moving away — you know it’s always looked intriguing. And a lot different yesterday than today.

“06880” is excited to announce a new feature: “Friday Flashback.”

Each week, we’ll post a new photo of a place that no longer exists. Some will be old. Others will be very old. A few will be real old.

For a while, folks have been sending me great shots. There are many more floating around on the internet, including some great Facebook pages. (Thanks, Paul Ehrisman!) It’s time to share them with the wide “06880” community.

This week’s Friday Flashback shows the Pine Knoll Inn.

Pine Knoll - now Playhouse condos

For many years a boarding house — and before that, a home owned by the Kemper family (whose tannery and orchard are now the Westport Country Playhouse) — the Pine Knoll was torn down in the early 1980s.

Today it’s the Playhouse Square condos, behind the post office.

“Friday Flashback” needs your help. Please email any great photos — showing any Westport places, buildings, stores, etc. — to dwoog@optonline.net. Thanks!


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Joshua Bell Plays Westport — Again

Joshua Bell is the most famous violinist of our time. Wherever he plays — around the world — he attracts adoring, sold-out audiences.

Despite his grueling recording and performing schedule, Bell often finds time for Westport.

Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell

In 2012 Bell helped launch Beechwood Arts and Innovation, the Westport non-profit known for its creative, eclectic Arts Immersion Salons. Music, art, film, performance, food and technology — all come together in a stunning 1806 home owned by Frederic Chiu and Jeanine Esposito.

Bell — a longtime friend of Chiu, Beechwood’s co-founder and himself an internationally acclaimed pianist — kicked off the 1st year by donating an unforgettable concert of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

He was joined by Chiu, actor James Naughton of Weston, and 13-year-old theater student Rachel Rival. Afterwards, chef Raul Restrepo of the former River Café served an equally memorable dinner.

Several years earlier, Bell appeared with Chiu — with whom he has played for 35 years — at the sold-out Malloy lecture for the Westport Library. A few days later they performed at the Westport Country Playhouse with Audra McDonald, Glenn Close and Tony Bennett, honoring Westporter Joanne Woodward.

Jeanine Esposito, Frederic Chiu, Paul Newman and Joshua Bell, at an earlier appearance in Westport.

Jeanine Esposito, Frederic Chiu, Paul Newman and Joshua Bell, at an earlier appearance in Westport.

Next month, Bell returns to town. On Thursday, August 25 (8 p.m., United Methodist Church) — in the midst of his own vacation — he’ll give a “high 5” to Beechwood Arts & Innovation, for their 5th-year fundraiser. Chiu once again joins him on piano.

The event includes a VIP Meet-and-Greet, a conversation where they reminisce about their early days as aspiring musicians (with WQXR’s Elliot Forrest), and a celebration party at Beechwood Arts, across the street from the church.

Beechwood logoThough every seat at a fundraiser is important, Beechwood is reserving 40 seats for patrons to sponsor young music students from underserved communities. Local music non-profits Spread Music Now, Turnaround Arts, Intake, Neighborhood Studios and KEYS are helping fill those seats.

Students will sit close to the stage, and talk to Bell and Chiu during intermission. Their parents can share in the event — and all will leave with a CD.

“In our youth, both Joshua and I were deeply inspired seeing master musicians play live,” Chiu says. “Those experiences left impressions that lasted a lifetime.

“This inspires both of us to work with students. And it’s why at Beechwood we regularly include students alongside masters of their craft, in all of our events across music, art, film and performance.”

Bell and Chiu have been friends since meeting at music competitions in their native Indiana. They’ve toured together for nearly 40 years, in the U.S., Europe and South America.

Their friendship will be on display August 25. So will their world-class talents, their deep love of the arts, and their wonderful generosity to all.

(Tickets must be reserved in advance. For tickets or more information, click here or call 203-226-9462.)

On one visit to Westport, Joshua Bell played "Four Seasons." On tour with Frederic Chiu in Ecuador, Chiu stood on the winter side of the equator, and Bell on the summer side.

On one visit to Westport, Joshua Bell played “Four Seasons.” On tour with Frederic Chiu in Ecuador, Chiu stood on the winter side of the equator, and Bell on the summer side.

Ushering In The Playhouse

It takes a ton of people to produce a Westport Country Playhouse show.

There are actors and director, of course. Plus costume designers, set builders, lighting and sound technicians, marketing staff, ticket sellers, and many more.

Including ushers.

Recently, 3 former — very former — ushers reminisced about that long-ago, very intriguing and quite satisfying summer work.

When Marilyn Harding, Arlene Gertzoff and Ed Gerber were growing up, the Playhouse was an “otherworldly” place. Repurposed in the 1930s, the erstwhile tannery had become a cozy red theater presenting the best of Broadway (and headed-to-Broadway) plays and musicals.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos -- known nationally for his Saturday  Evening Post covers and US postage stamps -- created the cover for this 1960s-era Playhouse playbill.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos — known nationally for his Saturday Evening Post covers and US postage stamps — created the cover for this 1960s-era Playhouse playbill.

Casts included great actors and actresses — and those who would later become great.

In the 1960s, when Marilyn, Arlene and Ed were teenagers, the Playhouse was just 3 decades old. But it was already one of the most famous summer stock houses in the country.

Arlene says that for both the audience and ushers, the Playhouse was much more formal than today. Marilyn “found my string of pearls, whacked 3 inches off the hem of my black silk sheath — after all, it was the ’60s — dusted off my Capezios, pulled my hair into a French twist and was out the door.”

Ed, meanwhile, “unhappily” wore a blazer and tie.

Ushers worked under Jan De Vries, daughter of famed Westport author Peter De Vries. Ed calls her “a friendly sort, requiring nothing more of us than that we showed up on time having educated ourselves about the quirks of the theater’s seating chart, and that we greeted each guest with a polite ‘good evening’ as we checked their tickets and helped them find their seats.”

Playhouse playbill - ushers

Thanks to the ushers, from the playbill shown above.

The 3 ushers loved the Playhouse’s musty smell of paint, polish, aging red upholstery, creaky floors and unpredictable “air conditioning.”

Some of the seats were not very good, offering poor sight lines and uncomfortable balcony chairs. House managers dealt with unhappy customers.

Ushers were in awe of apprentices, who planned on careers in theaters. They and the touring actors lived in nearby housing, owned by or rented to the Playhouse (ushers lived at home, with their parents).

But ushers reveled in the chance to see a different play each week, with remarkable casts including Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Tallulah Bankhead, Joel Grey, Claude Rains, Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Alda and Liza Minelli.

When the show was over, ushers headed up the street to the Ice Cream Parlor.

All 3 left Westport, seeking fame and fortune elsewhere.

Marilyn, Arlene and Ed are all retired now, from varied and intriguing careers.

And all 3 are happy subscribers to the Playhouse. Where, half a century later, a new cast of ushers shows them to their seats.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they're still red. Some things never change.

A decade ago, the Westport Country Playhouse replaced its bench seating with individual seats. But they’re still red. Some things never change.

Opening Hearts And Minds, To Leave Hatred Behind

For the past 2 days, hundreds of Westporters have been inspired by Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper.

In appearances sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the young women — granddaughters of Rev. Fred Phelps — have described in raw, harrowing detail how the Westboro Baptist Church known for picketing the funerals of AIDS victims, American soldiers killed in Iraq, and Steve Jobs controlled their minds until they were adults.

And what’s happened since they gathered the courage to leave.

Last night, a packed Westport Country Playhouse audience heard the women talk about the wrath they long believed God held for anyone who did not follow his every commandment. They told of the agony of leaving siblings, parents and grandparents — whom they deeply love — behind forever. And they spoke with wonder of being welcomed into the home of a rabbi who, just a couple of years earlier, they had called a “whore.”

“It’s so comfortable not to have to think for yourself,” Megan said. “But it’s so important when you do.”

Megan Phelps-Roper, after last night's talk at the Westport Country Playhouse. Her sister Grace is behind her.

Megan Phelps-Roper, after last night’s talk at the Westport Country Playhouse. Her sister Grace is behind her.

This morning, hundreds more Staples High School students gathered in the auditorium. They sat in stunned silence as the women talked — then followed up with respectful questions.

One student wanted to know what the Westboro Church thought of the pope. “They don’t really like him either!” Grace said.

As the women were leaving for their next engagement, someone mentioned “The Laramie Project.” Last year, Staples Players performed the deeply moving play — about a Wyoming town’s reaction to the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.

A defining moment comes when church members picket his funeral. They scream their signature “God hates fags” refrains, and worse. Laramie residents, in turn, raise angel wings to block the protesters from view.

Megan and Grace said they’ve never seen “The Laramie Project.”

Players director David Roth gave them a DVD of the show.

When these 2 courageous young women watch it, they’ll no doubt take a few more steps on their remarkable journey.

Westporters should feel honored — and inspired — they’ve shared it with us.

(Staples Players present “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” on May 19, 20 and 21, in the Black Box theater.)

"Reverend" Fred Phelps, and some of his signs. His granddaughters, Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, described what it's like to grow up in that environment -- and how conflicted they feel because they still love their family.

“Reverend” Fred Phelps, and some of his signs. His granddaughters, Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, described what it’s like to grow up in that environment — and how conflicted they feel because they still love their family.

Does God Hate Fags? Find Out March 28.

I am not Mexican. I can only imagine how Mexicans felt when Donald Trump called them “killers and rapists.”

I am not Muslim. So I can only imagine how members of that religion felt when Trump said “they’re not coming to this country if I’m president.”

I am not disabled. I can only imagine, then, how anyone with a disability felt when the Republican front-runner mocked a journalist born with deformed hands.

But I am gay. So I do not have to imagine what it is like for someone to call me a “fag,” spit in my face, and say that God sent 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and many other disasters to America because of me.

"Reverend" Fred Phelps, and some of his signs.

“Reverend” Fred Phelps, and some of his signs.

Even though “Reverend” Phelps was batshit crazy — and is probably right now burning in the same hell he roared I’m headed for — it’s pretty scary to know that someone, somewhere, despised a group of people so much he spent his life spewing vile garbage about them.

About me.

He was not alone. He had an entire “church” — well, mostly relatives he’d brainwashed — behind him.

But some of those church members began to think for themselves.

“Rev.” Fred Phelps’ granddaughters Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper questioned the Westboro Baptist “Church”‘s vitriolic protests against gays (and Jews, members of the military, and so many other groups). Eventually, they fled.

And on Monday, March 28 (7 p.m.) they’ll be at the Westport Country Playhouse, giving an inspiring talk about their journey from hatred to love.

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper

The event is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. The moderator is ADL national director of civil rights Deborah Lauter.

She was a frequent target of Megan — and the rest of the “church” — on social media. The sisters will discuss what it was like to love their family, but be raised in such a hate-filled environment.

Yet it was social media — specifically, Megan’s engagement with an unlikely source on Twitter — that opened their eyes to broader perspectives. Today, they’re active allies in the war on hate.

“God Hates Fags” has special meaning for me.

ADL logoBut so does “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” “Your Pastor is a Whore.” And any other sign that Fred Phelps and his clan — including, not long ago, his granddaughters — hoisted.

Those signs should have special meaning for all of us. Singling one group out demeans everyone.

That’s why I am sure every seat will be filled on March 28, at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Our town — and our country — are better than the hateful rhetoric we hear too much these days.

We are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Under — or without — any god you like.

(For tickets to the March 28 event, click here. For a fascinating, in-depth New Yorker story on Megan Phelps-Roper, click here.)

Actually, Those Striped Blue Lines Mean NO Parking

And it’s not as if there weren’t enough open spots yesterday in the Westport Country Playhouse lot…

(Photo/Roger Wolfe and Lisa Pelletier Jones)

(Photo/Roger Wolfe and Lisa Pelletier Jones)

Tonight’s Playhouse Bowie Tribute To Be Livestreamed

When Westport’s own Jane Green started planning a David Bowie tribute concert, she envisioned an intimate gathering at the Westport Country Playhouse barn. She hoped to snag a couple of acoustic guitarists who’d play as his dedicated fans stood around singing, lost in a sea of nostalgia and love.

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

Crispin Cioe wails tonight.

Crispin Cioe wails tonight.

The list of performers now include stars who have performed with — among others — the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, James Brown, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Nicks, Coldplay, Wyclef Jean, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Lou Reed, J. Geils, Orleans, Hall & Oates, the Indigo Girls and Carole King.

Headliners include Westporter Crispin Cioe and noted drummer Jerry Marotta.

The wait list has swelled to 150 people. To share all that donated time and talent with everyone, Jane has arranged for the concert to be live-streamed. Wherever in the world you are at 8 p.m. (EST) tonight, click on www.twitter.com/janegreen. The link will go up when the music begins.

“Tonight we celebrate David Bowie — the man, his music, and what he meant to us,” Green says.

“We hope a little bit of his magic may sweep you back to your teenage bedrooms, to a time when we all thought we could be heroes too.”

David Bowie at Westport Playhouse

NOTE: The poster says 7 pm. That’s for drinks. The music (and livestream) begin at 8.