Category Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

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!

“A Tribute To Pamela”: Local Benefit Show With Wide Impact

Jim Naughton is a pro.

Whether winning Tonys on Broadway, raves for roles in films like “The Paper Chase” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” or plaudits for directing plays like “Our Town,” the longtime Weston resident does things the right way.

Pam Naughton

After his wife Pamela died in 2013 of pancreatic cancer, he dedicated himself to raising funds to fight the disease. He has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for a very important clinical trial — and on Sunday, May 7 he’s set to raise more.

He’s doing it with a very professional — and extremely entertaining — benefit show.

“A Tribute to Pamela” brings his family together on the Westport Country Playhouse stage. Naughton will be joined by his son Greg, a producer, actor, singer/songwriter and founding member of the Sweet Remains; his daughter Keira Naughton Forgash, a Broadway and TV actress, and Greg’s wife Kelli O’Hara Naughton, Tony-winning actress and Broadway star in “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “Light in the Piazza.”

The songs and celebration will support research aimed at early detection of pancreatic cancer. It’s led by Westporter Dr. Richard Frank, of the Whittingham Cancer Center at Norwalk Hospital.

Newman’s Own Foundation is a lead sponsor of the May 7 event.

So it’s a very local, one-night show. But its impact could be global — and everlasting.

(Click here for tickets. For more information, call 203-739-7354.)

Kindertransport Conversation Comes To Playhouse

Every day, the world loses Holocaust survivors.

In an age of rising anti-Semitism and distrust of “others,” hearing their first-hand stories is more important than ever.

Margie Treisman

Recently, Margie Treisman — a Westport Country Playhouse trustee and Anti-Defamation League national commissioner — was asked to help develop educational programming around an upcoming Playhouse production of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” about the Kindertransport children’s rescue.

She called Margie Lipshez-Shapiro. An ADL of Connecticut official and noted Holocaust educator, she knows almost every living survivor in the state who is willing and able to tell their tale.

Lipshez-Shapiro suggested Ivan Backer, a Kindertransport survivor who has written about his journey, and his life afterward. Backer will be at the Playhouse next Wednesday (March 29, 7 p.m.), as part of conversation called “From Hate to Hope.”

The event — sponsored by the Playhouse, ADL and TEAM Westport — is funded by the Anita Schorr “Step in and Be a Hero” Fund. Schorr — a longtime Westporter and Holocaust survivor who inspired thousands with her story of horror and hope — died last year. The event is free, but seats must be reserved by phone (203-227-4177). For more information, click here.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” follows a week later with a limited run at the Playhouse (April 5-9). The true story of a young musical prodigy, it intertwines the themes of family, hope and survival with piano selections by Chopin, Beethoven, Bach — even a little Gershwin. Click here for more information.

Steve Ruchefsky’s Gang Of 50

For his 50th birthday, Steve Ruchefsky figured he’d whip up a nice feast for a few friends.

That quickly evolved into an invitation to Bill Taibe. He’s an even better cook than Steve — who is, after all, a lawyer who now manages private investments, while Bill at the time owned Le Farm and was about to open The Whelk. So 5 years ago the backyard of Steve and his wife Rondi Charleston’s handsome Evergreen Avenue home was transformed into the setting for a killer 5-course meal.

Steve — who considers himself lucky, with a “wonderful wife, great daughter and amazing friends” — capped the occasion by announcing a $1 million gift to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

He knew Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward through serving on the Westport Country Playhouse board. Steve’s donation allowed the camp in upstate Connecticut — which “creates fun and friendship for seriously ill children and their families” — to build a residence for doctors and their own families. “Steve’s Station” made it easier for them to stay longer — and their kids to enjoy the facility too.

It was a wonderful gesture. But that was only the start of Steve’s post-50 life.

“I had 2 ephipanies,” he says, 5 years later. “I grew up in Rockaway Beach. I didn’t have a lot. So I knew I wanted to help people.”

Steve Ruchefsky and Rondi Charleston in their wine cellar.

At the same time, he adds, “I wanted to do more than writing a check. I wanted to have fun with my guy friends.”

He rounded up 6 of them. All felt blessed to live here. All had spent the first part of their lives building careers and families, then seeing their children off to college. All had plenty of energy, and the desire to make time in their busy lives for others.

The result: “Go50.” (It stands for “Guys Over 50.”)

Those men — now 13 — are all at least 50 years old, and eager to “get out of our bubble, get dirty, and get going to do good.”

Many names are familiar: Tom Cope, John Engelhart, Jim Hardy, Barry Leskin, Matthew Maddox, Vinny Mullineaux, Jim Naughton, John Porio, John Seigenthaler, David Tetenbaum, Doug Weber and Steven Wolff.

Their first project was at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. The boathouse was crammed with boats, canoes, fishing rods. Nothing was organized.

Nine “Go50” guys headed north in a van. They emptied, cleaned, sorted and painted. They got rid of old equipment. Campers, counselors and administrators loved what they’d done.

Go50 guys, after cleaning the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp boathouse.

Energized, the “Go50” gang tackled the Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport. They painted and renovated a conference room, bringing new life to the building.

Then they wondered how they could do more than some one-off projects.

“None of us served in the military,” Steve says. “We were spared from the draft, and could start our careers when we were young. We decided we wanted to give back to people who did serve in the armed forces.”

Just off I-95 in Bridgeport is Homes for the Brave. The non-profit provides housing, vocational training, job placement, mental health and addiction services, and life skills coaching to help individuals — especially veterans, many of whom have been in prison or have addiction issues — leave homelessness behind.

Steve committed “Go50” to an ongoing relationship. They’ll prepare meals, clean the grounds, and help where and however they can.

Homes for the Brave helps veterans in many ways.

That’s one story. It’s a great one.

Then Steve heard about Homes for the Brave’s newest project.

Created by Peter Van Heerden — former executive director of the Westport Arts Center, now head of Fairfield University’s Quick Center — along with Westport artist Nina Bentley, it’s a show in which people living at the Homes tell their stories.

The performance is called “War Stories.” But they’re really “life stories.”

Notes posted at a recent “War Stories” rehearsal.

Steve has seen rehearsals. “These are not actors or writers. They’re men and women who have served our country. Life has been hard for them.

“They’re not Gold Star veterans who came home to parades. They’re vets who for the most part joined up to get away from trouble. But they came back and found themselves in trouble again.”

A recent preview in Hartford earned a standing ovation.

Steve wants to get the word out about upcoming performances at the Quick Center (Friday and Saturday, March 31 and April 1 — click here for more details; click here for tickets).

Steve Ruchefsky (center) at a “War Stories” rehearsal.

Learning about “War Stories” has inspired Steve to do even more with “Go50.”

“We have a great time together. We get a lot done, and we laugh a lot,” he says.

One thing they laugh about is that they’re all over 50, yet they’re “gang members.”

But what a gang!

Westport Activist Wants All Connecticut Votes To Count

As a zoology major Nicole Klein learned that when sea turtles hatch, they instinctively turn to the horizon. That leads them straight to the ocean.

In the aftermath of November’s election, she felt similarly impelled. But it was not until Christmas — when she had a chance to take a break from her very demanding full-time job — that she understood exactly what she had to do.

So she served notice to her employer, McKinsey. Today she devotes herself full time to grassroots political activism.

nicole-klein-head-shot

Nicole Klein

Klein loved McKinsey. The consulting firm encourages personal growth into new areas of the company, and she’d taken full advantage. After 17 years, Klein had worked her way up to global event manager.

But — like those sea turtles — Klein followed her destiny.

She’d been involved in political campaigns from 1992 to 2004. In 2008 she fell in love. “I didn’t care about anything else,” she laughs.

Klein got married, had a child, moved to Westport. In the run-up to this year’s election — as she worked hard for Hillary Clinton — she wanted her 6-year-old son to see what involvement looked like. She brought him to her phone bank shifts.

In the weeks after the election — but before her resignation from McKinsey — Klein grew more active.

She attended Westport Democratic Town Committee meetings. She volunteered as a bus captain for the Women’s March on Washington.

Klein calls that event “one of the 5 best days of my life. It was so powerful to see everyone come together peacefully. It wasn’t a protest — it was a unifying moment.”

Nicole Klein (left) enjoys the Women's March on Washington.

Nicole Klein (left) enjoys the Women’s March on Washington.

Now Klein is putting her event planning talents to work on another project. It’s an informational session on changing the way Connecticut casts its electoral votes for president.

Set for this Thursday (March 2, 7 p.m.) in the Westport Country Playhouse barn, the “State of Voting: CT Debates a New Way to Elect the President” panel includes New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg. It’s part of a move to have our state join 11 others whose legislatures have agreed to let its electors vote for the presidential candidate who gets the most popular votes in all 50 states.

The idea is that all votes cast nationwide for president will count equally — without abolishing the Electoral College. Under the current method, voters in Connecticut — and other almost-certain blue or red states — are easily ignored.

Of nearly 400 events during the 2016 general election, 94% were held in just 12 battleground states. Only 1 was held in the Constitution State.

equalize-the-vote-ct-logoOrganizers of National Popular Vote CT — including Westporters John Hartwell and Rozanne Gates — call the concept one of fairness. Citizens of every state should have their vote weighed equally, they say.

The project’s leaders also point to surveys that show 3/4 of Connecticut’s voters — including a majority of Republicans — believe the candidate who gets the most votes in the country should become president.

Thursday’s event is non-partisan, Klein says. “We want people to hear the issues, and make up their own minds.”

She hopes for a large turnout at the Playhouse. And when that’s done, she’ll turn her attention to the next activity.

“Not one day goes by that I regret resigning,” Klein says. Every day she feels more excited about being part of the democratic — with a small “d” — process.

In her own way, she’s making sure America stays great.

(“The State of Voting: CT Debates a New Way to Elect the President” — at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 2 in the Westport Country Playhouse barn — is co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westport and National Popular Vote CT. The event is free, but seats must be reserved. Click here, email boxoffice@westportplayhouse.org, or call 203-227-4177. Video of the event will be available on Facebook Live at NationalPopularVoteCT, and afterward on www.npvct.com)

Ghost Light

For as long as anyone can remember, “ghost lights” have lit otherwise darkened theaters. Some say the lamps or bulbs are there to ward off ghosts. Others think the tradition began as a way to prevent accidents.

Whatever the reason, the “ghost light” tradition has inspired a new action. This Thursday (January 19, 5:30 p.m.), at over 300 theaters nationwide, actors and arts groups join in a collective, simultaneous action to create light.

That light is a way to make or renew a pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation and compassion for all — regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, gender identity or sexual orientation.

ghost-lightSome of those theaters are on Broadway. Others are regional houses or high school auditoriums.

Here, the Ghost Light Project is planned for the Westport Country Playhouse.

The public is invited to attend. Attendees should bring a clear white electric light source of any kind. Flashlights, cell phone lights, flameless candles and lanterns are ideal.

Meanwhile, Staples Players is hosting their own, private event.

“Players has always strived to be an inclusive and supportive community,” says co-president and current senior Brooke Wrubel.

“Our participation in the Ghost Light Project reaffirms these long-held values.”

On Thursday evening, Staples students will be in the midst of exams.

“This is a traditionally stressful week,” co-president and senior Remy Laifer notes. “But the Ghost Light Project is a timely reminder that we’re here for each other, and never alone.”

(For a full list of participating theaters nationwide, click here.)

 

What Would Martin Do?

Looking for a way to honor Martin Luther King?

Excited — or frightened — about the presidential inauguration?

Westport’s 11th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration fills both bills.

This Sunday (January 15, 3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse), check out an intriguing talk. It’s called “WWMD: What Would Martin Do in the Era of Post-Race Racism?”

Professor Tricia Rose

Professor Tricia Rose

The keynote speaker is Dr. Tricia Rose. She’s a Brown University professor of Africana studies, director of its Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and a well-respected scholar of post-civil rights and black US culture.

Rose — who has been featured on PBS, CNN, NPR and many other media outlets — will talk about race in the current political environment, from the perspective of King’s philosophy. A Q-and-A session follows.

There’s also music from the Men’s Community Gospel Chorus of Norwalk; a spoken word piece based on King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” presented by students from Trumbull’s Regional Center for the Arts, and refreshments.

The event — co-sponsored by the Playhouse, Westport/Weston Interfaith Council and TEAM Westport — is free. The Westport Weston Family YMCA will provide childcare and activities.

For more information on “WWMD: What Would Martin Do?” click here. For highlights of last year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, click the video below.

 

SlamJam Helps Teens Be Kind, Fight Bullies

For a few months now, the Westport Arts Center’s “MORE Than Words” exhibit has highlighted the importance of courage, resilience and empowerment in the face of bullying.

It’s emboldened a variety of voices to speak out about the positive effects of empathy and kindness, and the negative results of exclusion.

No one knows that subject better than teenagers. On January 29, their voices will be heard — loud and clear.

SlamJam (5 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse) is an evening of performances by Fairfield County teens. They’ll express how they feel about their stressful social world, and promote a kinder, more inclusive community.

Songs, spoken word, rap, dance, music and film are some of the performance art genres on tap. Performers will come from Westport and area towns — including students from Bridgeport’s All-Star Project and Neighborhood Studios.

The emcee is Ceez Liive. The very cool poetry slam-winning artist from the Bronx performed at Staples a few years ago to great acclaim. Check her out below:

The event is produced by SKATEmovement. The acronym stands for Spreading Kindness and Teaching Empathy — an anti-bullying organization that teaches teens to be role models for younger children. All proceeds go to the Southern Connecticut branch of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

These are our teenagers. They have plenty to say.

And very creative, powerful ways of saying it.

(SlamJam is appropriate for middle schoolers and up. Tickets are $40 for adults, $20 for students and seniors. Click here to order. For $150 VIP seating, including pre- and post-show events, call 203-227-4177.)

slamjam

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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