David Roth has acted in 3 productions of “Our Town.”
In 1980 — the summer he moved to Westport, as a rising Staples High School freshman — his introduction to his new town’s drama community came via Thornton Wilder’s classic play.
A few years later in college, he was cast in it again. The third time was as an adult, with the Wilton Playshop.
Kerry Long was introduced to “Our Town” as a Staples student. English teacher Karl Decker traditionally read it to his senior class.
Roth and Long now co-direct Staples Players. But in over 60 years, the nationally recognized organization has produced the play only once.
That was in 1962. Craig Matheson directed, 4 years after founding Players.
This Thursday through Sunday (May 23 through 26), Roth and Long will stage “Our Town” again.
Both love it.
“It’s brilliant,” Roth says. “It so well captures the human experiences we all go through.”
Much has changed in 57 years. Besides the auditorium, there’s now a smaller Black Box theater.
That’s where Players will stage “Our Town,” from Thursday through Sunday (May 23 through 26).
But much has not changed.
The set is spare. Props are minimal. Very little separates the audience from the actors, or both from life’s experiences.
Emily (Sophie Rossman) and George (Nick Rossi) at the soda shop. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Players’ 2019 cast wears contemporary clothing. Though the play is set in 1938 — and the “play within a play” covers the years 1901 to 1913 — Roth and Long want their audience to focus on the timelessness of the message, not its time frame.
The directors make good use of the Black Box’s intimacy and versatility. The audience sits on stage. They flank the actors, so the action happens both in front and behind.
Roth and Long have loved “Our Town” for years. They are excited to introduce a new generation of performers — and theater-goers — to it.
Most of the teenage actors knew of of the play, Roth says. But few of them actually “knew” it.
Now they appreciate it as much as their directors do.
That’s the magic of theater. Of “Our Town.”
And of Staples Players.
(“Our Town” will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 23, 24 and 25 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 26 at 3 p.m. Online tickets are sold out, but a limited number will be available half an hour before curtain, at the door.)
Audiences are raving about Staples Players’ fall production, “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Co-directors David Roth and Kerry Long have created a wonderful show, filled with talented, tap-dancing performers; clever costumes, and a peppy pit orchestra. Technical directors Peter Barbieri and Dave Seltzer added a stunning set, and sophisticated lighting.
But Roth, Long, Barbieri and Seltzer are quick to note that they — and Players — would not be where they are today without the pioneering contributions of Craig Matheson and Steve Gilbert.
This Saturday (November 23, 5 p.m., following the 2 p.m. “Millie” matinee) they join former Players, family members, the audience, Staples Orphenians and the public in paying tribute to those 2 men.
Craig Matheson (right) and Steven Gilbert.
Matheson — the founder of Staples Players back in 1958 — and Gilbert, who started the Staples Stage and Technical Staff — will be honored with the dedication of a sculpture. “All the World’s a Stage” is installed in Staples’ courtyard, a few feet from the lobby of the auditorium Matheson and Gilbert loved.
The 6-foot-diameter steel sculpture was donated by 1965 graduate and former Player Adam Stolpen. Revealing a medley of changing color, light and pattern, it’s named for the famed monologue from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” which compares life to a play.
“Craig Matheson was loved by so many people who were honored to work with him, and were touched by his wonderful, creative and generous spirit,” Roth says. “Working with Craig was an incredible experience.”
Appropriately, the last Players production Matheson saw was “You Can’t Take It With You,” in May. It was the 1st show he directed for Players, in 1958. Matheson died in August.
Gilbert — who died in the 1970s — was beloved for his ability to create, innovate and inspire backstage crews.
“Steven Gilbert taught me early an artistic professionalism that has served me well. Craig Matheson was the consummate teacher and lifelong mentor,” says Staples ’68 graduate Joan Elizabeth Goodman.
“Their gifts enriched my generation of Players. And their legacy extends to the Staples Players of today and tomorrow.”
(Players representatives hope to locate Steve Gilbert’s former wife and 2 children, to invite them to the ceremony. Email contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Tickets are not necessary to attend Saturday’s dedication. For tickets to the matinee, or this Friday and Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. shows, click here.)
Craig Matheson — founder of the legendary Staples Players’ drama organization; a former teacher and administrator at Staples High School, and a beloved educator, director, and wonderful, ever-smiling human being — died peacefully yesterday morning, surrounded by his family. He was 81.
He remained a Staples Players friend throughout his life. The last show he saw was “You Can’t Take It With You,” in May. Fittingly, that was the 1st Players production he ever directed, more than 5 decades ago.
A service is tentatively planned for Sunday, August 11, 2 p.m. at Green’s Farms Congregational Church.
Craig Matheson was known as the founder of Staples Players. But he was very involved in local affairs too. In 2010 — for the 175th anniversary of the chartering of the town of Westport — he played the role of founding father Daniel Nash.
In 2004 I interviewed Craig for my book, Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ History. Here is that chapter.
In 1957 I had a been a public school English teacher for 4 years, in Southington and Woodbury. I had just finished my master’s degree in theater at Wesleyan, when I met [Staples English teacher] Gladys Mansir and [principal] Stan Lorenzen at a conference. She said Staples was building a new high school, and would I be interested in doing theater there? I said yes. Then she told me I wouldn’t have a stage for another year.
I came, and taught on Riverside Avenue for one year. I helped with the plans for the new building, but there wasn’t much I could do. It was more of an auditorium than a theater. The emphasis was on concerts, not plays, because the music program was so strong. I couldn’t change much, because it was already close to completion.
When I came to Staples there was no drama program – just the senior class play. Gladys and Edna Kearns had done them. They were trained in English and Latin, and were anxious to find someone to do the plays. The kids wanted drama, but they didn’t know anything about it.
The first year Stan wanted something, anything, so I did a production number – “The Night Before Christmas” – for the Candlelight Concert, which in those days was at Long Lots Junior High. We ended up alternating that and “Amahl and the Night Visitor” every year, for years. I also taught five English classes.
Christopher Lloyd, in Staples High School.
I found Christopher Lloyd. He was a marginal student, but he was interested in theater. He came to my small apartment on Turkey Hill Road, and we had a long conversation about theater. He helped me get started with our first production later that year. It was also at Long Lots, on the stage in the gym. It was more of a theater revue – not really a play.
The move to North Avenue changed everything. There was no high school in the state that I knew of with a theater program. Most were like Staples – they had a senior class play, with a faculty advisor who got dragooned into it. They were awful plays, but the kids loved them.
I told the kids we’d start a theater program, and they chose You Can’t Take it With You from play books. It was an intimate comedy. I had no production director, so I did that too. I had no idea how to mount it, how to bring it down on a stage that large. I did very well from an acting point of view, but as a production director I stunk. The set was much too large, so the play lost its intimacy. And it was pink, so it looked even bigger. We put it on for one weekend, and were very glad to get an audience both nights. But people thought the show was fine.
Lu Villalon was the editor of the Town Crier, and his son Andy happened to star in that production. His sister Ann was in plays too. Lu reviewed the shows for the Town Crier under the name “Robin Goodfellow,” and that stirred a lot of interest in theater at Staples.
The next year we did two major productions. The Teahouse of the August Moon was very successful. It ran for two weekends. People from the New England Theatre contest came, and it won a New England award. It also won the Connecticut Drama Festival award, so we started with a bang. That created lots of interest and excitement in the theater program too. And the local papers were great . They gave us full pages of coverage, with photos for every show.
We had a lot of support from Stan, from superintendent Gerry Rast and the Board of Education. Gerry was a musician – he played the organ – and his wife was too. They were very arts-oriented people. He wanted a theater program comparable to the music program that was already established, and I was his man to do that.
All the administrators I worked for supported what I was doing. Stan, Jim Calkins, Gerry, Gordon Peterkin – without their support, I would have been dead. They all saw the value in what we were doing, and they were all there at our performances. They were very loyal supporters – and it was not just lip service. The community and the Board of Education really made a difference too.
Anything I asked for, I got – including release time from the classroom. That was almost unheard of. By my third year my teaching load had been reduced by half. I had two English classes, and one Play Production. The next year I had only theater classes. They got so big, Floren Harper was hired to help teach them too. She came from Andrew Warde High School in Fairfield, and she worked so well with movement and dance.
Craig Matheson (right) and technical director Steven Gilbert.
At that time, I don’t think any Connecticut high school had play production classes. I team-taught with Stephen Gilbert. He was an art teacher with a great interest in theater – a very talented guy. He taught stage design, costuming and makeup.
Steve was so important to the high school. He was a young man with a great sense of color and lighting and costumes. He got kids so excited about projects. He was like a magnet. He had more kids on his technical staff than I had on stage. They always worked so hard. He was a godsend to the program.
Steve and Floren and I were such a team. There was no intrigue. We all had a sense of humor, and we loved the kids.
We also had help from Liza Chapman Heath, a skilled actress who did workshops with us. And Ian Martin, a theater writer and actor, would come speak to the kids about theater opportunities.
Hal James, the Broadway producer, was wonderful. His daughter Melody was in our program – so were his sons Beau and Mike, but she was the most talented of the three. He saw the potential of our program, and what needed to be done. He saw the stage needed work, and through his influence we got Ralph Alswang – a Broadway theater designer – to cut holes in the side panel to mount stage lights. Originally, we could only light the tops of heads.
Ralph became the consultant for redoing that monstrous auditorium building. We’ve had three renovations since, and now it’s what I envisioned 40 years ago – it’s got a green room, a dressing room, a large stagecraft area, and a new lighting board.
The program grew because of the reputation it began to get for excellence. We won five consecutive first-place awards in the Connecticut Drama Festival, and two New England Theatre awards. Audiences grew – from 400 that first weekend in 1958, to over 5,000 for War and Pieces. We toured 14 high schools and six colleges with that show.
At Staples Players’ 50th anniversary celebration in 2008, Craig Matheson (right) reunited with Peter Hirst (left), who played Everyman in the 1967 production of “War and Pieces.” They worked with then-current Player Adam Bangser, who reprised that role. (Photo by Kerry Long)
Kids saw that theater was fun. They got recognition from audiences. Sports had always been big at Staples, and I wanted athletes to be in theater too. [Choreographer] Joanne De Bergh was wonderful working with the guys. So was Bambi Lynn, who played Alice on Broadway and did our choreography for Alice in Wonderland.
We had a number of significant plays. Peter Pan was an absolutely delightful show. It was the first year we got Saugatuck families involved. Antoinette Sarno – the barber’s daughter — was Peter. She was marvelous. She’s now a theater teacher.
The Foys of New York, who did the flying for the original show, came to help us with the staging. The town turned out in force to see it. They were so excited to see Antoinette fly around the stage. But that flying required a lot of sophistication. Five kids flew, and no one hit anyone else. After the fifth show, I was so thankful no one got hurt. It was high risk. The Foys showed us how to do it, but the football players backstage did all the pulling. It was aerial ballet, comparable to Broadway.
We didn’t enter the Connecticut Drama Festival that year. We were too far beyond the other schools. So we hosted it, and while the judges were deciding the winners the final night, we performed it for the rest of the audience.
We had a few flops. The Madwoman of Chaillot was much too difficult. That was a bad decision on my part.
Today they do musicals. The cooperation between drama, music and art is wonderful. Some of the people I worked with were more guarded about their areas. I always had to fight to get time on stage.
When I moved into administration, it was at the request of [principal] Jim Calkins. I didn’t want to, but with three kids the money was attractive. I’ve regretted it the rest of my life.
Then I got an offer from Darien to head the drama department. And then when they asked me to be an administrator there, I did the same thing again. I made the same mistake twice!
But it was so nice a few years ago to be asked to go to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh with Judy Luster, Dave Roth and Joanne Kahn. I absolutely loved it. It was so nice to be asked, and to sort of tie things back to the beginning of Staples Players.
At Staples Players’ 50th anniversary celebration in 2008, director David Roth (right) announced that the Black Box Theater would be named in honor of Players’ founder, Craig Matheson (left). (Photo by Kerry Long)
Al Pia was a great find as a director, and of course [current director] David Roth was Al’s student. It’s almost incestuous. All of us, including [former director] Judy Luster, have influenced each other for almost 50 years.
The theater program is the lifeblood of that high school. I never miss a performance. It’s made such a difference in people’s lives. One night I was watching TV, and I saw seven kids who have come through the program. Being able to instill love for an art form has been inspirational – that’s what it’s all about for me.
In 1958, a Staples student named Christopher Lloyd urged English teacher Craig Matheson to start a theater program. The 1st play — produced in the brand-new auditorium, in the school’s 1st year on North Avenue — was You Can’t Take It With You.
Over the next 55 years, Staples Players gained national renown. Under just 4 directors — Matheson, Al Pia, Judy Luster and now David Roth — the troupe has sparked the careers of David Marshall Grant, Bradley Jones, Michael Hayden, Leslye Headland, Justin Paul and countless others (including Lloyd).
Now — with an astonishing 12 seniors ready to major or minor in some form of theater next year in college — Players is putting the finishing touches on its next production.
It is — fittingly — You Can’t Take It With You.
Michelle Pauker, Jack Bowman, Bryan Gannon and Madeline Seidman grill Clay Singer in the upcoming “You Can’t Take It With You.” (Photo by Kerry Long)
In 1958, Matheson’s fledgling actors chose the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy as their 1st show.
“I had no idea how to mount it, how to bring it down on a stage that large,” Matheson recalled years later. “I did very well from an acting point of view, but as a production director I stunk. The set was much too large, so the play lost its intimacy. And it was pink, so it looked even bigger.
“We put it on for one weekend, and were very glad to get an audience both nights. But people thought the show was fine.”
The 2013 production will be quite different. For example, it’s in the intimate Black Box theater (named for Matheson and his predecessor/Roth’s mentor, Pia).
The audience will sit on 3 sides of the stage, making it — well, intimate.
The cast and crew includes 9 seniors who will continue with theater in college: Tyler Jent (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music), Matt Kresch (Northwestern), Grace McDavid-Seidner (Point Park), Adam Mirkine (NYU), Michelle Pauker (University of Miami), Alexandra Rappaport (College of Charleston), Brianna Reedy (University of the Arts), Ryan Shea (UConn), Clay Singer (Carnegie Mellon) and Will Smith (Muhlenberg).
Tyler Jent is one of many Players who honed his acting, voice and dance skills at Staples. (Photo by Kerry Long)
Not in this show, but like those 10 also hoping to make theater their career — as actors, directors or in tech — are Will Cohn (University of North Carolina School of Arts) and Liam Orly (Muhlenberg).
“We provide a place where students can be challenged. It’s a safe environment to become theater artists,” Roth says of his program.
Roth has produced several shows with lots of dancing. The seniors have honed those skills — and it’s paid off. “Lots of schools have tough dance auditions,” Roth notes.
“We’re not a high school of performing arts. But we try to expose our actors to a broad variety of plays.”
Bryan Gannon and Madeline Seidman in “You Can’t Take It With You.” He is a junior; she’s a senior headed to Williams College — and the Class of ’13 valedictorian. (Photo by Kerry Long)
Roth calls You Can’t Take It With You “an old-timey farce. We really haven’t done anything like it with them.”
Cast and crew have found it “a huge amount of fun to rehearse,” Roth adds.
Presumably, just as Craig Matheson’s Players did, 55 years ago. Back in the days when dreams of Broadway had not yet danced through Staples’ sparkling new auditorium.
(“You Can’t Take It With You” runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 30, 31 and June 1, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 2 at 3 p.m. For more information, including tickets, click here.)
In an amazing coincidence, Nash — who was instrumental in persuading the Connecticut General Assembly to create a new entity out of the existing towns of Fairfield, Norwalk and Weston — reappeared on the exact 175th anniversary of the May 28, 1835 date Westport was founded.
A crowd of history-minded 21st-century Westporters was astonished to see other founding Westport fathers as well, including Horace Staples and the very 1st 1st selectman.
Many in the crowd remarked on the incredible resemblance of Daniel Nash to Craig Matheson, who 50 years ago created the Staples Players drama troupe.
After Nash, Staples and others spoke — and fellow Westporters described town highlights from the past 175 years — refreshments were served. Great Cakes — which only seems like it’s been here forever — donated the cake.
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