The White Barn Theatre — the just-over-the-Norwalk-line stage that during its celebrated life used a Westport address — has at least one more act to go.
The owner of the 15-acre property — who hoped to build a 15-home luxury development on the wooded site — has pledged to delay demolition of the historic theater for at least 4 months.
That gives the Lucille Lortel and Waldo Mayo White Barn Foundation time to try to raise $5.2 million to purchase the property. Mayo is the great-grand-nephew of Lortel, the famed actor/producer who founded the avant-garde White Barn theater in 1947. It closed in 2002.
Westporters are following the drama closely. Some want to save a legendary structure. Others are concerned about the environmental and aesthetic impacts of a new housing development on the Westport border.
The meeting is in Norwalk. But Westporters have plenty of reasons to go too.
On Wednesday (March 2, 7 p.m., City Hall), the Norwalk Historic Commission holds a hearing on the future of the White Barn Theatre property. That’s the wooded 15 acres just across the town line, which may (or may not) become the site of a 15-home luxury development.
It’s also the site of Lucille Lortel’s famed White Barn Theatre (which always had a Westport address). Which is why Waldo Mayo — great-grand-nephew of the actress/producer, and head of a new non-profit foundation — hopes for a large turnout.
“We must stop the developer from destroying this important part of Connecticut’s arts history,” Mayo says.
He hopes Westporters and Norwalkers will support preservation of the entire complex. The Lucille Lortel and Waldo Mayo White Barn Foundation would like more time to continue discussions about a “reasonable purchase agreement” for the property.
Relaxing outside the White Barn Theatre, around 1951.
Diane Lauricella — a neighbor and Norwalk preservationist — says that on March 23, the developer may knock down all the buildings. Including the historic theater, which from 1947 to 2002 hosted an ever-changing array of world-class actors in experimental, sometimes world-premiere shows by internationally known playwrights.
Mayo believes the White Barn land could become a job creation center for culture, social justice and innovation. That would be a great way to carry on his great-grand-aunt’s legacy.
Mayo’s foundation has the backing of Kevin Spacey, Estelle Parsons and Tovah Feldshuh — all of whom have appeared on the White Barn stage. Several actors may appear at Norwalk City Hall on Wednesday, to read letters of support they’ve already received.
A 6:30 p.m. rally will precede the hearing. For more information, click here.
Local residents are justly proud of the Westport Country Playhouse. Since 1931, an old cow barn and tannery in an apple orchard has been transformed into a historic and influential piece of American theater history.
For years, Westport was also home to the White Barn Theatre. Less known — and operating only on weekends — the small stage in a former horse barn boasts plenty of its own history. Founded in 1947 by noted actress and theater producer Lucille Lortel, it premiered works by Eugene Ionesco, Athol Fugard and Edward Albee.
The White Barn Theatre.
When the White Barn closed in 2002 — 3 years after Lortel’s death, at 98 — Westport lost 1 of our 2 theatrical jewels.
Or so we thought.
Recent press reports — including the New York Times — about a battle to save the theater building from demolition, and conserve acres of nearby woods and streams — place the White Barn Theatre in Norwalk.
Most of the 15-acre property lies in Norwalk. A back parcel — around 2.5 acres — is in Westport.
Lucille Lortel, outside her White Barn Theatre.
The theater — which still stands, unused, with Al Hirschfeld’s drawings of the many famous playwrights, actors and visitors on the walls — was on Norwalk land. Apparently, years ago, Lortel persuaded the Westport post office to deliver mail there.
She must have figured a Westport address meant more to theater-goers than a Norwalk one.
How much longer the decaying theater — and Lortel’s handsome home — will remain standing is in doubt.
A long-running fight over the property — encompassing old-growth forest, trails, meadows, a pond and waterfall — may be coming to a head. Various factions are fighting over its future. A developer wants to build 15 houses.
A map showing the proposed 15-home development. Cranbury Road (in red on left) marks the border between Norwalk and Westport. Click on or over hover to enlarge.
Meanwhile, Lortels’ grand-nephew — 25-year-old Waldo Mayo, an actor himself — is trying to buy the land and revive the theater. He’s got support from folks like Kevin Spacey and Kelli O’Hara (who really does live in Westport). Raising the $5 million-plus purchase price has been slow — but a major fundraiser is in the works.
The Save Cranbury Association — a longtime neighborhood that includes nearby Westport residents — is backing Mayo. They’re concerned about the impact of 15 homes on wetlands and wildlife.
A portion of the Cranbury property.
Demolition of the theater has been temporarily delayed. Earlier work — including asbestos removal — had already begun.
It’s a true-life story. One that would make an intriguing play.
Set either in Westport or Norwalk.
Though like the White Barn Theatre itself, where it is is less important than what it means.
(To learn more about saving the White Barn Theater, click here.)
One of Westport’s best-kept secrets is the White Barn Theatre.
The White Barn Theatre.
Founded in 1947 by actress/producer Lucille Lortel on her Newtown Road property straddling the Norwalk line, the 148-seat White Barn has always played second fiddle to the bigger, better-known red barn Westport Country Playhouse.
But despite its low-key presence — it may be the last organization on earth without a website — the White Barn Theatre deserves its place in arts history.
Lortel envisioned the former horse barn as a showcase for daring plays and new playwrights, composers, actors, directors and designers. It has been called “one of the greatest American experimental theaters of the 20th century.”
It presented works by Ionesco, Albee and Beckett, and premiered or staged early versions of plays that went on to successful Broadway and Off-Broadway runs, including Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” and Terrence McNally’s “Next.”
Among the actors who got their start there were Peter Falk and Geoffrey Holder.
The White Barn Theatre and Athol Fugard, featured in a 1964 1994 Norwalk Hour story.
Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were regular guests for plays by Athol Fugard, Bertold Brecht and Tennesse Williams.
It’s the real deal — even if you’ve never heard of it. And many Westporters have not.
This Saturday (May 12, 2 p.m.), you’ll get a chance to peek inside the White Barn Theatre. The Westport Historical Society is sponsoring a tour. Former general manager Mark Graham and British stage designer Peter Ling will show off the building and grounds (Lortel’s private residence still stands).
There will be a reading, and refreshments in the garden.
Eva La Gallienne
Plus, Ling says, through “the magic of theater” Lortel and Eva La Gallienne — the actress/producer/director long associated with the White Barn — will “live again.” I can’t say more than that, but it should be very cool.
Just like everything about the White Barn Theatre. Whether you’ve been a fan for 6 decades, or heard of it for the first time 6 seconds ago.
(Tickets are $10 each. For reservations, call 203-222-1424. The White Barn Theatre is located on Newtown Turnpike, near the corner of Cranbury Road.)
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