Tag Archives: Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Country Playhouse: “The Show Will Go On!”

The Westport Country Playhouse’s last-ditch, uber-urgent, if-we-can’t-raise-it-we’ll-close $2 million fundraising appeal ended July 31.

And the 92-year-old institution appears to be within a rounding error of its goal.

Today, the Playhouse said they’ve collected $1,941,557 in cash and pledges. Donations were based on the board of trustees’ promise to transform the historic theater into “a performing arts center that appeals to a broader audience while continuing to produce theater.”

The historic Westport Country Playhouse will continue to entertain audiences, in a variety of ways. (Photo/Robert Benson)

Trustees chair Athena Adamson says, “The show will go on! We raised an amount very close to our $2 million goal by the July 31 deadline. Major gift conversations are ongoing that very soon could bring us well beyond our goal.

“Every gift is meaningful and treasured. We can thank our wonderful community who stepped up to ‘Save the Playhouse’ and shape it for future generations.”

The campaign will fund a series of single night events, including cabaret, comedy, music, play readings and speakers, from January through August 2024.  From September 2024 through March 2025, the Playhouse will continue its theatrical tradition by mounting 3 productions.

Overseeing the theatrical stagings will be Mark Shanahan. A director, playwright and actor, he was recently named artistic director for the 2024-25 season.

Tax-deductible contributions continue to be accepted. For campaign information and to donate, click here. Naming opportunities are available, including engraved paving stones in the Playhouse courtyard and seat plates in the theater. For naming inquiries, contact development@westportplayhouse.org.

Athena Adamson: New Playhouse Chair Leads Fight To Survive

The first show Athena Adamson saw at the Westport Country Playhouse was “A Christmas Carol.”

It was 2006. The historical theater had just reopened, after a $30 million renovation turned the drafty former barn into a 21st-century jewel.

And saved it from the threat of closure.

Nearly 2 decades later, the 92-year-old institution is again imperiled.

When the curtain rises next month on “Dial M for Murder” — the second show in this truncated season — Adamson will again be there.

This time, she’s interested in more than entertainment. Earlier this month, she became chair of the board of trustees.

Athena Adamson

The future of the Westport Country Playhouse — more uncertain now than perhaps any time in its fabled but sometimes fraught history — lies in her board’s hands.

And in the willingness of audiences — including those the Playhouse lost, and those it never reached out to — to help.

Adamson grew up around New York theater. Her father was an actor; she was raised in Greenwich Village.

She met her husband while at Yale. Her first jobs were with the university development office, then Food & Wine magazine. While in New Haven and New York, they came here for WCP shows.

They moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote screenplays. Nine years ago they came back to Connecticut. Living in Easton, then Southport, she got involved with the Playhouse through then-chair Barbara Streicker.

Adamson chaired the gala; then she joined the full board. She raised 3 children, and calls service to the Playhouse “my job.”

As nominating committee chair, she helped find new trustees. They — and the other, longer-serving members — will now play critical roles, as the board tries to fundraise and program the Playhouse out of its dire predicament.

Fortunately, Adamson says, “new and older members work pretty well together. There’s respect for what the institution has been and is, and also an eagerness to see change.”

In the 1950s, the Westport Country Playhouse was a launching pad for Broadway shows.

Adamson takes the reins from Ania Czekaj-Farber. The new chair calls her predecessor “a friend. No one is more dedicated to the theater than she.”

But, Adamson notes, “this is a transformative time. It’s good to have a new leader.”

The new leader’s most pressing concern is “raising dollars. We need to get through this immediate phase.” The goal is see “world-class plays” return to the stage by September of 2024.

She knows the Playhouse must offer a “wider range of choices, for the Westport audience and beyond.

“The community is changing. We need to adapt. I want this to be a Playhouse for the entire community, with enough on stage to appeal to everyone. We haven’t always had that.”

Many new residents are unfamiliar with the Playhouse.

Why not?

“That’s a good question,” Adamson says. “We started to see changes in the community even before the pandemic. But that accelerated it. There’s a huge number of new families, from the city. We want to keep our audience, and add them to it.

“We’re responding to that change now. Maybe we should have done it earlier.”

As the Playhouse’s woes became public this month, Westporters criticized programming choices of the past few years as out of step with audience tasts.

“I am proud of our programming,” Adamson counters, while acknowledging, “It may not have appealed to audiences as much as we’d like. We’ve learned a lot. We have to be mindful of our audience.”

Though musicals are audience-pleasers — and Adamson calls “In the Heights” one of her favorite all-time WCP productions (“Red” was the other) — they are costly. “We can find ways to be less expensive,” the board chair promises.

“In the Heights” was a smash, in 2019.

The recent Patti LuPone benefit — “high energy, and sold out” — offers another way to bring music to the stage. Adamson envisions similar concerts, “scratching an itch that people have.”

Though that sounds like the Ridgefield Playhouse model, Adamson says there must be additional programming — cabarets, Q-and-As, comedy shows, play readings — on the Westport Country Playhouse stage.

Those could begin next January. A 3-play season would begin that fall, in 2024.

The immediate need, Adamson notes, is to “raise dollars. We have to do it. I’m optimistic, or I wouldn’t be here.”

Meanwhile, the board begins searching for an acting interim artistic director.

The Westport Country Playhouse has a more storied past than perhaps any regional theater in the country. Yet that may not be enough to save it alone. And is that heritage perhaps a burden?

“No. Not if it’s thought of in the right way,” says Adamson.

Westport Country Playhouse cultural archivist Bruce Miller, with some of the 500 head shots underneath the stage.

“There’s a desire to be proud of our history, to preserve it. But there’s also a real desire for growth, change, the next chapter.

“I definitely feel that from the board. We’re all behind the plan of offering different programming and shows. The Playhouse history is something we should celebrate, as part of our campaign.”

The goal of that campaign is to raise $2 million by July 30.

“Spread the word that this is an institution worth saving,” Adamson says.

“No dollar is too small. Go to our website. Email (interim managing director) Gretchen Wright (gwright@westportplayhouse.org) if you have large gifts, a naming opportunity. or ideas for programs.

“And go see ‘Dial M for Murder.’ It’s a great show!”

Playhouse Appoints New Chair; Plans Campaign To Save Historic Theater

Ania Czekaj-Farber is no longer chair of the Westport Country Playhouse board of trustees.

After a week of questions about the future of the 91-year-old theater — which just a week earlier earned “Literary Landmark” status — newly elected chair Athena Adamson says:

Since the day our barn doors opened in 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse has been graced by the brightest of stars — heroes of the theater like Liza Minnelli, Eartha Kitt, Jessica Tandy, Henry Fonda, Gene Wilder, Olivia de Havilland, James Earl Jones, and Eva Gabor.

Under the guidance of Playhouse founder Lawrence Langner and legends like Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, we have stayed true to our mission, yet continually evolved.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward helped save the Westport Country Playhouse in the early 2000s. Their production of “Our Town” soon moved to Broadway.

I personally am forever grateful to Ania Czekaj-Farber, Mark Lamos, and all the Playhouse leaders, past and present, who believe in the power of live performance and cherish this special place.

Earlier this week, the board of trustees elected me, a new vice chair, and executive committee members to pursue a clear objective: fill this Playhouse and fulfill its mission.

I know it won’t be easy. The past few years have been a rocky time for theaters nationwide.

Pandemic shutdowns, streaming media, and younger generations’ entertainment preferences present real challenges. The costs of first-rate productions have skyrocketed, and ticket revenue has not kept pace. As attendance drops and audience connection frays, engagement and donations wane.

For several years, the Westport Country Playhouse has struggled to fill its famed seats.

Unfortunately, our community is not immune. Our Playhouse is in a tenuous
financial position.

But as I introduce myself to you, I am full of constructive optimism. Despite the changing landscape and challenges we face, I’m confident that together we will manage through this crisis and emerge stronger.

I say that because I know 2 things to be true:

  • People of every generation live fuller, more joyful lives when they connect in person through live performances, artistry, and the exchange of ideas.
  • Our community rallies when it matters.

Our plan is to make this your Playhouse. We envision a place for Westport and its neighboring communities to gather and enjoy world-class live performance – from theater, music, dance and comedy, to a speaker series with artists, thought-leaders, athletes and industry titans.

If you love the shows and programming we’re delivering, you’ll come and you’ll want to come back.

You’ll buy tickets, you’ll invite your friends, you’ll get involved, you’ll donate, and you’ll help us grow.

We will soon launch a fundraising campaign to save and transform the Playhouse. With your input and support, the board and our wonderful staff will deliver exciting and educational programming to engage every generation.

We ask you to join us, come to our beautiful theater, and help us ensure that the Westport Country Playhouse lives up to its legacy and flourishes for generations to come.

A new beginning for the Westport Country Playhouse? (Photo/Molly Alger)


Westport Country Playhouse: Preparing, Adapting, Re-envisioning

On Monday, “06880” ran a story on the future of the Westport Country Playhouse.

The board of directors says:

For the past several months, the board at the Westport Country Playhouse has been preparing for a leadership transition, and adapting to the new financial reality facing professional regional theaters.

We are in a difficult situation, yet singularly focused on our responsibility to ensure that the Playhouse not only survives but thrives.

To do so, we are re-envisioning a Playhouse that celebrates its proud heritage of producing first-rate theater, and presents a wide array of programming to engage audiences new and old.

Westport Country Playhouse. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

As part of a cohesive plan, in the coming months and years our Playhouse will welcome musical artists, concerts, speaker series, holiday and youth programs, writers’ festivals, film screenings, stand-up comedy acts, and touring musical productions.

We are currently evaluating proposed visions for our new artistic direction, and plan to announce new leadership soon. We are also exploring strategic partnerships with local organizations and national theater companies to expand programming at the Playhouse.

We are deeply grateful for the dedication and support we receive from people and communities from New York to New Haven, and we know we can’t do this alone. Your participation as audience members, volunteer leaders, donors, and advocates is fundamental to our success.

With your continued commitment, the Westport Country Playhouse will emerge stronger than ever as a proud symbol of our town, and a place where we all belong.

The next production at the Playhouse is “Dial M for Murder” (July 11-29). Click here for more information, and tickets.

Westport Country Playhouse: Next Act — Or Final Curtain?

For over 90 years the Westport Country Playhouse has entertained, inspired and awed theatergoers.

From the opening curtain in a converted tannery through the rest of the 20th century, “the Playhouse” became a launch pad for Broadway shows, an important stop for hundreds of actors, and an iconic Westport jewel.

Now, in its 92nd year, the Westport Country Playhouse is limping through a truncated season.

It might not make it to 93.

Classic shot of a classic theater.

I love the Playhouse. I was introduced to live theater there, through children’s shows. I’ve seen countless productions, plus concerts like Arlo Guthrie.

A highlight of my life was performing on its stage – the same one used by Henry Fonda, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Eartha Kitt and James Earl Jones – for a “Moth” taping 3 years ago.

It is painful to write this story.

It would be more painful to lose the Playhouse entirely. But that may very well happen.

And it could happen very, very soon.

The Westport Country Playhouse is on precarious footing. The last 2 shows of its planned 5-play 2023 season have already been canceled. The third is in jeopardy.

In recent years, not enough seats have been filled. (Photo/Robert Benson)

Attendance has plummeted; so has the subscriber base.

As the core audience aged, there was little outreach to younger and newer residents. The Playhouse has virtually no social marketing – the best way to create buzz, and reach today’s theater-goers.

Artistic director Mark Lamos’ selection of plays failed to resonate with patrons. Now he’s departing, leaving no one at the helm.

If the theater goes dark, it will be almost impossible to put the lights back on.

All is not lost, however. A rescue plan has been floated.

As in past crises – most recently the early 2000s, when Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward rode to the rescue – this one has quintessential Westport roots.

Andrew Wilk, in the “Live From Lincoln Center” production truck.

Andrew Wilk is a 5-time Emmy-winning executive producer and director of television programming (and a renowned playwright, director and symphony conductor).

He moved to Westport 17 years ago, attracted in large part by the town’s support for the arts.

Wilk produced PBS’ legendary “Live from Lincoln Center” series for many years; served as chief creative officer for Sony Music Entertainment, and executive vice president for the National Geographic Channel (among many other accomplishments).

He created and developed last year’s 3-part PBS entertainment specials, shot at the Playhouse. (He worked on that project for almost 2 years – pro bono.)

Wilk spent months developing a new business strategy and turnaround plan. Covering everything from programming to union contracts, it outlines a path toward recovery and sustainability for an institution that for years has spent more than ticket sales, donors and grants bring in.

Wilk devised the plan on his own time. He’s willing to oversee it in the coming months – gratis.

So far, the Playhouse board has not accepted his broad, generous offer. Perhaps they think they must “save” the Playhouse, before creating a new artistic model.

Wilk proposes to save the Playhouse by reimagining it. First, a transitional season would begin rebuilding the audience through a robust season of well-known musical titles “In Concert.” They’d be headlined by a small number of Broadway stars, with an orchestra.  Concerts include evenings of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jerry Herman, Rodgers & Hammerstein and others.

Those concert productions would be augmented by smaller, fully professional productions of recognizable shows, like “The Fantasticks” and “I Do! I Do!,” as well as classic comedies and dramas.

Back in the day, crowds lined up for comedies, dramas — and shows that were headed to Broadway. (Photo/Wells Studio)

There would be student productions too, with actors from Staples and area high schools and colleges, of shows like “Rent,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Falsettos,” plus “Jesus Christ Superstar” using local community groups, and Broadway stars in a few primary roles (thanks to Wilk’s extensive contacts).

Wilk estimated costs for every show, right down to transportation and rights fees. He’s addressed the thorny question of union contracts, and even figured out rehearsal schedules.

His plan appears to be the only one addressing the theater’s many urgent challenges.

The Westport Country Playhouse has been on the brink of disaster before. They’ve always pulled rabbits out of the hat (and, in the case of Newman and Woodward, conjured up a production that – harkening back to the Playhouse’s mid-20th century heyday – moved on to Broadway).

The world has changed since then. It’s changed even since Newman and Woodward’s “Our Town.”

This is our Westport Country Playhouse. It is our town.

But unless the people in charge of our town’s historic gem act quickly, decisively and creatively, the theater that last week was honored as a Literary Landmark may soon become just one more theatrical memory.

(The Westport Country Playhouse was asked to comment on its future. Board chair Anna Czekaj-Farber said: “Nothing new at the moment. We are getting ready for our New Works reading (Monday, June 5) our next Script in Hand on June 12, and Patti LuPone’s  great evening June 15.”)

Twenty years ago, Paul Newman helped save the Westport Country Playhouse. Can it be saved again?

Pic Of The Day #2157

By mid-afternoon, Westport had gotten very little snow. But the Westport Country Playhouse sure looked pretty. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Playhouse Scales Back ’23 Season

COVID impacted every aspect of American society. Live theater was among the hardest hit.

No stage was immune. Locally, Westport Country Playhouse — the historic summer theater where everyone from Peter Fonda to Paul Newman performed (and Stephen Sondheim interned — canceled its entire 2020 schedule.

The 2021 season was all virtual. The Playhouse finally returned last year, with 5 well-produced, powerful shows.

Clay Singer and Mia Dillon starred in last summer’s “4000 Miles.” (Photo/Carol Rosegg)

But the effects of the virus still linger.

Yesterday, officials announced that the 2023 season will be pared down to 3 productions, from the previously announced 5.

“The change reflects the impact that COVID has had, and continues to have, on the Playhouse and the performing arts community nationwide,” said the board and leaders.

Though the Playhouse safely navigated the challenges of COVID — not one performance of the 4 plays and 1 musical was canceled due to illness — “audiences are coming back slowly,” said Gretchen Wright, director of development and interim managing director.

“We have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels of participation.”

The 92-year-old Westport Country Playhouse.

The Playhouse “finished with low ticket revenue and a significant deficit – a fate similar to many other theaters in Connecticut,” Wright said.

Even in the best of times, ticket sales cover only 40% of a show’s cost. And — despite eagerness among some theater-goers to return — last year was hardly the best of times.

“The board of trustees have been very engaged in supporting the theater and all the changes, proactively leading the Playhouse to brighter future,” said Anna Czekaj-Farber, chair of the Playhouse board.

“We are an agile organization, and we are trying to adjust to ensure the longevity and health of this important institution that has been a part of our community for more than 90 years.

“We are confident that we are making the prudent decision that would allow us to prosper as we have many exciting plans for the future of this wonderful theater.”

The historic Westport Country Playhouse. (Photo/Robert Benson)

 The revised 2023 season will include 3 previously announced productions, each running 3 weeks: “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (April 11 through April 29); “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” (July 11-July 29), and “School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play” (October 24 through November 11).

 The goal is to “focus on broadly appealing and revenue-positive programming, and on building deeper community partnerships,” the Playhouse said.

Additional events will be announced soon. For several years, special programming has augmented the main musical and play offerings.

Current 2023 season ticket holders have been contacted by the box office on how to claim the value of the canceled tickets by gift certificate, refund or donation.

Click here for more information on the Playhouse, and the 2023 season.

Friday Flashback #317

Most old Westport Country Playhouse photos show the famed “summer theater” during that season. Trees obscure the handsome one-time tannery.

The Playhouse season now begins earlier, and ends later. As they prepare for “From the Mississippi Delta” — their final production of 2022 — here’s a fascinating look, with the trees bare.

The photo is undated. But the Westport Country Playhouse is timeless. If you’ve got a Playhouse memory, click “Comments” below.

(Photo courtesy of Bill Stanton)

(Like the Playhouse, “06880” depends on local support. Please click here to help.)

Next Acts: Playhouse Announces ’23 Schedule

Westport Country Playhouse theater-goers have enjoyed one of the most entertaining, thought-provoking and exciting seasons ever. One more production remains: “From the Mississippi Delta,” next month.

But the creative team is already looking ahead to 2023. The 5-show season — the historic Playhouse’s 93rd — includes a musical, a thriller, a comedy and a classic.

The season — which returns to 3-week runs after a condensed 2-week schedule this year, and with more 7 p.m. curtains — opens April 11 with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The sassy song-and-dance tribute to jazz great Fats Waller won 5 Tony Awards in 1978.

Then comes a reimagining of “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” with even more surprises and twists than in the legendary Alfred Hitchcock film of blackmail and revenge.

A world premiere modern translation and adaptation of “Antigone” follows. Especially resonant today, the drama explores the nature of power and resistance, as a determined young woman defies a tyrannical king.

The season concludes with “School Girls, or, The African Mean Girls Play.” It’s a comedy about the universal similarities — and glaring differences — faced by teenage girls around the globe.

A fifth production has not yet been finalized.

Ticket information will be available soon at the Playhouse website.

The historic curtain rises next spring, on the 2023 season.. (Photo/Robert Benson)

Photo Challenge #395

For a couple of years, a “Pride Bench” — decked out in rainbow colors — sat in front of Mystic Market. Everyone traveling past, on heavily trafficked Charles Street, saw it and smiled.

When the store closed in May, Westport Country Playhouse company manager, Bruce Miller thought that — given their close ties to the LGBTQ community — the Playhouse could make a good next home.

The Mystic Market folks agreed. The “Pride Bench” now sits proudly in front of the Sheffer Studio.

Fred Cantor, Lynn Untermeyer Miller, Amy Schneider and Jonathan Prager all knew the new location of the bench. Susan Iseman, Nancy Vener and Celeste Champagne, meanwhile, recognized it from its previous location. (Click here to see the photo.)

This week’s Photo Challenge is less colorful — but very interesting. If you know where in Westport you’d see this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Johanna Keyser Rossi)