Westport Country Playhouse
|Address||25 Powers Court|
|Opened||29 June 1931|
It was founded in 1931 by Lawrence Langner, a New York theater producer. Langner remodeled an 1830s tannery with a Broadway-quality stage.
Construction and early use
The building that now houses Westport Country Playhouse was originally constructed in 1835 as a tannery by R&H Haight, owned by Henry Haight. Charles H. Kemper acquired the tannery from Henry Haight's widow in 1866 and subsequently renamed the business C.H. Kemper Co.
In 1930, the former tannery, which had been unused since the 1920s, was purchased for $14,000 by Lawrence Langner. Cleon Throckmorten, a Broadway designer, was commissioned to renovate the interior of the building.
On June 29, 1931, the curtain went up on the first production at the Westport Country Playhouse. The Playhouse quickly became an established stop on the New England "straw hat circuit" of summer stock theaters.
In the 1940s, the Westport Country Playhouse began its apprentice program for young theater professionals. Over the years, Westport Country Playhouse apprentices have included composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, screenwriter Frank Perry, television host Sally Jesse Raphael, composer Mary Rodgers, actor Cary Elwes, and actress Tammy Grimes. The educational apprenticeship programs are still running.
The Westport Country Playhouse closed due to World War II from 1942 to 1945. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Westport Country Playhouse's successes included world premieres of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba and Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, both of which went on to Broadway.
Since the Langners stepped down in 1959, the administration has included James B. McKenzie from 1959 to 2000 and actress Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman's wife, who took over as artistic director in 2000. Newman remained a part-owner of a restaurant next to the theatre until his death in 2008. The Playhouse became a non-profit in 1973.
Recently the theatre saw the world premiere of Thurgood and a revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town with Paul Newman. Currently under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos, the Playhouse produces new and classic plays for the public.
Alison Harris, executive director since 2000, announced in 2005 that she would not be renewing her contract when it expired in 2006. In December 2006, Jodi Schoenbrun Carter was named managing director. Artistic directors Joanne Woodward and Anne Keefe returned to the Westport Country Playhouse on January 2, 2008 to provide interim artistic leadership for the 2008 season. Ms. Woodward, acclaimed actress and director as well as a long-time resident of Westport, was the Westport Country Playhouse’s artistic director from 2000 to 2005, with Ms. Keefe as her associate. For the past two years, Ms. Woodward served as Westport Country Playhouse artistic director emeritus as well as a member of the board of trustees. Ms. Keefe has also been a member of the board since her departure as associate artistic director in 2006. Currently under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos the Playhouse produces new and classic plays for the public.
The Westport Country Playhouse has provided a stage for many new playwrights over the years. David Wiltse is the current playwright in residence, writing one play for the Westport Country Playhouse to produce each year.
Campaign for a New Era
The Campaign for a New Era was the fundraising effort by the Westport Country Playhouse to help pay for its $30.6 million, 18-month renovation from 2003 to 2005. Donations of more than $1,000 are recognized within the Westport Country Playhouse's lobby and production programs. Some of the largest donations came from the State of Connecticut, the Devlin Foundation, the Lucille Lortel Foundation, Elisabeth & Stanley Morten, and Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman.
Woodward and executive director Alison Harris led a $30.6 million renovation, transforming the old barn into a modern, year-round theatre facility. The renovated theatre reopened in 2005. At Woodward's suggestion, a piece of the original stage floor was placed at the dressing room entrance to give a little extra luck to the actors. Woodward stepped down from her job in January 2006, and was followed by actor, opera and theatre director, and playwright Tazewell Thompson. However, Woodward and Newman have both continued to contribute to the Westport Country Playhouse's "Campaign for a New Era."
The Westport Country Playhouse currently has a total of 578 seats. This is the seating capacity before the renovation. The seats are now individual and cushioned, as opposed to the former wooden pews, while retaining the historic look of the former pews. Further, fewer of the current seats are considered "limited view" since the renovation.
The 578 seats are distributed as follows:
- 424 orchestra
- 234 center orchestra
- 93 house left orchestra
- 97 house right orchestra
- 154 mezzanine
- 118 center mezzanine
- 18 left mezzanine boxes
- 18 right mezzanine boxes
- Height: 15 feet 3 inches (4.65m) above stage floor
- Width: 32 feet 9 inches (9.98m) wide
- Orchestra pit:
- Depth: 9 feet 3 inches (2.82m) below stage floor
Of the hundreds of interns and apprentices who have passed through the Playhouse's educational programs, several have gone on to attain notoriety. Some graduates include Stephen Sondheim, Frank Perry, Tammy Grimes, Sally Jessy Raphael, Mary Rodgers, and Christina Crawford. A large number of Playhouse interns and apprentices have made careers in the theatre or in related activities.
Joanne Woodward Internship Program
The program is named in honor of Joanne Woodward, co-artistic director. The Westport Country Playhouse provides summer and school year internships to students ages 19 and older from around the country.
The interns are entrusted with considerable responsibilities and treated as staff members while they engage in an intensive learning experience. Each intern is hired for a specific position, but are expected to work as a team and pitch in where necessary, including, but not limited to, running crew, ushering, concessions and parking.
Applicants must be serious minded, highly motivated and able to commit a minimum of twelve weeks, with long working hours as many as 7 days a week. Applicants should be college students, graduate students or recent graduates, with basic training and experience in theatre already completed, prepared to take the next step towards a professional theatre career.
Many notable performers have enhanced the Westport Country Playhouse stage from 1930 to the present, including such well-known names as Billie Burke, Liza Minnelli, Eartha Kitt, Gene Wilder, Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, Jane Curtin, Ruth Gordon, Kitty Carlisle, Henry Fonda, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Olivia de Havilland, Eva Gabor, Johanna Day, Michael Allinson, and Jane Fonda.
The Westport Country Playhouse has a counterweight fly system currently employing 22 battens, with space for future installations. The height from the stage to the grid is 40 feet (12.19m), with an effective fly range from 3 feet 10 inches (1.17m) to 38 feet (11.58m). Each arbor is 6 feet tall with a capacity for 1200 pounds (544 kg). The locking rail is on the stage right wall, and the loading bridge is 32 feet 3 inches (9.83m) above the stage floor.
Although the fly system and grid are designed for loads to be hung parallel to the proscenium, smaller loads can be hung perpendicular using cables independent of the actual arbor system. These have to be flown in and out manually from the grid, so perpendicularly hung loads are generally stationary during performances.
The Westport Country Playhouse's stage lighting instruments include:
- 2 - ETC Source Four 19° ERS
- 61 - ETC Source Four 26° ERS
- 58 - ETC Source Four 36° ERS
- 24 - ETC Source Four 50° ERS
- 18 - Altman 6 inch 500w Fresnels
- 7 - Altman 1 kW triple unit far cycs
- 42 - PAR 64
- 7 - T-6 six cell, three circuit, 4 foot 6 inches
- 6 - Birdies
Color scrollers, irises, top hats, and barn doors (all lighting instrument attachments) are also available. On-stage film and projection equipment are only available through special arrangement.
- Richard Somerset-Ward (11 June 2005). An American theatre: the story of Westport Country Playhouse, 1931-2005. Yale University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-300-10648-0. Retrieved 17 November 2011.
- Woody Klein; Westport Historical Society (Conn.) (May 2000). Westport, Connecticut: the story of a New England town's rise to prominence. Greenwood Press. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-313-31126-0. Retrieved 27 November 2011.
- Woody Klein; Westport Historical Society (Conn.) (May 2000). Westport, Connecticut: the story of a New England town's rise to prominence. Greenwood Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-313-31126-0. Retrieved 27 November 2011.
- Spotlight on Nonprofit Theater
- Associated Press story, "Executive director resigns at Westport playhouse" in The Advocate of Stamford, July 22, 2006, page A3
- Timeline of Significant Events and Selected Appearances by Notable Artists. Westport, Connecticut: Westport Country Playhouse. 19 July 2002.
- Variety review by Marilyn Stasio
- Westport Country Playhouse home page
- The Drawer Boy Program. Westport, Connecticut: New Mass Media. 22 June 2006.
- "Town Trivia Quiz" Question 2, Westport Weston Magazine, September 2008, pp. 62, 72, retrieved December 22, 2008
- Smith, Victor W. (5 July 2006). Technical Information. Westport, Connecticut: Westport Country Playhouse.
- Levine to be feted Sunday before Ailey dance program. Westport News (2013-03-05). Retrieved on 2013-08-16.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Westport Country Playhouse.|
- An American Theatre: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse, by Richard Somerset-Ward, Yale University Press. 304 pp. (2005)