Eighty years ago, who could have imagined that a nondescript and foul-smelling barn in the middle of an apple orchard would one day become a world-class theater that would draw hundreds of legendary stars, playwrights and directors and become an icon of the American theater? Lawrence Langner, that’s who. A theater-enthusiast of tenacity and vision, he was instrumental in the Theater Guild’s mission to “produce plays of great artistic merit not ordinarily produced by commercial managers.” Ironically, it was his desire for more creative freedom that precipitated his decision to create the Playhouse—his own summer stock theater and an incubator for Broadway shows.
Act I: The Premise
In 1931, Langner—a businessman who owned a farm in nearby Cannondale—first came upon the Westport barn that would become his Playhouse. When his wife, Arminia, set eyes on the former tannery, just off the Post Road, she said, “You could smell it before you saw it.”
Yet she, too, saw its promise. The future theater had large proportions, good bones and a prime location. At the time, the Post Road was the only north-south highway on the coast and was a link between New York and Boston. Days later, the barn was theirs.
Langner turned to prominent New York architect Cleon Throckmorten to bring to life “a toy theater of my youth” with velvet-covered benches, a balcony and capacity for 499. The stage had exactly the same dimensions as New York’s Forty-Eighth Street Theater—underscoring Langner’s ambitions to transfer his productions to Broadway. Director Martin Scorsese said it best in An American Theater: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse, by Richard Sommerset-Ward: “The red barn on the Boston Post Road, otherwise known as the Westport Country Playhouse, has been both a refuge and a showcase for almost every important development in the American theater during the twentieth century.”
From humble beginnings, the former cow barn-turned-tannery-turned-summer stage became a popular draw. A big plus in early days was that Broadway theaters still lacked air conditioning, so the Playhouse capitalized on its “cooling system” (fans blew air across blocks of ice). Other benefit were its proximity to New York and its established links to Broadway and the Theater Guild to draw actors who could commute in and out of the city.
The wealthy doyennes of Fairfield County society made the Playhouse a “must” on the social calendar and, when new plays opened on Monday nights, the bejeweled socialites were prominently in attendance, as were their friends and acquaintances.
As much as a hit with common theater buff as the social set, the Playhouse managed to stage a new production every week, despite financial struggles. From the early days, it garnered acclaim for meaningful plays written by the likes of Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams, as well as aspiring new playwrights and even Langner himself.
Through trial and error with ambitious and experimental productions, Langner eventually hit on a winning formula. He chose diverse (new, old, American, European), high-quality plays and relied on a “visiting star system” fueled with enough acting giants to generate a constant buzz. Judy Holliday, Gene Kelly, Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power, Ethel Barrymore, Laurette Taylor, Dorothy Gish were just a few of the early headliners who kept subscription levels high.
By the late 1940s, it was time to upgrade, not only to improve the facility and add 200 seats, but also to add a restaurant, where patrons could rub elbows with A-listers. After the face-lift, the Playhouse ushered in the twentieth anniversary season with a star-studded roundup of talent, including Olivia de Havilland and Claudette Colbert, performing the finest works of Shaw, O’Neill, Shakespeare and Ibsen.
The fifties went out with a bang. In addition to showcasing “a galaxy of stars” like Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Groucho Marx and Burgess Meredith, 1958 brought the curtain down on the Langners’ storied reign as the creative force behind the Playhouse (although they still owned it). They stepped out of the picture, graciously ushering in new management, including Henry Weinstein, Laurence Feldman and James B. McKenzie, with a lavish party at their home.
Act II: The Obstacles
By the early sixties, most American homes had a television set. Surprisingly, the decade saw an expansion in American theater across the country, in great part due to the Ford Foundation, which started making substantial grants to small, not-for-profit theater companies. The Westport Country Playhouse became a not-for-profit in the 1970s, but its new status didn’t help its financial condition much.
The McKenzie era was rife with challenges. Gone were the days when socialites like Miss Annie Burr Jennings reserved whole rows for Monday night premieres. Instead, single-ticket purchases were the norm, and management turned the Playhouse over to concerts, charity events, country fairs and antique shows—anything to stem the rising tide of inflation.
The Playhouse also staged popular revivals, brought in Hollywood stars and sought out new provocative plays that pushed the envelope. But the years between 1985–89 were tough. When the three-acre plot that housed the Playhouse was put up for sale, a group known as The Playhouse Foundation Limited Partnership scrambled to purchase the land and save it from development. By 1989, the barn itself was 154 years old. The roof leaked badly, the building failed to meet new fire and safety codes and the restaurant, which had become a disco, was in arrears.
Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, the sixtieth anniversary season and the newly installed Tuscan restaurant, Sole e Luna, were bright spots on the horizon. The Playhouse was enjoying a comeback of sorts, with shows like Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men demonstrating a renewed interest in quality theater. But by the 1990s, it was “make or break” time. A 1994 survey showed a loyal audience that hungered for better amenities, parking, décor and programming, with more musicals, comedies, and contemporary dramas.
By this time, the theater had become a treasured community resource, as much for its popular children’s programs and for its theater arts training for students as for its renowned plays.
Losing this long-standing local gem was simply unthinkable.
At this critical juncture, a group of generous trustees who had been working on a strategy to revitalize the Playhouse, including Liz Morten, Catherine Herman, Bill Haber and Anne Keefe, stepped up and made significant personal contributions to keep the Playhouse alive. But the famed little red theater needed a miracle if it was to survive long-term.
Act III: Denouement (Woodward/Keefe)
In 2000 an angel in the form of Joanne Woodward was tapped to help save the Playhouse from its inevitable decline. The Oscar-winning actress and local resident had taken a great interest in the Playhouse over the years and surfaced as a trustee on a mission to ensure that the theater survived. She partnered with co-Artistic Director Anne Keefe and a powerhouse team—including Jayne Atkinson, Maureen Anderman, James Naughton, Jane Powell, Christopher Plummer, Frank Converse, Lynne Meadow, Amy Nederlander, Jason Robards Jr., Marlo Thomas, David Wiltse, Gene Wilder and Paul Newman—to breathe new life into the Playhouse’s lineup with moving productions, such as Ancestral Voices and Three Days of Rain.
After 9/11, their decision to stage Our Town, with Paul Newman as the stage manager, struck a nerve in town and across the country. It spoke to the passions of growing up, living and dying in a small town. The show was brought to Broadway for a limited run and was adapted for TV. Under James Naughton’s direction, Newman garnered an Emmy nod, and the Playhouse was back on the map as a creative powerhouse with soul.
Next came a full-scale capital campaign, sparked by Woodward and Newman’s high-wattage influence on friends and the
community. The final stroke of luck came when Bob Wright, the chairman of NBC Universal and vice-chairman of G.E., and his wife, Suzanne, an accomplished fundraiser, agreed to head up the “Campaign for a New Era” to raise $30 million—$18 million of which went to create the magnificent, state-of-the-art facility that it is today.
Epilogue: A New Beginning (Lamos/Ross)
When Paul Newman took ill, the Playhouse’s Board invited veteran artistic director Mark Lamos, formerly of Hartford Stage, to serve as director of Mice and Men. After a successful run, he was asked to become the Playhouse’s new artistic director. He recalls, “I was won over by the space itself. I liked the community very much, and the history of the place was so impressive. It’s a perfect theater in terms of its audience’s relation to the actors, its scale, its intimacy.” Then there’s the spiritual energy of the place. “You feel the weight and spiritual heft of all the glorious people that have been here before you.”
Since taking the reins, Lamos has been working to ensure that the new Playhouse achieves its mission of serving as a first-rate
performing arts center that creates new work “as we strive to enlighten, enrich and engage a diverse community of theater lovers, artists and students.” Lamos has his work cut out for him.
“While honoring the past, we’re really looking to the future, not only to make it a viable institution artistically but a healthy institution that moves forward at this particularly challenging moment in American Arts. It’s important to make our audiences and supporters aware of this wonderful resource for the community.”
Looking forward, he says, “We’re shoring up and getting the infrastructure right. For many years it was a summer stock theater with relatively light entertainment with a lot of stars and some serious work as well. It never made any money and then, when it was about to be torn down, Joanne and Paul did this brilliant fundraising effort and this stupendous renovation of the whole place, making a state-of-the-art theater and offices, so that it wouldn’t be lost. At that point, we needed whole lot of infrastructure to support the beautiful space itself. We’re working on that so that the legacy remains a really potent part of this area’s artistic life.”
The Playhouse team is doubling its efforts to become more viable in times when the performing arts have lost major corporate supporters. Lamos says, “We really need and seek a much wider audience base. We want to throw our net wider and wider and wider. There is too much of the local surrounding community who don’t know what we do. And we want our donor base to be not just a few hearty individuals, but more like the healthiest arts institutions, whose support base is wide. When you give something, you feel a sense of ownership, whether it’s NPR or the New York Philharmonic. We’re just formulating how to make that happen.”
Artistically speaking, he wants the quality of the work to have a really polished look and feel to it—as well as a new depth. “There have been marvelous artists who have worked here; we are actively going after names, but, at the same time, I want our audience to fully embrace ‘starless’ shows. I want to raise the standards of the productions; I want them to be not only full of wonderful actors, but also full of beautiful-looking costumes, wigs, sets. I want the level of design teams here to be world-class and directors to be very special. We need to let the theater community in New York know that we’re not just a summer theater and all that implies. We’re looking to become a really major player on the national theater stage.”
In the meantime, the Eightieth Anniversary Season kicks off in April, with a roster of new and exciting shows. Says Lamos: “Our eighieth-anniversary celebration has a unique lineup: two musicals, one grand, the other intimate; two of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, one based on one of the most important and beloved books ever written; and a yet-to-be announced contemporary comedy that will bring a little edge to our proceedings.”