Oblivion Education & Community Engagement Initiative Underway

By Jen McCool
Community Engagement Coordinator

For the fourth consecutive season, the Playhouse is excited to be rolling out an Education and Community Engagement Initiative centered on one of our season productions. And this year, we are focusing on the world premiere of Carly Mensch’s vital and intriguing play Oblivion (Aug.20 – Sept. 8).  For the past three years, we have worked with numerous community organizations and created special events and programs all revolving around themes found in our work onstage.

The cornerstone of our Initiative this year will be post-show salons in our Smilow Donor Lounge after nearly every performance of Oblivion. These informal discussions, which were also held during our productions of Happy Days (2010) and Suddenly, Last Summer (2011), will be open to all audience members and will provide a welcoming, engaging environment for patrons to share their thoughts and responses to Oblivion with one another. We’re definitely looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

The Playhouse is also working with several other local community organizations on special programming inspired by the play and its themes – there will be an open discussion on Tuesday, September 3,  6:00pm at
Westport Arts Center around values and how we shape our values.  Students at Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven will be completing a photography project on these same themes, which will be displayed in our lobby during the run of Oblivion.

And we’re pleased to once again celebrate “A Day for Community” with $15 tickets for all audience members on Sunday, September 8th at 3:00pm to encourage families to attend the production together or with their church or community organization. Stay tuned after the performance for a panel discussion. In fact, every Sunday performance will have a panel or a speaker and a chance for a larger conversation around themes found in the play.

As you can see, August and September will be a time for thoughtful dialogue around the Playhouse and we hope you’ll join in the conversation. For more details on these and other events, please visit our
website in the coming months. We hope you’ll join in the conversation around Theater Worth Talking About.

Go Inside "The Dining Room"

May 9, 2013

By Aneesha Kudtarkar
Directing Fellow

In the last few weeks we finished technical rehearsals, previews, and opened A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room.  It’s been such an exciting journey with this cast.  Watching them grow from the first day of rehearsal to opening night has been amazing.

The Dining Room Set Design by Michael Yeargan.  Photo by John Mosele.
Tech rehearsals are when all of the technical elements—lights, scenery, props, and costumes finally come together in the theater.  Up until that point the cast had been rehearsing with Mark in a studio space in Manhattan.  We’d seen certain elements of the set like the dining table and chairs, but none of it had been painted yet, and we had only seen pictures and sketches of the set.  Finally getting into the theater last Thursday was really exciting.  Michael Yeargan’s set is stunning and an interesting take on the traditional dining room.  After arriving at the theater and taking a quick tour, the cast was excited to explore the stage and to see everything up close for the first time.  They couldn’t wait to start working on their scenes in the actual space and get a sense of what it would be like to perform in a space that’s much larger than our rehearsal studio.  However, contrary to what you might think, technical rehearsals rarely start with a full run through.  Mainly they’re very slow moving as the director and the designers work through the show on a moment by moment basis.  This is when all of the big technical decisions get made.  Do we want the lights to change on this line or the next one?  Can we see it again with music underscoring it?  Is there any way to slow the movement of the swinging door?  Can we get more gold in this light cue?  All the way through notes are being taken and changes are being made.  For The Dining Room we have an excellent team of designers, including two 2013 Tony Award nominees: Set Designer Michael Yeargan and Sound Designer John Gromada.  They’ve all worked with Mark in the past and have a little bit of a short hand when they talk to each other.  They’re also very good at collaborating—sharing their opinions when it’s helpful, but also respecting that they’re a part of a team.  One of my favorite things has been watching how Steven Strawbridge’s lighting design has taken Michael’s set to a whole new level.  The play takes place over the course of one day in a single dining room and he’s found a way to have the lights really reflect that.  We see the room transition from early morning to early evening and finally night time and it really is magical. 
Chris Henry Coffey, Jake Robards, Jennifer Van Dyck, Charles Socarides, Keira Naughton, and Heidi Armbruster.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

One of the challenges of the script is that there’s not a single linear plot line.  It’s a series of scenes that involve dozens of characters played by six actors.  Our actors have handled this challenge beautifully and have created rich back-stories for each of their characters.  One of the things Mark asked them to focus on early on was having a clear “moment before.”  A clear idea of where there character was coming from and how they’d come to be in this situation.  One of the things that kept the mood light and energetic was the cast talking about their character’s lives off stage.  They’ve gotten to the point where they know their characters so well that they can joke and tease each other about how no one really wanted to invite “Brewster” to the birthday party or that “Aunt Harriet” probably has six cats and is a widow.

Previews are the period when the show is being performed for an audience, but small changes are still being made.  Sometimes it’s hard to gage if a moment is working on stage until you see it played out in front of an audience so they’re an important part of the process.  Most people don’t realize that during previews, we’re still in rehearsal.  The actors are still working on the show in the afternoon, making changes based on notes from the previous night’s performance, and then performing it at night.  This show and cast have been really wonderful though and the pre-show rehearsals have been short and very detail oriented.  For me personally it’s been exciting to see the cast come alive in front of an audience--especially on opening night.  There’s always a buzz in the air when a show opens.  It’s equal parts nerves and relief.  I thought The Dining Room opening went really, really well and from what I can tell the show has continued to delight and entertain audiences since then. We've recently added a performance due to high ticket sales and so The Dining Room closes on May 19.  Trust me when I say you don’t want to miss out on this fun, funny, and very moving show.

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Playhouse History A - Z, part 2

March 21, 2013

By Patricia Blaufuss
Public Relations Manager

Continued from last week...more history highlights, picking up with the second half of the alphabet.

Paul Newman’s first appearance on the Playhouse stage is in Love Letters (2000), a fundraiser with his wife Joanne Woodward, who is the newly appointed artistic director at the time.  His other Playhouse credits include Ancestral Voices (2000 and 2002), Trumbo (2004), and a revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (2002), which transfers to Broadway and is filmed for Showtime and PBS.

The groundbreaking musical Oklahoma might never had been written if Richard Rodgers had not been in the Playhouse audience in 1940 to see Green Grow the Lilacs, on which the musical was based. 

Lerner and Lowe, viewing Shaw’s Pygmalion starring Dolores Gray at the Playhouse in 1952, are inspired to create the musical My Fair Lady, based on the play. It opens four years later on Broadway.

When the Playhouse is under renovation in 2004, a shocking discovery is made in the quoin, the external angle of the building.  The walls at the stage left corner are not touching the foundation; they are rotted away from age.  A railroad tie, shoved under the walls in the 1950s, is all that is supporting stage left prior to the renovation.  

In 2005, the Playhouse completes a multi-million dollar renovation, reopening just in time for its 75th anniversary.  The Playhouse becomes a state-of-the-art producing theater, preserving its original charm and character. 

Although no longer a summer stock theater today, the Playhouse is for many years a theater company that keeps “in stock” all the elements, human and material, that are needed to stage a play.  The “straw hat” circuit, named for the bucolic roots of theaters housed in converted barns or mills, reaches its peak in the late 1940s.  The Playhouse is one of the last survivors of the New England the circuit through the end of the 20th century.

In 1941, Lee Strasberg directs Tyrone Power in Liliom, which later becomes the musical Carousel on Broadway. Power is about to open at WCP when Daryl F. Zanuck, the powerful head of 20th Century Fox, demands he return to Hollywood to re-shoot scenes for the film A Yank in the RAF.  The Playhouse's attorney, Kenneth Bradley, invokes a 300-year-old Connecticut Blue Law under which one could prevent a person from leaving the state if he tries to do so before fulfilling a contract. Power delightedly stays and completes the sold-out run.

U  A corps of 300 volunteer ushers serves the Playhouse each season, acting as host to our patrons, seating them, handing out a program, and watching over their health and safety.  Some of our ushers have been tearing ticket stubs for multiple seasons.  

There are always celebrated visitors in the Playhouse audience.  From Marlon Brando in 1953 to Katharine Hepburn in the 1985, to Ethel Merman, Dustin Hoffman, Ron Howard, Samuel L. Jackson, and Aaron Sorkin, to name just a few.  

Joanne Woodward directs three plays during her six-season tenure (2000-2005) as Playhouse artistic director:  The Constant Wife (2000), Three Days of Rain (2001) and The Member of the Wedding (2005), and co-directs with Anne Keefe David Copperfield (2005).  Ms. Woodward and Ms. Keefe serve as Playhouse co-artistic directors in 2008.

Several Playhouse performers have the X-Factor, that “certain something” that propels them into stardom soon after their stint here.  In 1964, 18-year-old Liza Minnelli receives her Equity card appearing at the Playhouse with Elliott Gould in The Fantasticks.  On opening night, according to a news clipping, "the rather gawky teenager...received a standing ovation."  

Y  “Your Playhouse” is a phrase we currently use to reinforce the efforts to engage the Fairfield County community and beyond in our productions, events, and activities.  Each year we host an “open house” where the public can tour the Playhouse and discover all that it has to offer for every age.  This year’s “Season Kick-off Block Party” will be on Saturday, April 13, 4 to 7 p.m

Z  They are all new faces in 1992 when the Playhouse premieres a 10-month national tour of Kander and Ebb's The World Goes 'Round, starring Karen Ziemba and Marin Mazzie, and directed and choreographed by Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman, respectively.  Soon after, they all become award-winning artists on Broadway.

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Playhouse History – A to Z

March 14, 2013

By Patricia Blaufuss

Public Relations Manager

So much rich history.  So little blog space. 
Where to begin to write about a very special place that has a storied past of 83 years?  In an attempt to scratch the surface of the Playhouse’s long history, here are some highlights from A to Z.

A  The Apprentice system at the Playhouse starts in 1946.  Over the years, summer apprentices include Stephen Sondheim (1950) and Tammy Grimes (1954).  Grimes is fired from the box office in her first week because she is unable to make the correct change for patrons.  She is transferred backstage among the stars where she longs to be, and is appointed to press Richard Kiley’s pants.  Today, the Playhouse is home to the Woodward Internship Program, one of the nation’s preeminent programs for emerging theater professionals.  

Butterflies Are Free (1969) premieres with Blythe Danner as the ingenious girl who falls in love with a blind boy, played by Keir Dullea.  The comedy transfers to Broadway, where it runs over three years, earning Danner a Tony Award. The play remains in the Playhouse’s annals as one of some 36 productions that made the giant leap from Westport to Broadway.
C  The house manager rings a cow bell and calls, “Curtain going up,” before the start of each show and at the end of intermission.  In 1835, the building that will become the Playhouse is originally built as a tannery manufacturing hatters’ leathers.  In 1880, it is a steam-powered cider mill. The cow bell is a throw-back to the 1920s when the Playhouse is an abandoned barn, before its splendid transformation into a theater in 1931.  

D  Just before Olivia de Havilland takes the Playhouse stage on her opening night of What Every Woman Knows in 1946, she marries novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich at Langnerlane, the Weston property owned by Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall.  The bride is given away by Lawrence Langner.  He had been a friend of her late father, who, like Langner, was a patent attorney and had acted for Langner’s firm in Japan.  The ceremony begins with strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March played by a lady harpist from the Oklahoma! orchestra in New York, who is brought to Weston on the back of a truck. 


E  Eva Le Gallienne makes her last appearance at the Playhouse in her Tony-nominated role in To Grandmother’s House We Go (1981).  The Weston resident first trods the Playhouse boards in Camille (1936) and has many roles here in between.  Today, the Playhouse’s Green Room is named in her honor and contains memorabilia from her career. 
F   Henry Fonda and daughter Jane appear on the Playhouse stage, though not at the same time. With a film career still in the future, Jane Fonda stars in No Concern of Mine in 1960. Her father appears in The Virginian at the Playhouse in 1937, the year his daughter is born.  

G  Playwright A. R. “Pete” Gurney is a favorite at the Playhouse. 13 Gurney plays, in addition to a few playreadings and fundraisers, are produced here, starting with Children starring Sada Thompson in 1980.  The Dining Room is slated to open the 2013 season, April 30 through May 18.  It was first staged at the Playhouse 30 years ago in 1983.  

H  Known as “the first lady of the American theater,” Helen Hayes appears at the Playhouse in Westport author A. E. Hotchner’s The White House (1964), and earlier in Good Housekeeping (1949), with her daughter Mary MacArthur.  Mary dies of polio shortly thereafter.  

  A world premiere comedy by Noël Coward, Island Fling, is a star vehicle for filmdom’s Claudette Colbert in 1951.  It’s held over for an extra week. Post-performance visitors to Miss Colbert’s dressing room include Marlene Dietrich, Danny Kaye, Richard Rodgers, and Otto Preminger. 

Photo by T. Charles Erickson


J  James Earl Jones appears as Thurgood Marshall in the world premiere of Thurgood by George Stevens, Jr. in 2006. A press conference in the Playhouse’s Sheffer Rehearsal Studio to meet Mr. Jones is standing room only.  Jones later joins the Playhouse board of trustees.

K  In 1939, an unknown Gene Kelly dances in Magazine Page, a musical revue.  The cast includes a young singer called Judith Tuvim, who would be later known as Judy Holliday, and a pair of writer-performers named Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  But Kelly steals the show and is catapulted to Broadway fame in The Time of Your Life (1939), followed by the lead in Pal Joey (1940). 


L  The Playhouse property and abandoned barn with assessed value of $14,000, unused since the 1920s, is acquired in 1930 by Lawrence Langner, co-founder of the Theatre Guild in New York City, and his wife, Armina Marshall Langner.  They want to build a theater near their Weston, Connecticut, home. 


 M  James B. McKenzie produces 419 plays at the Playhouse during his tenure as executive producer from 1959 through 1999.  A U.S. Navy veteran and avid sailor, he boasts on his sailing resume that he had been grounded more than 100 times – claiming that it shows “experience” as well as “the overwhelming satisfaction of having refloated the boat each time.”  Through its share of calm and rough waters, the Playhouse remains on a steady course for 41 summer seasons with McKenzie at the helm.

To be continued next week – with the alphabet’s second half.

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Here’s the dish…

February 21, 2013

By Jennifer McCool
Community Engagement Coordinator

We here at the Playhouse often sing the praises of our restaurant partners, and for good reason! If you’re looking for a delicious meal in Westport, look no further than our 2013 Restaurant Partners. But sometimes, it’s fun to hear from the people behind the scenes who are working to put that wonderful food on the table. 

With that in mind, I reached out to the Head Chefs at our partner restaurants for some insight into what makes them tick. You may be familiar with the Proust Questionnaire from Vanity Fair or Inside the Actor’s Studio – I sent an abbreviated version out to our chefs and here are a few great responses.
Thanks very much to Chef Ramirez and Chef Scotti for taking the time to answer our questions! 

Executive Chef Apolinar Ramirez

146 Main Street, Westport  

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.
What is your greatest fear?
Physically not being able to work in the kitchen.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My wife and kids.
When and where were you happiest?
Being at home on a Sunday with my daughter and my missus in the kitchen cooking dinner.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would make myself about 20 years younger so I could experience so many of the things I’ve already experienced all over again.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
There are many things in my life that I
value such as my family, my career, and friends. I could not choose just one moment in my life that I felt was my greatest achievement because every component in my life is important to me.
What is your most treasured possession?
My experiences.
Who is your personal hero?
Pancho Villa was one of the most prominent Mexican Revolutionary generals.

Executive Chef Pietro Scotti

36 Riverside Drive, Westport
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being with my wife and my kids on the beach in Ischia, the island where I was born and where all my family lives 

What is your greatest fear?
When I am slow in the restaurant that there won’t be enough business. 

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
#@$%&*)^! (just in the kitchen ) 

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My wife, Janine. 

When and where were you happiest?
The day my first child Tomaso was born, the next time 2 years later when my daughter Lucia was born. 

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
To be more patient. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Owning my own restaurant for 25 years. 

What is your most treasured possession?
My home in Italy. 

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would you like it to be?
I would still like to be a chef, I wouldn’t change that for anything, but I might want a huge restaurant on the side of the mountain looking over the sea in Ischia. 

What is your motto?
Go Faster! 

And although they weren’t able to complete our questionnaire, be sure to check out our other Restaurant Partners: La Villa Trattoria, Matsu Sushi, Oaxaca Kitchen, Rizzuto’s Wood-Fired Kitchen and Bar, and Terrain Garden Café. Happy dining!

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