Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It’s Not Where You Start…

by Patricia Blaufuss
Public Relations Manager

June 22, 2011

I began working at Westport Country Playhouse in the summer of 1985, replacing the assistant marketing director.  The young assistant, Howard Sherman, was off to Hartford Stage, taking a full-time job there as public relations manager. Howard’s career would later see him at the helm of many prestigious theaters, most recently as the executive director of the American Theatre Wing. 

With Howard leaving in mid-summer, the press and marketing director, Carole Cortese (now Claps), who knew me from doing freelance entertainment public relations, gave me a frantic call.  “Pat, you have to say ‘yes’ to this!!!  Could you come in and help out for the remainder of the summer season?  And, by the way, there’s a fall season this year as well.” I had attended the Playhouse often as an audience member, and loved it.  It hardly took me half a second to answer, “Sure!” 

And so began my long association (1985 – present) with WCP. I came back every summer to help Carole for a month or so after her assistant or intern left to take a full-time job or return to college.

When Carole moved on to a position as arts editor at the Westport News, Jim McKenzie, executive producer, appointed me WCP press and marketing director.  The press office became my summer home, starting in 1989 through 2000. 

The 20th Century didn’t come easy to the Playhouse….

The administrative offices were located on the second floor of the building adjacent to the theater.  In this space resided the small but mighty administrative staff through the 1990s:  executive producer and his assistant, general manager, bookkeeper, receptionist, and press and marketing director. 

This two-story structure was renovated in 2005. I’ll give you an approximation of the “before and after.”

The office of Jim McKenzie, executive producer, is currently managing director Michael Ross’s office; that of the former general manager (Julie Monahan in the ‘90s) is now associate artistic director David Kennedy’s office. These spaces face the theater building. There was a part-time bookkeeper in a tiny cubbyhole between the two offices (currently artistic advisor Annie Keefe’s perch) and a receptionist in the lobby (now the desk of Kim Furano, management and artistic associate).

Below the admin offices were the resident scenic designer’s office, scene shop, properties shop and the paint area.  Actually, most of the scenic painting was done outside in the alley between the offices and the theater – when it didn’t rain.

“Before” – Press Office, 1992

“After” – Mark Lamos’ Office, 2011

The press office where I resided (currently artistic director Mark Lamos’ office) was located on the Post Road side of the building.  There was a dropped ceiling with a weak fluorescent lamp encased in aged Plexiglas. The office was painted in chipped blue with assorted carpet patches scattered across the floor.

Every warm summer morning, I’d climb the stairs to the admin offices and prop open the screen door behind me while I turned my key in the weather-beaten wooden door.  The flimsy lock was about as secure as a tent. The screen door slammed behind me with a weary bang.  A waft of dank, musty air greeted me.  Ah, yes.  Here I was---at summer camp for adults. 

The office furniture was a conglomeration of mismatched desks, tables, chairs, filing cabinets and lamps, in varying states of distress.  There were no computers or fax machines.  The first fax machine arrived as a donation in 1990.  We had a primitive copier. Most of the typewriters were electric, but had no memory or correction features.  A press release usually was hand-written and then typed in final form.  We upgraded to a few Smith Corona word-processors with small, built-in, flip-top monitors in the late ‘80s.  Of course without email, all press releases had to be photocopied, folded, stuffed in envelopes, and envelopes labeled, sealed and posted.  And then there were individual, black and white photos to accompany the press releases.  Oh, the time consumed in completing this labor-intensive task.

But all these inconveniences pale to the fact that there was no plumbing in the building.  We had to leave the building and walk over to the green room under the theater to access restrooms.  One time a visitor to the business office on a Saturday asked if she could use the bathroom.  The answer was “no” because no one was around with a key to the green room.  “But there’s a gas station across the street.”


These conditions in the 1980s and 1990s were probably minor in comparison to earlier years when the big concern every day was how much ice to order.  With no mechanical air-conditioning, the theater was cooled by fans blowing over ice.  You can still see vintage posters in the lobby boasting, “Air-cooled.”

The state of the old Playhouse prior to the 2005 renovation was sad, but in a sweet way. Sure, the old barn was falling apart.  We all knew it.  With a meager summer stock budget, everything was fixed with a band-aid approach.  But we had a real survival instinct---because we loved the place.  The spirit and the tenacity were there, especially from our leader, Jim McKenzie. “Don’t worry, we’ll get through it,” he would say. There was a strong camaraderie among the staff to pull together and keep the Playhouse going – overriding the many, many challenges.  It was a sentimental journey.

Click here to learn more about the Playhouse's storied history.

Curious about the actors who've graced our stage?  Learn more on the Playhouse website.


Connie said...

Nice article, Pat. ...great accomplishment and wonderful contribution to the Playhouse!

- Connie

Howard Sherman said...

What a lovely piece, and not just because I appear in the first paragraph. Things have certainly evolved at Westport, not least the fact that, as you note, I left the Playhouse to work at Hartford Stage -- for Mark Lamos and with Mike Ross, who now lead the Playhouse.

You might be interested to know that I brought a bit of modernity to the Playhouse during my two summers there, in that I came to work every day with what was at the time the theatre’s first and only computer. This portable unit, which I purchased in college, was the 26-pound Kaypro II, a trendsetter at the time, now long forgotten and discarded. It was a thing of wonder to all who visited Carole and me in the press office.

Times do change, and I’m looking forward to seeing Mark’s TWELFTH NIGHT most especially this season. It’s a long way from the fare when I was there, which included RUN FOR YOUR WIFE.

P.S. I didn’t leave midsummer -- the Playhouse extended into the fall that year, and I wrapped up with the regular summer season in order to start at Hartford just after Labor Day, 1985.