Westport Country Playhouse
Image of Westport Country Playhouse which is a red barn building.
Westport Country Playhouse
Map
Address25 Powers Court
Westport
USA
Coordinates41°08′30″N 73°21′17″W / 41.1416°N 73.3548°W / 41.1416; -73.3548
TypeRegional theatre
Capacity578
Construction
Opened29 June 1931
ArchitectEdwin Howard
Website
www.westportplayhouse.org

Westport Country Playhouse is a not-for-profit regional theater in Westport, Connecticut.

It was founded in 1931 by Lawrence Langner, a New York theater producer. Langner remodeled an 1830s tannery with a Broadway-quality stage.

History

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.[1] Charles H. Kemper acquired the tannery from Henry Haight's widow in 1866 and subsequently renamed the business C.H. Kemper Co.[1]

In 1930, the former tannery, which had been unused since the 1920s, was purchased for $14,000 by Lawrence Langner.[citation needed] Cleon Throckmorten, a Broadway designer, was commissioned to renovate the interior of the building.[2]

Grand opening

On June 29, 1931, the curtain went up on the first production at the Westport Country Playhouse.[3] The Playhouse quickly became an established stop on the New England "straw hat circuit" of summer stock theaters.

Twentieth century

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, wife of actor Paul Newman, who served as artistic director from 2000 through 2005, following an 18-month, multi-million dollar renovation. 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.[4]

Present day

The theater is under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos.

Charity Navigator awarded its top 4-star charity rating to the Playhouse in recognition of its strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency.

Building

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.[5]

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.[6] 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 continued to contribute to the Westport Country Playhouse's "Campaign for a New Era".

Seating

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:

Several seats in both the orchestra and mezzanine can be removed or modified to be wheelchair accessible.[7]

Stage

The Playhouse's fly gallery

Education

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.[8][9]

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.[8]

The rehearsal room of the Playhouse

Notable performers

Main article: List of Westport Country Playhouse performers

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, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Allinson, and Jane Fonda.

Technical

Fly system

Prior to the 2003-2005 renovation, the "Old Barn" was still a "hemp house"- with steel pipe battens suspended from fiber ropes, counterweighted by canvas sandbags. The supporting grid in the fly loft was constructed of heavy wood timbers. Stagehands operated that fly system from a gallery located stage right, above the stage manager's podium.

The Westport Country Playhouse currently 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 m), with an effective fly range from 3 feet 10 inches (1.17 m) to 38 feet (12 m). Each arbor is 6 feet tall with a capacity for 1,200 pounds (540 kg). The locking rail is on the stage right wall, and the loading bridge is 32 feet 3 inches (9.83 m) 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.[7]

Some stage lighting instruments of the Playhouse

Lighting

Lighting is controlled from a Strand 520 console in a control booth at the back of the house. For technical rehearsals, a control position can be set up in the center of the theatre.

The Westport Country Playhouse's stage lighting instruments include:

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.[7]

References

  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Spotlight on Nonprofit Theater
  5. ^ The Drawer Boy Program. Westport, Connecticut: New Mass Media. 22 June 2006.
  6. ^ "Town Trivia Quiz" Question 2, Westport Weston Magazine, September 2008, pp. 62, 72, retrieved December 22, 2008
  7. ^ a b c d Smith, Victor W. (5 July 2006). Technical Information. Westport, Connecticut: Westport Country Playhouse.
  8. ^ a b Westport Country Playhouse home page
  9. ^ Levine to be feted Sunday before Ailey dance program. Westport News (2013-03-05). Retrieved on 2013-08-16.

Further reading