Westport Country Playhouse faces uncertain future post pandemic
The Westport Country Playhouse will soon be heading into its 90th anniversary season — but any celebratory plans could be in danger if the historic theater can’t raise the money it needs to keep going.
COVID-19 has caused the closing of the theater since mid-March and all Playhouse 2020 programming has been moved to 2021, including the season’s five main productions, Script in Hand play reading series, Family Festivities presentations, and the New Works Initiative.
“We canceled all of our programming for 2020, which increasingly feels like the right decision, as more and more theaters who have seasons that start in the fall are now starting to grapple with whether they can start those seasons or not,” said Gretchen Wright, the Playhouse’s director of development. “Our focus has been on what kind of creative virtual programing we can offer for both educational and artistic purposes.”
But while that goes on, the worry is, the Playhouse won’t have the funds to keep going for 2021 and is looking to raise $1.6 million to keep its doors open and continue offering some of the best theater and entertainment in the area.
“We are a community-based, nonprofit regional theater, and our region is everything between Greenwich and New Haven, and we’ve been at this location for 90 years,” said Michael Barker, the Playhouse’s managing director. “The importance of this to the region is that artistic individuals make up a disproportional amount of the character of our region. The Playhouse is longstanding and plays an incredible part of that ecosystem. The notion that we could close down permanently because of a pandemic just doesn’t stand up to mustard.”
Therefore, the Playhouse established a Survival Fund as an effort to sustain the nonprofit theater through the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s hard money to raise because we can only offer virtual programming to our audiences,” Wright said. “We hope to increase gifts from people who usually give to the Playhouse or motivate new donors to come into the web of support.”
Already, some generous supporters have stepped up. Darien’s Maureen and Edwin Schloss have pledged to match dollar for dollar any donations that come in through July 4 up to $250,000.
“This magnificently generous matching gift from two longtime supporters of the Playhouse has really put the wind into our sails and lifted us up in terms of hope for the future and our ability to bring our audiences the currently postponed 2020 season next summer,” said Mark Lamos, Playhouse artistic director. “The passion behind Maureen and Ed’s generosity will, we are sure, be matched by our trustees, our community, our single ticket buyers, as well as loyal subscribers. All our hopes now rest on the generosity of people who will step up to this match.”
In an effort to help, 30 members of the Playhouse’s board of trustees have committed to raising $10,000 each before July 4, with a competition among them to reach their individual goal.
Established in 1931, the Playhouse has only ever been closed because of World War II, shuttering operations from 1942-1945. The Playhouse produces new works, musicals, classics, and in recent years has returned to new play development as a primary artistic expression, something that the Playhouse has been involved in since it first opened its doors.
“It started as sort of a tryout house for Broadway shows and over the 90 years have gone through a number of leadership changes and identity shifts, but always remained in the footprint that it’s now in,” Wright said. “When people hear Westport, they know about the Playhouse being there. It has such a connection to Broadway and some really talented stars.”
Through the years, actors such as Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Gene Wilder, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh, Jane Curtin and Joanne Woodward (who also served as artistic director) have performed on stage. Legendary composer Stephen Sondheim started as an intern there.
“Something we think of a lot in moments like these, is we also serve as a community gathering space beyond the artistic expression of our mission,” Barker said. “Beyond our identity, it’s a place people can encounter other people from their community.”
For instance, the Artistic Collective in Westport uses the rehearsal hall as its gallery space and Moffy Media presents its Light a Fire Awards annually in the space every year.
He asks that everyone think about the Playhouse’s impact on their lives and community and to remember that time when you came to a show and were moved.
“If you’ve attended a performance at our space, the likelihood is that you’ve had a cathartic experience with us,” Barker said. “And we can’t wait to be back on our feet, providing those experiences again and welcome people back into our space and share that sacred thing that is live theater in front of a live audience.”
Barker noted the fundraising is going pretty well and he’s been very moved by the reaction from the community.
“Sometimes you put out a big fundraiser appeal and you have to spend a lot of time justifying it to the people you are asking for the money,” he said. “In this moment, you didn’t have to explain this one. They know why we are asking and they know how important this is.”
Tax deductible contributions to the Survival Fund can be donated at westportplayhouse.org/donate or by texting WCPMATCH to 71777.