Westport Country Playhouse has started a $2 million fundraiser campaign in an effort to revitalize the struggling theater, which has cut staffing, shortened runs of productions, and cut shows entirely from their season.
The plan, entitled “Reimagined: Save Your Playhouse,” is intended to raise the $2 million by July 30.
“We did see this coming,” said Athena Adamson, chairwoman of the playhouse’s board of trustees. “A lot of theaters are facing this right now.”
Last week, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles canceled their 2023-24 season. The official reason is the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Locally, some theaters are just getting back on their feet after nearly four years of hiatus. Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury had their first mainstage production in three years in March, and Goodspeed Musicals is just opening their Norma Terris Theatre for the first time in three and a half years.
Westport, meanwhile, has had to cancel its production of Antigone and School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play. Their production of Dial M for Murder has been postponed for several months and will now open July 11.
“Our hope is to replace School Girls with something that is more cost affective, but also will appeal to our audience,” Adamson said.
She said she doesn’t know what will replace School Girls yet, but hopes they’ll have something decided by the end of July with it filling their slot for a show in October.
“Right now our focus is on fundraising,” she said. “We have people in the community reaching out who want to help. We have a board that is rallying. I’m hopeful in the next few weeks we’ll have positive updates on this. We really want to connect the playhouse with people across the area. We want to engage with the community. We care about what you want to see on stage. The more that message gets out the more in the long run that helps the campaign.”
Adamson said there has been a change in the demographics of the theatergoing community at Westport and that the theater has to adapt to have the theater appeal to this new audience.
“We love the audience we do have, but we want to expand it,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of young families move up from the city the last few years. Many of them are not into serious plays and high-end theater. Some of them are. It’s important for us to, in the next year, have a lot of different kinds of excellent performances.
“I’m really interested in hearing from the people in the community who haven’t been here in awhile,” she said, “what they’re missing and what they want to see. It’s important information for us to have.”
Picking plays and musicals that will appeal to both old and new patrons is only part of what Westport is looking to do to draw in audiences.
Adamson said they are going to schedule more one-night events like the Patti LuPone cabaret concert last week that sold out weeks ahead of time.
Ideas in the works include cabarets, staged readings, and comedy shows, she said.
“We hope over the next several months we will get a strong footing,” she said.
Up until this year, Westport’s long-run productions would run four weeks, but they cut that down to three due to poor ticket sales.
“We were not sure we could sell out four weeks and we cut it back to three,” Adamson said. “We were already seeing these changes last year.”
Along with raising money to keep the lights on at the theater, Adamson and the board are in the middle of a search for a new artistic director. The current artistic director, Mark Lamos, announced his retirement a month ago after 15 years with the theater. His scheduled last day is Jan. 15, 2024.
“We’ve known for some time he was going to retire,” Adamson said. “It was no huge surprise. He’s been fantastic. We have the utmost respect for all the work he has done. Having an artistic leader whether it be interim or long term, we need to pick the right person for the direction the playhouse is headed in.”
Nothing has been firmly set, but she said she hopes to have good news in the next several weeks regarding a new artistic director.
Adamson said Westport’s intention is to have their new vision for the theater take form by the fall of next year, but sees no reason why, with the right funding, it can’t be accomplished earlier.
“We have every intention of continuing with world class theater in 2024,” she said. “We’re not taking theater away from the playhouse. We want to add more things we think will appeal to the audience.”
Everything depends on how the fundraising campaign goes, Adamson said and by January the theater will have a clear plan of who the guest artists on their roster for cabarets, talk series, readings, and other one-night events.
“By January, we hope to have a lot of that lined up in detail,” she said. “I’m optimistic. I think this theater is a treasure of Westport and has been for 93 years and I’d like to see it continue to be.”