Woog’s World: Westport’s artist colony roots thrives at the Westport Community Theatre
Westport’s rich legacy as an “artists’ colony” has always been broad and deep. The term includes not just painters and watercolorists but illustrators and cartoonists. We’ve been a home — and inspiration — to photographers and writers, musicians and dancers, and of course actors and actresses.
Are we still an artists’ colony? That’s a good question. Men and women still paint, draw and sculpt in their home studios (though the number who make their living that way has dwindled). The Westport Arts Center thrives, in all its multimedia glory. Frederic Chiu and Jeanine Esposito host innovative salons under the Beechwood Arts umbrella (and near a towering beech tree). Our five movie theaters have shrunk to zero, but a Westport Cinema Initiative is slowly trying to change that. The Westport Country Playhouse continues to provide live performances — and it’s no longer limited to the summer months.
All of those art forms and outlets are well known. But flying under the radar is the Westport Community Theatre. It’s been part of our arts scene for decades. Those who have found it appreciate — even love — it. Of course, you have to know where to look.
The best place to search is the basement of Town Hall. There — not in the auditorium above, but in a converted room below — the WCT offers five plays a year. Audiences are loyal, and for good reason. The shows are entertaining, and (because this is Westport) very professionally done.
It’s not just the acting. Costumes, sets, light, sound — all the elements of theater combine to produce entertaining evenings. At a fraction of the cost of Broadway (and parking is free).
That professionalism includes the writing. Consider an upcoming event: an original play by the multi-talented Eric Burns.
A former longtime Westporter who has been a prolific author, Fox News Watch media analyst, Entertainment Tonight commentator, and social historian — he’s also a playwright. Burns’ first effort, “Mid-Strut,” won the Eudora Welty Emerging Playwrights Competition in 2010.
Now he’s written “Rise and Fall.” He says it is “the tale of a marriage that falls apart after 35 years. It’s rare in life for something that endures so long to reach an unexpected conclusion. The reasons, as presented onstage, are always thought-provoking and sometimes witty. But the lives of Jake and Suzanne Hollander are marred not only by the end of their marriage, but by sudden tragedy, and the suspicion that a second tragedy may have occurred half a world away.”
It’s a labor of love. Last summer, Burns wandered into the WCT. Cindy Hartog — artistic director of education programs, and a veteran board member — was working on the theater’s kids camp program. The playwright wanted to speak to someone about a script he’d written, which he’d never heard read out loud.
Normally, no one would be in the theater at that time. But she was, and thought the meeting was “meant to be.” She liked his description of the play. She read it, liked it, and agreed to cast it.
The assembled group read the play for Eric at Hartog’s Westport home. A concert reading followed at WCT, to get feedback from local directors. Burns then made some significant changes, resulting in a far different version of the play.
Now a new cast has chosen. Burns and Hartog selected two superb directors: Rachel Babcock and Lori Holm. The new cast includes actors who have become WCT favorites. The lead spent many seasons on “All My Children.”
No one is paid. For all, it’s a labor of love.
“Rise and Fall” will be performed only twice — and just once at the WCT. The date is Friday, March 10. The other performance is in Southington, on April 2.
Burns’ play is not one of the WCT’s five mainstage shows. It’s part of the WCT’s experimental theater series. Hartog’s educational theater program includes improv classes for adults and kids. She also runs WCT Juniors, a process-oriented program for children and teens that encourages confidence, fun and social skills through drama. Older and younger kids work together — just as actors of all ages come together on the community theater stage to provide entertaining, thought-provoking plays for audiences fortunate enough to find their way to the Town Hall basement.
The Westport Community Theatre is a local treasure. In addition to its shows (both traditional and experimental), and the training it provides (both on and backstage), the WCT has donated funds to locally based organizations like the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, Save the Children and even the Westport Country Playhouse.
You may never have heard of the Westport Community Theatre. Perhaps it’s not too late for a New Year’s resolution: Go check it out.
(For tickets to “Rise and Fal,” and more information, email WCTJuniors@gmail.com).