For Artistic Director Mark Lamos, Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse is about “becoming more cutting edge than perhaps it’s had a reputation of being.”
“It’s about forging an identity,” Lamos says. “One of the challenges is that it has ‘Westport’ in its title and ‘Country’ in its title, and we have a wider audience than just this very small town.”
Lamos has been Westport’s artistic head since 2009. He was artistic director of Connecticut’s Hartford Stage for 17 years, and a Tony nominee in 1991 for directing Our Country’s Good. Westport Country Playhouse traces its history to 1931, when Broadway producer Lawrence Langner bought an abandoned 1835 tannery and turned it into a Broadway-tryout theatre. It morphed into a home for summer stock, becoming a not-for-profit professional theatre in 1973. Oscar winner Joanne Woodward was artistic director from 2000 to 2005 (and interim co-artistic director in 2008).
“The wonderful thing that I inherited was a theatre that Joanne and [her husband] Paul Newman really re-did from the ground up,” Lamos says. “It was a theatre that was going to be razed. They saved it with a group of like-minded community members, took it down, and built a brand new theatre.”
Woodward “wanted to change the profile of the theatre when she took over to be something more like Williamstown [Theatre Festival] in the Berkshires, more serious theatre, more world premieres,” Lamos says. “That didn’t fly with an audience that had been raised on star vehicles in summer stock.”
Her vision is what is being carried out—that Westport Country Playhouse would become a theatre “that is about entertainment” but also about “giving voice to new voices, to supporting unusual programming occasionally”—work “that feeds your soul in a way that you didn’t expect,” Lamos says.
That’s what he means by “cutting edge,” he says. “Work that surprises you. That you may have thought you’re really not going to appreciate but that absolutely grabs you and you fall in love with. Work that validates you and yet takes you in new directions. If there’s a portion of the season that has that kind of artistry in it, that’s where I’m happy to live.”
This month’s play, he says, fits the definition. It’s Appropriate, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, about family secrets on an Arkansas plantation. A 2016 recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, Jacobs-Jenkins won a 2014 Obie for best new Off-Broadway play for both Appropriate and An Octoroon.
“I was overwhelmed by the play’s power,” Lamos says. It’s “not only in the great tradition of American family dramas, it explores new ground within that tradition.”
This season ends with Lamos directing Romeo and Juliet (October 31–November 19). There’s “not a minute in it you can take for granted,” Lamos says. “It’s endlessly surprising. It’s swift-moving. It’s fascinating on so many levels to me. And I hope I can pass that fascination on to an audience.”