Actress adds 'cachet' to playhouse

Film icon Joanne Woodward has big hopes for a little summer theater in Connecticut

Legendary Oscar-winning film star Joanne Woodward is giving the Westport Country Playhouse - and her own long and scintillating career - a brand new lease on life.

The energetic actress and director has embarked on an ambitious new role this summer as co-chairman of the theater's artistic advisory council. The 69-year-old playhouse is located in the Connecticut town Ms. Woodward and husband Paul Newman have called home for most of their 42 years of married life.

"The first couple of years, the theater will operate just in the summer," as it has in the past, Woodward says. "Eventually ... we will work year-round. Some of it, hopefully, will be concerts; maybe opera - mini- opera." Woodward will also lead a $10 million fund drive to pay for renovations.

"Having Joanne here is a real cachet," says Janice Muirhead, artistic manager of the playhouse. "She is a genuine icon of the American film world; she loves the theater - and this theater especially. She very much wanted to put her imprint on it - yet in that collaborative, modest way of hers."

In 1957, Woodward won the Oscar for Best Actress in "The Three Faces of Eve." A year later, she costarred in "The Long Hot Summer," the first of several classic films she made with Mr. Newman.

Between movies, there were plum Broadway roles and stage directing assignments.

In an interview with the Monitor in the green room of the Westport playhouse, festooned with playbills from past productions, including "Detective Story" (1955), "Miracle Worker" (1962), and "The Subject Was Roses" (1965), Woodward enthusiastically says that she wants to help return the playhouse to being the pre-Broadway "tryout" theater it once was - adding that the playhouse might even help produce plays on Broadway.

Westport's first show this season is a revival of W. Somerset Maugham's "The Constant Wife" (through June 24), which Woodward herself directed.

While his wife completely runs the "show," so to speak, Newman has provided some hands-on moral support. This came when the veteran film star joined his wife and the cast of "The Constant Wife," on their first day of rehearsal in early April. "Here we are in this rehearsal studio in New York City, and there's Paul Newman, who came to be with Joanne. And he goes out and came in with two paper bags full of cups of coffee!" Ms. Muirhead says.

After "The Constant Wife," Newman will costar with Woodward in a series of staged readings of "Ancestral Voices" (July 10-22) by A.R. Gurney, a sequel to his "Love Letters" play. Both will be "reading" instead of memorizing the lines from this Gurney play, just as they and many other actors have done with "Love Letters."

Apart from "Ancestral Voices," can Newman be persuaded to act in another play?

"Oh, no. No!" Woodward says with a laugh. "Hey, listen, this is the best way to get him on stage - when we have the script in front of him!"

Aside from his movie career and appearances at Westport, Newman is a member of the artistic advisory board of the theater and stays busy with his well-known charity work.

"I've been a supporter of the theater for many years," Woodward says, "but this is a whole new thing now because it's such a transition.... Jim McKenzie retired after an incredible 40 years. He did a great job. But we want to do something different."

Before the next question can be asked, Woodward pulls out some knitting needles and begins to work on a gray sweater. Then she begins to talk about the history of the Westport playhouse and why she's bullish about theater.

"This was a Theatre Guild theater, originally. It was owned by Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall [Mrs. Lawrence Langner]. At the time, early, early on, when they used to close the theaters in New York in the summertime because they didn't have air conditioning, people would come out here and this was a try-out place for new plays. I would love to see that happen again, because it's very exciting. You're taking chances; you're taking risks! But that's OK. That's what the theater's about. And I love the idea of it!"

Mr. Langner was head of the Theatre Guild, one of the most respected producers of plays on Broadway beginning in the 1920s. He had been searching for a spot for a summer theater until he and actor-set designer Rollo Peters came upon a charming old red barn for sale just off the Boston Post Road in Westport.

The Guild bought it and renovated it into a 500-seat playhouse, later expanding the facility to 700 seats. The first production in 1931 was an 1857 relic called "The Streets of New York," about the financial panic of 1837, aptly reflecting the panic that had broken out across the country in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, just two years before the playhouse opened. The play starred silent film star Dorothy Gish, who was described as "excellent" in a newspaper review at the time.

Regarding live theater, Woodward says, "We're past the whole television thing.

"We used to have terrible feelings about the fact that television was taking away all the good writers.... But of course what it did was [find] a lot of writers. It was a place for them to work."

Woodward says that some of the greatest writers for theater have started in TV. "And, now, I think there's so much going on in television; it's so fast, that we need to come back to the theater," she says.

Theater is "where an actor has to learn and where a writer has to learn. You have to pay your dues. And people who haven't paid their dues in the theater have a hard time creating a whole career...."

Woodward says the playhouse started the season with "The Constant Wife," a play written in 1926, "because we wanted to show there is great history at this theater.... We're trying to be adventurous."

The conversation then shifted to movies. "I was never terribly enamored of making movies. Mainly because I like to work on stage ..., I didn't make a lot of movies. Maybe 12. I'm very happy doing what I'm doing.... There aren't a lot of [movie roles] for people of our age," Woodward says without apparent regret. "I'm very happy doing what I'm doing."

*'The Constant Wife' at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Conn., will be followed by 'Orson's Shadow,' a new play by veteran Broadway actor Austin Pendelton, from June 26 to July 8; 'Ancestral Voices,' by A. R. Gurney, July 10-22; and 'Triangles for Two,' July 24-Aug. 5. For more information and a complete schedule, log onto

www.westportplayhouse.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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