Many theaters throughout the country, forced to deal with the ever-changing climate brought on by the pandemic, have turned its viewership online. The Westport Country Playhouse, which just announced its 2021 season, and tentative plans for its 2022 lineup, is without exception. Mark Lamos, who has served as Artistic Director at the theater since 2009, has embraced the challenge of creating engaging, classic and new works of theater for this new medium. As someone who understands that theater is a vital contributor to the economy of people’s hearts and minds, Lamos and his stellar team of directors, guest artists and collaborators hope that this virtual platform will reach to a wider audience and be more enriched for it. “We are embracing a steep but exciting learning curve and will be working with top-notch professionals who’ve produced some great work for other nonprofit theaters,” Lamos tells us.
As Playhouse director, Lamos is used to being the head and center of it all—good and bad. Naturally, Lamos longs for the collaborative, in-person process. “I really miss is being in a room with artists making a performance, discovering how to bring a text or a song or an aria to vivid life through collaboration with them,” he says, “all of us together. A community.” Who would not applaud such honesty? He adds that some good surprises that have come out of this situation. “There’s a lot about this past year that’s made me quietly happy,” he says lightly. “For one, not to be yoked to constant deadlines: meetings, casting sessions, first rehearsals, opening nights and, of course, the near-constant crises, great and small, that are a backstage part of the performing arts. Also, unlike some folks, I think there has been improved communication via Zoom, also an economy of time in decision-making.”
Moving forward, Lamos might even continue with some of the Covid-related habits. “I’m hoping we keep trustee meetings on Zoom, since absolutely everybody shows up and it’s easy for folks to stay home and be present solving Playhouse issues together,” he says.
Lamos has also experienced a deeper connection to life at home, something we truly all might have taken for granted pre-Covid. “I haven’t missed the commute by car from home and rail from New York,” he remarks. “I’ve loved being home with my husband and the dog, taking daily walks as the seasons changed and reading more than ever.”
The all-virtual season will open in June with a new comedy, Tiny House, written by Michael Gotch and directed by Lamos. It tells the story of a group of friends congregating in a remote, mountain retreat for a Fourth of July BBQ —yes, social distance and Covid pods are encouraged in this play. “I chose Tiny House because I wanted the world to see this play I so believe in,” Lamos says, “but also because, in a sense, the play is about people who escape the grid of their lives and move away from the world into a world of their own. It strikes a chord right now as so many people have departed from urban areas and moved to the countryside or suburbia.”
Next up, the Tony Award-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: A Parable, which will be directed by the Playhouse Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy in the fall. Doubt, which was adapted into a film in 2008 starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a drama surrounding a parish nun and a seedy priest engaging in a duel of morals and sedition. “I had chosen Doubt long before the pandemic struck because of a cab ride I was sharing in the city with an actress friend of mine who’d played the lead in a couple regional productions. She spoke passionately about the audience-actor dialogues that followed every performance she’d been in. I asked, “Really?” She answered, “This subject matter is very much alive for Catholics everywhere—and even non-Catholics. To audiences, it’s not subject matter—in fact, it’s life.” That’s all I needed to hear. Got back to Connecticut, read the play, programmed it.”
Intermixed between these two heavy-hitters will be four “Script in Hand” play readings, and archived, HD video showings of 2018’s Man of La Mancha, with one other archived show to be announced. As for what this new online medium will look like, Lamos shares with us its unique details. “We are embracing a steep but exciting learning curve,” he says. “It’s not going to be theater, not going to be a Zoom, not going to be a film. It’s something new, and the actors will be seen from all sides and in the settings. For Tiny House, each of the actors will be filmed in their own spaces in Brooklyn, Palm Beach and Newark, Delaware, the scene of the premiere two years ago. Then their images will be joined together in a storyboard with stunning art direction, sound design, etc. I’ve decided to turn any limitations into possibilities. A brave new world for me to work in with actors and a script I love.”
Though the resolve of the pandemic remains to be seen, Lamos hopes that its postponed musicals, Next to Normal and Ain’t Misbehavin’, will hit the stage at some point in 2022. As for addressing the modern-day question: Will theater ever be the same? Mark’s answer confirms how many theater artists feel: “Theater will always be important. We love seeing our lives onstage. It’s exhilarating to be part of a group making contact with performers in the same space. Sitting in the dark, together, listening and watching as one. Being part of a community with artists performing especially and only for us. Every performance differs depending in large part on the audience present. There is nowhere else you can experience that feeling.”
To learn more about other plans for the season, including free-of-charge events, classes, pre- and post-performance events and other announcements, go to westportplayhouse.org/2021virtual.