Theater News

Joanne Woodward in Westport

The Oscar-winning actress takes over the reins of the Westport Country Playhouse.

Joanne Woodward is giving both the 69-year-old Westport Country Playhouse and her own long, scintillating career a brand new lease on life.

“I’ve been a supporter of the theater for many years but this is a whole new thing now,” Woodward says. “It’s a transitional period, because Jim McKenzie has retired after an incredible 40 years. He did a great job. But we want to do something different.”

At 27, Woodward won the Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve. A year later, she co-starred in The Long Hot Summer, the first of several films she made with Paul Newman–and she married her leading man. Between movies, there were plum Broadway roles and stage directing assignments. And, just last year, Woodward took over the reins of the prestigious Westport Country Playhouse, located in the Connecticut town where she and Newman have lived for most of their 42-year marriage.

The 70-year-old Woodward–who, despite a shock of gray hair, looks half her age–has embarked on an ambitious first summer season as co-chair of the theater’s artistic advisory board. Trying to break with the playhouse’s “summer stock” legacy of mounting mostly revivals, and taking initial steps toward making it a year-round regional theater, Woodward and her fellow board members have fashioned a summer slate that includes four new plays and one new musical. First up is a revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife (June 12-24), directed by Woodward. The summer season continues with Orson’s Shadow, a new play by Austin Pendleton (June 26-July 8). Then comes A.R. Gurney’s Ancestral Voices (July 10-22), starring Woodward and Newman during the second week of the run. Like Gurney’s Love Letters, Ancestral Voices only requires actors to read the play’s lines, rather than memorize them.

I asked Woodward if she thought she could have persuaded her husband to appear in a more conventional production. “Oh, no!” she laughingly replied. “Hey, listen, this is the best way to get him on stage–when we have the script in front of him!” Ancestral Voices will be succeeded by Triangles for Two (July 24-August 5), a world premiere comedy by David Wiltse; Morphic Resonance by Katherine Burger, to be directed by James Naughton (August 7-19); and Nicolette & Aucassin, a new musical with book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by David Friedman (August 28-September 9).

According to Janice Muirhead, the new artistic manager of the playhouse, “Having Joanne here gives us a lot of cachet. She is a genuine icon of the American film world. Not only that, she’s an incredible theater performer. She loves the theater–and this theater especially. So she very much wanted to put her imprint on it, yet in that collaborative, modest way of hers, which is the way that she functions best.”

Woodward would like the theater to again be perceived as the pre-Broadway tryout venue it once was. “This was a Theatre Guild theater, originally,” she notes. “It was owned by Lawrence Langner and [his wife] Amina Marshall. Years ago, 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. This was a tryout 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! That’s what the theater’s about.”

Lawrence Langner was head of the Theatre Guild, one of the most respected producers of plays on Broadway in the middle years of the 20th century. Langner had been searching in vain for a spot for a summer theater until he and actor-set designer Rollo Peters chanced upon a charming, old, red barn for sale just off the Boston Post Road in Westport. The Guild bought it and renovated it as a 500-seat playhouse, later expanding it to 800 seats. Their first production here, in 1931, was an 1857 relic called The Streets of New York It starred silent film icon Dorothy Gish, whose performance was described as “excellent” in a review in a local newspaper.


Woodward is respectful of the playhouse’s history. “Have you ever looked at these?” she asks me, calling my attention to posters of such past productions as Detective Story in 1955, The Miracle Worker in 1962, and The Subject Was Roses in 1966. “There’s another poster–I don’t know where it is–for Liliom. That was done here with Tyrone Power and Annabella, to whom he was married, and it was directed by Lee Strasberg. My God, I never knew that Lee was up here! That was in the 1930s.”

The lady is full of enthusiasm in talking about her plans for the theater. “For the first couple of years, we’ll operate just in the summer,” she says. “Eventually, hopefully, we will work year-round–but not necessarily all theater. We may do concerts, opera.” In addition to the emphasis on new works, Woodward will spearhead a drive for $10-million in capital funds with a view toward renovating the playhouse’s lighting, air-conditioning, and heating systems, etc.

“I’m bullish on the theater,” says Woodward, “because we’re gone past the whole television thing, in a way. We used to have terrible feelings about the fact that live TV was taking away all the good writers–but, of course, what it did was that it found a lot of writers. It was a place for them to work. Some of the greatest writers we have started in television.

“Actors and writers need to come back to the theater,” Woodward continues, “because it’s a place where you can learn. You have to pay your dues; and people who haven’t paid their dues in the theater, I think, have a hard time creating a whole career.”

Our talk shifts to the subject of film. “There aren’t a lot of movies for people our age,” Woodward remarks, “and 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 now: I like to direct and act occasionally on stage. Once in a while, I do television. It’s more likely that somebody my age can find a part in television.”

Has it sometimes been difficult, over the years, to work and live with a legend like Newman? “Yes,” Woodward says, “but it’s nice when you accomplish it. We’ve survived up until now!” Does she have any words of wisdom for other couples? “I wouldn’t begin to try and give anyone advice about staying married,” she replies. “A lot of it is luck. [Director] George Roy Hill once said, ‘Luck is an art.’ I think that’s true! It’s important if people are willing to give and take a little. And forgive.”

Woodward does impart one very practical bit of marital advice: Splitting up the household chores can be helpful. “Paul cooks, I clean up,” she says. “It works out that way. I used to cook–but now I don’t.” She also helps her husband with his Newman’s Own food company, which has donated more than $100 million to charity, including his Hole in the Wall Gang camps for sick children. And Newman is on the artistic advisory board of the playhouse, so he’s been around. The cast of The Constant Wife, in fact, got a big thrill when he joined them on the first day of rehearsal.

“Here we are in this studio in New York,” says Janice Muirhead, “and there’s Paul Newman, who came to be with Joanne. He went out and got coffee for everybody!”