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Dressing Room: Homegrown and Growing

From the moment you walk into Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant, nestled just steps away from the Playhouse, it is clear that, for owner Chef Michel Nischan, food is about much more than a meal. From the exquisite and ever-evolving homegrown menu to the group of local regulars enjoying the wine selection at the dark-wood bar, this chef, cookbook author and sustainable food pioneer has found a way to use his talents in the kitchen to help create a sense of community, both here in Westport and, through his non-profit organization Wholesome Wave, across the country.

In 2007, just a year after founding Dressing Room with the help of actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, Chef Nischan partnered with Gus Schumacher to found Wholesome Wave, which now operates its Double Value Coupon Program in 20 states with over 30 nonprofit program partners.

“I came to the realization that a truly local and sustainable food system could only become a scalable reality if all Americans could afford to participate. Dressing Room's local food program is only available to those who can afford to make more healthful and environmentally thoughtful food choices,” said Chef Nischan. “I wanted to see a new reality where everyone had the ability to enjoy the same ingredients we use to create Dressing Room's menu. In short, I wanted everyone to be able to afford a great tomato.’’

This October, Wholesome Wave teamed up with New Orleans-based nonprofit group MarketUmbrella to assist fishing Gulf families that were devastated by the Deep Horizons oil spill. Together, they created MarinersMatch, which allows those families on food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) and other government food assistance programs to receive $40 worth of farmers market tokens with the presentation of their fishing license when they purchase food from local farmers.

"Fishers can go to farmers markets and take pressure off their income. The market is a place of social healing, and a safe place to bring kids and form relationships with the community and farmers," Chef Nischan told the website Eatocracy. In addition, MarinersMatch has partnered with local cultural organizations to provide discounts to fisherman and their families. "These people are sorely and desperately in need of a break," he explained to Eatocracy. "Going to these places will get them out of the environment that reminds them of all the damage."

Chef Nischan brings this same sense of community building into every aspect of Dressing Room Restaurant. Their January menu, which he plans with head chef Jon Vaast, will feature not only the local heirloom American fair that this Westport hotspot has become famous for, but a weekly offering of special deals and musical performances that are sure to bring a little warmth into the community. “My talented chef and I work together to follow the seasonal trends, as well as new ideas or products being offered by our valued farmers and producers. We often find inspiration at the Westport Farmers Market,” explained Chef Nischan.

Click here to make reservations and to call to find out what is going on at Dressing Room this month.

Kim Furano, Artistic & Management Associate  


  Mark Lamos at Primary Stages

As the Playhouse takes a bit of a breather to prepare for our 2011 season, Artistic Director Mark Lamos is hard at work in New York, gearing up for the world premiere of A.R. Gurney’s Black Tie at Primary Stages. Black Tie will mark the fifth production that he has directed penned by the beloved Connecticut playwright.

What keeps bringing these two together? “Pete [Gurney] is prolific, he writes every day – just as [Tennessee] Williams did,” Mark explained. “Perhaps he keeps asking me because my background is completely different than his. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, the child of working class parents, a first generation Slovak. Perhaps it’s our different heritage that makes our collaborations so productive. Whatever it is, I am always hugely flattered when he asks me to do his latest.”

The differences in heritage, and ergo values and family traditions, make for a fruitful collaboration on this Gurney piece, a play that Mark calls both “very funny and very touching, almost in equal measure.” “It’s about how the values you grew up with shape you –how you try to break away from them if they become constricting – but also how those values can be re-interpreted to continue to serve you no matter what.”

Primary Stages, an off-Broadway company devoted to new work is the perfect place to develop this piece about family and values. “The people who run it are generous and thoughtful and kind,” said Mark. “There is always a lovely, warm feeling about working there, which I value enormously.”

Not only does Mark value working with Gurney and at Primary Stages, but with the incredibly talented cast as well. He previously worked with two of its members, Gregg Edelman and Daniel Davis. Black Tie also features Ari Brand, who was recently seen as “Peter” in the Playhouse’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank. “[Brand is] one of the most exciting young actors in the business,” he said. ‘We’re very lucky to have him complete our onstage family as a recent Playhouse alum.”

And just how does Mark manage to the busy days of the Artistic Director of major regional theater and maintain a fruitful career as a director? A self-described “theater anomaly: a morning person,” he counts on his ability to constantly switch gears and re-focus. “I enjoy free-lancing in New York, since most of our Westport plays rehearse there, and I can actually check in. But also, it’s important that I work elsewhere occasionally – it feeds my leadership of the Playhouse, but also widens my horizons as an artist.”

Primary Stages’ production of Black Tie opens at 59E59 Theaters on January 25, 2011 and runs through March 20.

Marissa L. Friedman, Education Intern


 Sponsor Spotlight: Cohen & Wolf, P.C.

Founded in 1951, the law firm of Cohen and Wolf is an active member of Fairfield County. Cohen and Wolf attorneys are involved with many charitable, cultural and civic organizations, as well as legislative and educational bodies across the state. When this community-minded firm decided to bring its practice to Westport, local managing partner and Playhouse subscriber Richard Slavin couldn’t think of a more natural partnership than with what he dubs “a real jewel in the crown of Westport.”

“The prestige that the Playhouse adds to a marketing program should be underemphasized. It has been around for 80 years and almost every prominent actor has appeared there,” said Rick, who now serves on the Playhouse Board of Trustees. “The educational program should appeal to any business which wants to give back to the community. “

Cohen & Wolf’s relationship with the Playhouse began six years when the Playhouse had just embarked on its major renovation and revitalization. At the time, the firm, originally located only in Bridgeport was looking to expand its practice to a fully staffed office in Westport and decided to expand its marketing program to increase its visibility in the area. As the Playhouse started its renovation, Cohen and Wolf knew that the new energy and vitality surrounding the renovated theater was a natural to facilitate their involvement with the Westport community.

As the first season of the newly renovated Playhouse started production in 2005, Cohen and Wolf became the sponsor of the Playhouses 75th anniversary season re-opening Gala. The firm would go on to sponsor many of our productions, including Old Wicked Songs, Relatively Speaking and Hot ‘n Cole.

Six years later, the mutually beneficial relationship between Cohen and Wolf and the Playhouse is still going strong. In 2010, the firm sponsored the Playhouse production of The Diary of Anne Frank. This play was particularly meaningful to the firm as it created the opportunity to foster a deeper relationship with the community through a variety of ancillary programs, student matinees and education initiatives. The Playhouse hosted over 3,000 students from 45 different schools and groups. The production and programming received terrific feedback from school groups and the firm was proud to be part of introducing Anne Frank to many students who were previously unfamiliar with her story.

2011 will mark Cohen and Wolf’s 60th anniversary and they have already stepped up to be a corporate sponsor of Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare. The Playhouse is grateful to be in partnership with such a dedicated community leader.

Meghan Moorlach, Development Coordinator


 Spotlight on Small Business: Castle Wine & Spirits

Bottles and bottles of red wines and white wines neatly line each shelf inside Castle Wine & Spirits in Westport. From each a soft whisper calls to me through the corks. “Pick me. Drink me. Take me home with you, I’ll show you a good time,” the bottles seem to say.

 I like wine—quite a bit actually. The sights and smells and sounds of a wine shop, whether real or imagined by my theatrical mind, can become quite daunting though. A very expressive nose of dark cherries and plums? Well, ok. Pure, silky raspberry fruit, followed by notes of iron, tobacco and semisweet chocolate? I do like chocolate, but iron and tobacco? In the same way I don’t speak Spanish or Italian, I don’t speak wine.

Lucky for me, the folks at Castle do. Every bottle in their 6,000 square foot store has been swirled, sipped and sampled by owners Greg Carlon and Chris Vellozzi and their staff. Even more impressive? The fact that they carry over 1,500 types of wines and spirits. That’s a lot of tasting.

“It’s a joy coming to work,” Chris says with a smile.

As a small business owner, Chris loves being able to work with other small businesses and non-profits in the community, including Westport Country Playhouse. Four years ago, Chris and Greg were approached by the Playhouse about a new and innovative event the Marketing department was creating for the coming season. On the first preview of each show, always a Tuesday, ticket buyers would be offered a pre-show wine tasting of new, affordable wines from Castle. The idea was that the Playhouse would be able to draw in patrons the theater on a traditionally low-subscribed night with a discounted ticket price that included this exciting event and Castle would be able to introduce new, value oriented customers to some great wines. And thus, Taste of Tuesday was born.

Because of the high demand, Taste of Tuesday has turned into a subscriber- only event and become one of the most heavily subscribed performances in each run. On Castle’s end, they are able to start new relationships with Playhouse patrons.

Chris does admit that owning a small business is always a challenge, but for him the positive always outweigh the negative. He believes the biggest problem in the small business world is having and keeping good a good staff, a problem he and Greg have not encountered at Castle. Their philosophy is not ask their “top notch” employees to do anything he and Greg wouldn’t do. From cleaning the bathrooms to loading cases of wine in the back of a customer’s Volvo, they all do it all.

Not all work at Castle is cleaning toilets and lifting boxes. Last spring Chris and Greg took their employees to Kentucky to do the famous bourbon trail. Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve all in one trip? Enough to make this theater girl seriously consider a change in career.

At Castle, it’s the relationships that take precedence. Getting to know customers, their likes and dislikes, their personalities, is what’s most rewarding. Chris encourages his patrons to tell him when they don’t like something just as much as when they do like something. After learning tastes, the staff can then make recommendations and expand customers’ knowledge and palette.

As a small business, Castle Wine & Spirits is able to put for the time and effort to start and maintain meaningful relationships with their customers. And for some, it all begins with, “I tried this great wine at the Playhouse…”

Camara McLaughlin, Marketing Intern


2010: A Year in Review

As we gear up for the exciting 2011 season at the Playhouse, we now take a moment to look back at our spectacular 80th Anniversary Season.

In 2010, the Playhouse….

...Brought over 55,000 people through the theater doors and welcomed a total of 250 artists with our mainstage productions, readings, special events and rentals.

...Produced a 5-play mainstage season, totaling 120 performances, and featuring 34 actors, who boasted 7 Tony Award nominations, 7 Drama Desk Award nominations and at least 12 appearances on the various incarnations of "Law & Order."

... Used 10,000 screws, 15,000 fabric staples and over 50,000 nails to build the production sets in our scene shop.

...Presented 10 student matinees, which brought 4,400 students from 35 schools in Fairfield, New Haven, and Westchester counties to the Playhouse.

...Welcomed 22 speakers and experts for post-show symposiums, including the 18 events in our “Window onto History: Perspectives on The Diary of Anne Frank” programming series.

...Opened its doors to 139 community and nonprofit organizations for meetings & events.

...Sold over 450 bags of M&M’s, 2,500 bottles of water and 1,000 glasses of wine through our concession stand.

Beth Huisking
Associate Director of Marketing

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