The Art of Constructing a Season

The Art of Constructing a Season


by Rosemary Cass ~

To say that I had lunch with Mark Lamos is perhaps a bit of a stretch. His flight arrived late and he was eating his turkey chili as we spoke, before leaving for an event with the governor. A man with a lot on his plate — no pun intended — he could not have been more gracious. He makes it onto my list of the nicest and most interesting people to speak with.

Lamos has been the artistic director of the Westport Playhouse for over three years, and each year has been better than the previous year. Subscriptions and single ticket sales have increased, and the Playhouse has more of a presence in the community. “We’re doing much more outreach because we want to broaden and diversify our audience. We’re doing a lot to bring in people who maybe thought it was too elitist here or it was just summer stock. Everyone loves the Playhouse and the fact that it’s here, but a lot of people have had problems with its identity,” he says. “I want them to understand they’re going to see really high quality theater, thoughtfully and beautifully produced with care, and cast with superb actors and that it’s not going to be fly by night or just a star vehicle for somebody, just a bit of fluff. The summer stock label still clings to the Playhouse and it hasn’t been a summer stock theater for over a decade or longer.”WestportPlayhouseLamosonstepsreduced

I wanted to know how he goes about putting a season together. Is there a plan? How does the process begin? Lamos answers, “There is a plan, but it starts with the budget.” (I should have known. Doesn’t it always?) “Michael Ross, my managing director, and I talk about what we can afford in terms of the whole season and that determines the numbers of actors we can hire for five productions and then knowing that number I get together with David Kennedy, our associate artistic director; Kim Furano, our artistic coordinator here; Annie Keefe, the former artistic director from when Joanne Woodward was director; and David Dreyfoos, the production director, and we have meetings that we schedule throughout the spring and summer.”

Their goal is to have a season in place by the second show of the year. So they work very carefully and hard, looking for plays and musicals that excite them.  They look for new work, plays that are worthy of revival – all the plays that have been done in the Playhouse over the last 83 years. Then it’s about balancing the season. Lamos describes his thought process this way, “I always like to think that our theater goers here, our subscribers as well as our single ticket buyers, I think of them as people who will only see five plays a year, who won’t see anything but the work we do. So if you could only see five shows, what would give you a really terrific set of experiences that would be fulfilling to you, and take you in a lot of different directions?”

But I want to know if part of the process is about balancing the season, why is the coming season all comedies?

“They are comedies”, he explains, “but they are so vastly different. One of them, ‘Oblivion,’ is very serious subject matter but written with a good deal of witty dialogue. I don’t think the playwright would even call it a comedy, maybe a ‘dramedie’. ‘The Show Off,’ too, has a Chekhovian tinge to it, has its funny moments, but it’s essentially a family drama about marriage and loss and willful behavior between the mother-in-law and the prospective groom, so it’s really a study in family dynamics in a very middle-class American home in the ’20s. The ‘Dining Room,’ while it’s funny because Pete Gurney writes with a wonderful ear for humor, is a play about the passing of an age, a play about loss, a play about giving up your identity to a certain extent. So as the season came together it really looked like the two flat-out comedies were ‘Loot’ by Joe Orton and ‘Room Service.’ Those were just farces, one of them very black comedy and a flat-out farce with slamming doors. The others were all very varied in terms of how they delivered to an audience. You can easily have a very fulfilling time watching the ‘Dining Room’ and ‘The Show Off’ without really laughing.”

And how does he know when a play is a good fit? Lamos says it’s mysterious. Partially the play has to appeal to him and to the group of people who work through the season together. He won’t program something he doesn’t believe in 120% because he might have to direct it (he directs two each season and he also produces all of the other productions as artistic director). “I need to answer to the Board and to audiences. I need to be able to stand up for the work I believe in and it’s that ineffable thing that is behind the choice of the season.”

A violin student as a child, Lamos thought about becoming a professional musician but decided he had more talent for theater. He describes theater as being so competitive and difficult that it requires a high degree of passion to do it. As he tells it, “With the best actors, directors, and designers there is a high level of ambition because you do get knocked down so much; you’re rejected more than you’re accepted in the arts. It’s just the way it works. It’s about excellence, period. Also it’s about fickle choices. Not so much in music, where you can either hit the high C or you can’t. That’s a judge-able thing. In the theater it’s not, it’s one director’s opinion against another.”

Mark Lamos has directed plays, musicals and opera. He began his career in the theater as an actor, made his way into film and spent 17 seasons as artistic director of Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, for which he accepted the Tony Award in 1989. Lamos made his Broadway directing debut with a transfer from Hartford Stage of “Our Country’s Good,” for which he received a Tony Award nomination for best director. His other Broadway credits include “Cymbeline;” “Seascape,” which received a Tony Award nomination for best revival; “The Rivals;” the world premiere of A.R. Gurney’s “The Grand Manner” (Lincoln Center Theater); “The Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm;” and “The Deep Blue Sea” (Roundabout Theatre).

And then there’s opera. He directed “Adriana Lecouvreur” with Placido Domingo for the Metropolitan Opera. His other work for the Metropolitan Opera includes the world premiere of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby.” Opera world premiers he has guided include “Central Park” (Emmy Award nomination for Best Direction, televised for PBS’ “Great Performances”).

A sad event led Lamos to become the director of the Playhouse. He was set to do another play at another theater when he got a call from Annie Keefe who said that Paul Newman was very ill. Newman was set to direct a production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Would Lamos pinch hit for him if he was unable to do it? After couple weeks went by, Keefe called to say Newman was just too weak and ask if Lamos could step in. He was thrilled to help out the playhouse and do a play he really loved. While he was casting it he got another call from Annie who asked if he’d like to be considered for artistic director at the Playhouse. He replied, “I’ve sort of been waiting for a phone call from you guys.”

Lamos had been freelancing for about 15 years, was looking to settle down in this part of the country and was missing having a theater of his own and an artistic home. “Then Paul died in the middle of our rehearsals and it was terrible. A sadness descended on this whole place. Two weeks after he died, when everyone was still reeling from the impact, a couple of people on the board began having serious talks with me about considering the position. By then, having done a show here, I was really very interested and we came to an agreement,” he says.

I need to know, so I ask why it is that theater people never retire. He laughs and says, “First of all, you can’t! You can’t afford to! It’s tough for older actors, there’s no doubt it’s challenging, but they also have thicker skins. It’s harder and harder to find mature people to play the roles of 50-, 60- and 70-year-old characters. You can work in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, and Seattle. You can kind of have a life there with a family and a home and stay there as an actor and mature and be used and be part of a community of actors, but in New York there’s a gigantic amount of actors who’ve lived their whole lives there, who grow old and die there. It gets increasingly difficult for older actors to keep putting themselves out, to travel to theaters further away than Connecticut, so the challenges of aging in the theater community are definitely felt and are addressed by our unions. It’s true. You’d be hard pressed to find an actor who wouldn’t say to you, ‘I would be happiest if I died acting on stage.’”

According to Lamos, a marvelous part of the profession that makes it very desirable and a great deal of fun is always finding oneself part of a family. A group comes together for a production for a period of time on an intimate basis and then disperses. Time goes by and the next time they work together it’s as if no time has passed. A job ends, you move on to the next one. It’s constantly new and that makes up for the rejection. It keeps you vital.

The reception that Mark Lamos was attending with the Governor was due to the fact that Hartford Stage, Yale Rep, Goodspeed, Longwharf and Westport Playhouse were being given a line item in the state budget, a sizable grant to be divided among the flagship theaters. The reception for the governor was to show their appreciation.

Tell us which Westport Playhouse productions you’ve especially enjoyed, by posting below.

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