Book explores theater’s history

Since 1931, Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Conn., has hosted monumental actors and actresses and played host to the stage debuts and finales of such playwrights as George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill and A.R. Gurney.

The theatre’s recent two-year-long renovation is being celebrated with the release of Richard Somerset-Ward’s book “An American Theatre,” published by Yale University Press and chronicling the history of the illustrious venue. Somerset, in several amusing anecdotes, points out that the playhouse derives charm not only from the high caliber of the actors, actresses and playwrights who played there but also because of its own, non-theatre-related history.

Because the theatre used to be a barn, Somerset-Ward said, raccoons and other wildlife were regular inhabitants of the green rooms and surrounding land around the playhouse.

During one episode that is recounted in “An American Theatre,” a single-file line of inebriated raccoons even escaped the stage manager’s notice during a production of Woody Allen’s “Play it Again, Sam” in the 1970s and crawled onto the stage. The raccoons had been fed popcorn soaked in whiskey by actor George Gobel, Somerset-Ward said, and their appearance onstage interrupted the show so greatly that it had to be stopped.

Somerset-Ward said despite the fact that he had to winnow down the amount of anecdotes he used in the book greatly, his experience soliciting stories from actors and ex-apprentices and former interns was rewarding.

“An American Theatre” was released in June to accolades from critics and prominent showbiz personae alike and features a page-long introduction by Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

Julianne Griffin, who works at the press and supervised production of the book, said work on the project proceeded in a remarkably smooth fashion.

“It’s very well-researched and basically gives the history of American theatre, because Westport Playhouse was a microcosm of the theatre world,” she said. “

The back of “An American Theatre” features the traditional favorable reviews from critics. These “critics,” however, include Martin Scorcese, Harvey Weinstein and Meryl Streep. But despite the star power, the book is no fluffy romp through the history of entertainment. Chance Farago, the marketing director for the playhouse, credits the Yale Press as a partner in the book’s success.

“Yale Press was the perfect partner for this project, because they aren’t a pushover,” Farago said. “They didn’t just say, ‘Oh, this is Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.’ They went through a very scholarly review of the book. It’s edited and fact-checked and everything.”

Somerset-Ward said the Yale Press allowed him to consult with designer Katy Homans early in the production process to plan the visual style of the book, which is rare.

“I can’t honestly say there were any snags,” he said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me with a book. On the very first day, I sat down with Katy and talked about the book, and we got a pretty good idea what it was we were doing and how it would be done.”

The author and designer’s plan for the book’s layout and final appearance remained generally similar throughout the stages of production, the author said. Such consistency “rarely happens,” he said, because of the inevitable evolution of the text and layout decisions with regards to cost, practicality, time constraints and other factors.

Reading the book, which features sidebars, pull quotes and full-page pictures, is a highly visual experience. Pictures from 1931 to 2004 line the pages.

“Illustrations add significantly to the cost of publishing a book, but here they’re so important,” Farago said. “Theatre is a visual medium as much as it is a textual one, so it’s important to have as many photos as possible.”

Graphics featured in “An American Theatre” include the front cover of a 1935 “New Yorker” magazine, illustrations by famous theatre artists and, of course, pictures of the theatre’s famous players.

“It was an altogether delightful experience,” the author said. “It’s an interesting place to work, in theatre, because they’re very dedicated people and very determined to help you. They don’t get in your way; on the contrary, they do everything they can to help and guide you.”

Somerset-Ward said he was drawn to the project because of the playhouse’s history.

“The reason I accepted the commission was because it seemed that this little theatre, in a very curious way in its 75 years, mirrored the history of America,” he said. “There was a certain ‘class’ about it — this tiny little old barn was very closely connected to the big names in 20th-century theatre.”

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