BWW Interviews: Anne Keefe of the Westport Country Playhouse
There is no off-season for the Westport Country Playhouse. Their main season is from April through November, but during the other months there are children's theatre productions and its signature Script-in-Hand play readings.Script-in-Hand director Anne Keefe has worn several hats since her affiliation with the Westport Country Playhouse began in the late 1970s. She was a resident stage manager for the summer stock productions before the Westport Country Playhouse became a year-round theatre. She served as an associate artistic director from 2000-2006 with Joanne Woodward and as artistic director since 2008. She co-directed with Ms. Woodward the Westport Country Playhouse production of David Copperfield, and has directed many Script in Hand productions. On Monday, March 10, the Westport Country Playhouse will present, a Script in Hand reading of Pack of Lies, a provocative spy thriller. The cast includes four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, Jayne Atkinson, Kathleen McNenny, Alexis Molnar, Michel Gill, Mark Shanahan and Zoë Winters.
BWW: When and how did the Script in Hand play readings get started?
When Joanne and I were running the Playhouse, Joanne loved to read plays aloud. She heard them better than reading them off the page. When we were picking a season, we would often gather a group of actors and read. I remember one year we got 10 great actors together and read The Member of The Wedding and To Kill A Mockingbird in one session. When we started doing this for an audience, we would do a couple of plays a year - big plays, plays we could never afford to produce. In 2006 we began to formalize a program. We did three classic plays and three new plays in a year. We found it was very hard to find new work that was worthy of a paying audience, so we decided we would continue only with the classical plays. Over the years it has morphed to include classic and contemporary plays.
BWW: Who is involved in selecting the plays?
It's just me - but I'm very suggestible! It's not as simple as it seems. There are a lot of plays, and I do love the older works, with big casts, but I also have a budget. It's a balancing act to find good plays that don't break the bank.
BWW: What are the criteria you use in choosing the plays?
I'm always conscious of my budget, but end of the day it has to be a good story. There's something very compelling about sitting in a dark room with a community of people sharing a good story. No costumes, no set, no sound, no blocking, just words. And you get a chance to use your imagination. People like that in this age of realism all the time. Audiences often come out of the theatre saying they saw the costumes and set in their heads. It's very exciting to find something people really seem to like!
BWW: The Cold War is over. Other than James Bond movies, spy thrillers are in and out in popularity. How did Pack of Lies resonate with you?
This title came out of a conversation with a friend in England who is part of a play reading group. It's a story about loyalty and deception and the role of the ordinary citizen. I was interested in the choice to spy on a neighbor and how much of a stand can any citizen take against officialdom, especially in this age of NSA scandals. This is spying "old school" - no cell phones, no computer hacking.
My husband [David Wiltse] wrote a play called The Good German, which we produced here. It was his response to the Patriot Act. It was his act of protest. Keeping issues in front of an audience is a good thing. And even this play, which takes place more than 50 years ago, is still compelling reading.
BWW: Why are they only performed for one evening?
There are a couple of reasons. First, it keeps something happening at the Playhouse when we aren't involved in our season - though we usually do one in the summer. If we did these in the summer, we would have to do them on an existing set and there's something nice about seeing them on a bare stage.
And it means only asking the actors for one day out of their busy lives, rather than a longer period. These are New York actors who have a living to make. I have a better chance of snagging a great group of people if I'm not asking them to come to Connecticut for a long period of time.
BWW: How much rehearsal time do the actors have for the play reading?
We have five hours total. Prior to rehearsal I edit the stage directions to a bare minimum to save time and keep the story moving along. Basic stuff you need to know, but not every movement. I send the script to the actors about three weeks in advance so they have a chance to familiarize themselves with the material. We spend a little of our time getting into mikes, filling out paper and taking photos, so we end up with about 4 hours of rehearsal. It's kind of a whirlwind affair.
BWW: Why do you think the actors are willing to come to the 'burbs for just one night? They're not being paid big bucks for that, are they?
I think they like the form, for one thing, and these are all actors who have worked at and love the Playhouse. I like to use actors whose work I know well. With such a short rehearsal, I don't take many chances.
BWW: What are the costs of doing a Script-in-Hand production?
I have a budget of 36 actors divided over 5 plays. We pay a small stipend, travel, hospitality, addition microphones, crew costs. I think people forget that there is a lot that goes into making theatre besides just the actors, even when there is no set or costumes!
BWW: Intimate Apparel was a Script in Hand reading and it will be performed in October as a regular production. What other plays were first done as Script in Hand readings that became part of the main lineup at the Westport Country Playhouse?
We did our opening show, A Song at Twilight a couple of years ago as a Script in Hand. I can't wait to see it as a full production. It's a co-production with Hartford Stage Company and will come to us in the spring.
BWW: You always get well-known actors to participate. How did you get such a high-octane cast for Pack of Lies?
These are all old friends. I met Michel Gill and Jayne Atkinson at Long Wharf during a production of The Heiress. They met there and married. Jayne was in our production of Our Town. Mich has done reading for us. I worked with Boyd Gaines at Long Wharf as well. He and his wife [Kathleen MacNenny] were in The Good German, and Kathleen was in Beyond Therapy here a couple of years ago. Zoë Winters was in Room Service here last year, and Alexis Molnar in Harbor at the Playhouse and, of course, Mark Shanahan has several credits on this stage. I add actors to the list every year. I know these actors deliver, and with four hours of rehearsal, that's a marvelous thing!
Pack of Lies will be performed on Monday, March 10 at 7:00 p.m. at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Tickets are $15.00. To order, call (203) 227-4177, or toll-free at 1 (888) 927-7529. Follow the Westport Country Playhouse on Twitter (@WCPlayhouse), view Playhouse videos on YouTube (WestportPlayhouse) or get an insider's peek on The Playhouse Blog (www.theplayhouseblog.org).