Artistic director to begin new role Jan. 1

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Theater and opera director Tazewell Thompson is the new artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse, making him one of the few African-Americans to head a regional theater of such significant size, history and scope.

Pending final contract negotiations, Thompson will begin his new role Jan. 1, succeeding Joanne Woodward, who led an effort to save the summer theater from destruction.

Woodward helped to raise more than $30 million for the Connecticut venue’s renovation and endowment campaign, readying the 75-year-old playhouse to become a year-round producing and presenting arts center.

Thompson has more than 60 credits at theaters across the country, notably the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where he was artistic associate. He held the same position with the Acting Company.

In the early 1990s, Thompson was a.d. at Syracuse Stage. He first worked at Westport in 2003, directing “The Old Settler.”

Thompson has written a number of works for the stage, including adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” and Aristophanes’ “The Birds,” and an original drama, “Constant Star,” staged in more than a dozen major productions across the U.S.

In addition, he’s a frequent director of opera, notably “Porgy and Bess” at New York City Opera, which aired on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center” series, earning him an Emmy nomination. Thompson staged his Glimmerglass Opera production of “Les Dialogues des Carmelites” for City Opera last season.

Thompson will team with Alison Harris, executive of the Westport theater and a longtime associate. Both began their careers in the ’70s at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

When Thompson begins his new role in January, Woodward will shift over to the new position of a.d. emeritus and remain on the board. The theater will have to come up with a substantial salary as well; Woodward’s leadership gig was pro bono.

In choosing a high-profile artistic director, the theater’s board opted for a person seen as a visionary rather than caretaker for the theater, one of the oldest in the country and the subject of a just-published coffee table book by Yale Press, “An American Theatre.”

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