Woodward to exit Playhouse role

Search for new artistic director begins immediately

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Having helped rescue the historic Westport Country Playhouse from developers and led the summer theater’s $30 million renovation and expansion to completion, Joanne Woodward will exit from the active role of artistic director by year’s end.

“I’m the same age as the Playhouse,” said Woodward, who turns 75 next month. “It got a renovation, but there’s not much they can do for me. This seems like the right moment in my life, and in the theater’s, to adjust my role at the Playhouse.”

A search for a new artistic director will begin immediately. The hope is to announce the new head by the end of the summer, which will be the first season in the new theater.

The new a.d. will take over Jan. 1, with Woodward remaining “artistic director emeritus.”

A longtime Westport resident, she became the theater’s artistic adviser in 2000 following the resignation of executive producer James B. McKenzie, who ran the theater for 41 years. In 2001, Woodward took on the role of a.d., with Anne Keefe as associate a.d.

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The new updated and winterized facility, which will maintain its original “red barn” identity, is expected to open in mid-June for a four-show summer season. The building, which now is capable of hosting productions year-round, also will feature a holiday show and two other productions for its first full year of operation.

In her role first as patron, then as artistic leader, Woodward revived the struggling and deteriorating theater — with the help of her friends and her husband, actor Paul Newman. The latter helped score one of the theater’s biggest critical and financial successes, playing the Stage Manager in a production of “Our Town” first in Westport in 2002 and then on Broadway (where it earned $1 million for the theater); taped version of the production also aired on PBS.

Woodward created a high-profile fund-raising campaign for the theater, bringing in Robert Wright, vice chairman of General Electric Co. and CEO of NBC, and his wife, Suzanne, to head the campaign drive that featured celeb-filled fund-raisers.

Woodward also brought in Alison Harris, exec director of the theater, who is expected to remain in the management position.