Weston Playhouse directing trio to step down next year

From left, Tim Fort, Malcolm Ewen and Steve Stettler in 1988. All photos courtesy Weston Playhouse unless otherwise noted.

By Shawn Cunningham
and Cynthia Prairie
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Thirty years after taking the reins as artistic directors at the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, Malcolm Ewen, Tim Fort and Steve Stettler announced today that they will be stepping down after the 2018 season.

The announcement came in a press release this morning.

In an interview on Monday, Stettler, the Producing Artistic Director, said the trio told the company’s board of directors of their decision at a meeting on Sunday. “We always thought that having come to Weston together, that we would also depart together,” said Stettler. The only full-time founding director of the three, Stettler, whose gregarious nature is appreciated by audiences throughout Vermont, is in many ways the public face of the Playhouse.

Malcolm Ewen this past spring. Photo from Mary Lou Westerfield’s Twitter account.

“It’s a sad occasion in one way,” said Founding Director Malcolm Ewen, “and a great and happy opportunity on the other hand. That’s the way it is with artistic transitions. ”

“I feel like I grew up here,” said Founding Director Tim Fort, who began working as an actor, lighting designer and director 45 years ago at age 22. “Weston has been a magical place for me to grow and learn. There’s nothing quite like this place. How many towns of 600 have a 300-seat theater they manage to fill night after night? But I’ve been thinking about stepping away for a few years and this seemed like the time.”

“We haven’t been together in the same room  in two years,” Stettler said, first referencing Ewen’s illness and then his own health issues. And although he says they are recovered now, Stettler calls the experience “a wake-up call for guys who are not getting any younger.”

“It seemed like an appropriate time while the three of us are still doing good work,” said Ewen.“We are all very proud of the things we have done in the past three decades.”

Plaudits for the trio

Managing Director Lesley Koenig said, “Of course, I love these three guys and will miss them terribly.  They are like brothers. And they made this decision in such harmony.  They have done such a beautiful job of running this company for 30 years.  …

Steve Stettler speaks during the ground breaking of the Walker Farm theater.

“I applaud the elegance with which they made the decision and communicated it,” said Koenig.

“I learned about it a week ago Saturday,” said WPTC board chair Anthony Wood. “We all knew someday this would happen, and we hoped to have a few more wonderful years with them, but we all respect their decision. They are giving us a long runway to make a smooth transition and that’s really a gift.”

“You can’t exaggerate the impact they have had on this company,” Wood continued. “You can hardly go to a Broadway show and look at the playbill without seeing the name of somebody who has been at Weston. They took the theater  from a $150,000 a year budget to over $2 million, made it an equity company, guided the building of our new stage at Walker Farm and – hopefully – will help us finish our capital campaign.”

“And they’ll still get to take the new theater out on it’s first voyages,” said Wood.

Actress Susan Haefner, who most recently was directed by Fort in Tenderly, wrote in an email, “Malcolm, Tim, and Steve have provided a theater home for myself and so many other company members for the past 30 years. They are true and loyal champions of theater and theater artists, bringing out the very best in all of us. And this kind of magic will live on in our hearts for many years to come.”

30 years of accomplishments

Fort said he is proudest of establishing the Young Company, which gives students in theater programs the chance to work on a professional stage, and of the upcoming opening of the new stage at Walker Farm.

Susan Haefner, left, and Tim Fort during the Spring Gala.

“It’s an infrequent occasion for any theater to open in North America these days,” said Fort.

Ewen, Fort and Stettler joined the company as artistic directors in 1988, following he death of Walter Boughton, the company’s second producer in its first 50 years. The playhouse itself was a former church turned into what the Boston Globe would call “the most beautiful theatre in New England” by Weston architect Raymond Austin.

In 1937, director Harlan Grant produced the theater’s first summer stock season, featuring a young Lloyd Bridges. Over the years, the company grew, added musicals, a late-night entertainment venue called The Cellar (now the Act 4 Cabaret) and a pre-theater restaurant.

And during those years, the company – with the support of its surrounding communities – weathered a 1962 fire that destroyed the original building and floods twice in the 1970s, each time coming back to put on its shows.

You can hardly go to a Broadway show and look at the playbill without seeing the name of somebody who has been at Weston. They took the theater  from a $150,000 a year budget to over $2 million, made it an equity company.

Anthony Wood
WPTC board chair

And when Tropical Storm Irene ravaged Vermont in 2011, it flooded the playhouse’s downstairs, ruining costumes, props and musical instruments including a new grand piano. The company again dug out, cleaned up and completed the run of the world premiere of St. Ex.

A search for the future

Stettler said that the company will put together a search committee, hire a search firm and look for someone who will fit the vision of the board while bringing new energy to the playhouse.

From left, Malcolm Ewen, Tim Fort and Steve Stettler at Walker Farm.

According to Wood, the company will be looking to hire one person for the job. “The success of a triumvirate is the exception,” said Wood. “These guys grew into the theater together and we realize we can’t replicate that.”

Asked if there was thought given to Michael Berresse — who directed the popular musical Once and was recently named associate artistic director — being a candidate for the role, Wood pointed to him as the kind of person who would fit the bill.

At the time, “he was not brought in to be a successor but rather as extra muscle for the reduced capacity created by medical challenges,” said Wood. “He’s the caliber of leadership we want and we would love him to be a candidate, but to be clear we will be having the really open, broad national search that the position deserves.”

Koenig added that the national search for a one person to replace the three should stir up a lot of interest because of the the new Walker Farm theater and the many other exciting happenings at the playhouse.

As for Ewen, Fort and Stettler’s future involvement with the company, Koenig said, “They will never be anything but a key part of the company.  … they need to identify the degree to be involved.”

“I’d like to stay involved – although not as an artistic director,” said Ewen, who also works with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre when he’s not in Weston. “I look forward to seeing the work of a new generation,” said Ewen.

“We’ll do one more year here, and I’ll probably retire in a couple of years,” said Fort who has taught at Queens University in Ontario since 1986. “And I’ll be able to see what the rest of the world is up to in the summer.”

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