Save the Date! Our new garden is revealed Saturday, October 7th from 2 - 5PM

Focus on: Michael Barker, Managing Director, Westport Country Playhouse

Michael originally hales from Jonesboro, Arkansas and Sewanee, Tennessee. He spent 4 years in graduate school in New Haven at the Yale School of Drama/Yale School of Management, then took 7 years in California, and returned to Connecticut about 3.5 years ago when he was hired to work at the Westport Country Playhouse. Now living in Trumbull with his wife and young son, he normally commutes to the Playhouse for his work.  

“Along with Playhouse Artistic Director Mark Lamos, I am the co-CEO of the organization. Mark is primarily responsible for the artistry and mission of the organization, and I’m primarily responsible for the institutional side (and of course there’s often 100% overlap between those areas). I spend a lot of time fundraising (about 50% of our operating expenses come from contributed income) and in the balance of my time I concentrate on the strategic direction of the theater as well as our day-to-day operations. 

There is no historical corollary to the devastation that the live performance sector is facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We went from planning to produce a 5-play season to producing nothing live onstage overnight. That means half of our income, as well as our primary mission expression, disappeared. As has happened in so many small businesses, we determined to furlough our entire crew and about half of our staff. We’re producing online content, mostly items that are about theater or theater performance but no full-scale streaming of plays and musicals (which are, at least at present, financially cost prohibitive). We continue to work in service of our community, but we aren’t designed to be flexible or to do this particular thing—we’re set up to produce a series of live in-person messy theater performances… which we can’t do until people are willing to gather in groups again. It’s an awful time for theater institutions and theater artists. I read somewhere that more than 90% of theater artists are now unemployed. That will have knock-on and echo effects in our field for decades. I think we’ll be talking about the impact of this pandemic on the American theater for the duration of my career and beyond. 

We have to adapt to the moment and prepare for the future, and we’ve started to do that. So much of the field has the disadvantage of being on a year-round season, which means that the pandemic hit right in the middle of their 2019-20 plays and it doesn’t look like we’ll be back to normal in time for the regular kickoff for their 2020-21 seasons in the fall. The Playhouse operates on a bit of an oddball schedule, April to November, because of our prior history as a summer stock theater. So, the timing was, to the extent there is any upside to any of this, better for the Playhouse than for most of our peers. We have given ourselves the gift of remaining in this in-between place (reduced staff, online production, etc.) for almost a full year, and if we can pull it off we will have done so thanks to the generosity of our audiences, donors, and trustees. Many regional theater organizations are desperate to get back into production so they can open a season in October. I know if I thought we had to be back in rehearsal and onstage in front of an audience before Thanksgiving I would be behaving differently, and wouldn’t be thinking about much in the longer term, certainly not as far off as April 2021. I know of a prominent West Coast theater that is trying to create a social-distancing plan for their large space, and determined that they can only fit about 80 people into a 700+-seat theater. And I don’t know of a single public health expert who would say it’s unequivocally a good idea to sit in a confined space for two hours at a stretch, even six feet away from everyone else. And what happens at intermission when the line at the Ladies Room winds across the lobby all the way to the box office? Harvard A.R.T. is working with Harvard’s school of public health to come up with guidelines and logistics for audiences, artists, and production personnel to experience live theater while COVID-19 is still a going concern. There are really smart people trying to make this in-person art form work during a time that experiencing a play live with strangers could mean a death sentence. But at least at the moment, I think most of what will enable us to produce theater in front of live audiences again (or prevent it) will depend on exogenous forces more than anything we can cobble together as organizations or even as a field. Without at least an effective treatment for the virus, and at best a vaccine, we will not be able to return to anything resembling status quo ante. 

I’m trying to enjoy the extra time for streaming, reading, and projects around the house. I appreciate the time with my wife and son. In some ways, I feel Mark and I may be in better communication with our trustees than we’ve been at least since I’ve been in the job. But I understand the urgency that so many folks have to get out and participate in normalcy again. Americans hate not having a choice, and I certainly feel some of that tugging on my soul. I would love to see a play in a theater again. I’m tired of screens. 

I would love to see a play in a theater again. I’m tired of screens. 

Jim Marpe and his team have done a great job handling this crisis in Westport, and my first selectman Vicki Tesoro and her team have done a great job in Trumbull. I think the biggest difference culturally between Westport and Trumbull with regard to COVID-19 is that Westport had that super spreader event at the party very early on, so the pandemic came home right away. I think it’s why you see the petition asking Jim not to open up the beaches and parks in Westport too soon; people in Westport had early and personal contact with infected people, included people who died of the disease. In Trumbull, I think, on the whole, we may be a smidge closer to the folks you see on television on the Florida beaches, wondering why we all have to stay at home when we don’t even have that many cases in town and many people don’t know anyone who has contracted the virus or died as a result. Shared sacrifice is a really tough thing to ask people to do, and even more difficult to enforce. I think we have to be compassionate towards people who are feeling stressed socially and emotionally while maintaining a fact-based approach to stay-at-home orders and any easing of restrictions. 

On a Zoom call early on in the pandemic, one of our most knowledgeable trustees compared the enforcement of restrictions in some states but not in others as “having a peeing section in the swimming pool.” People who live in states like Connecticut that have strict stay-at-home orders and got them in place reasonably quickly are going to feel like we’re being punished while the rest of the country opens up. But the experts say that the second wave will be more significant the more we prematurely open up, and I think we have to believe them. My family and I will certainly continue to avoid large groups and unnecessary trips to stores, etc. until we have reasonable assurances that it’s actually safe.  

As much as I hate screens and long for a return to in-person communication, this has been a great excuse to get back in personal touch (outside of a social media environment) with my network of friends nationally and internationally. I watched a streaming play from The Public with a friend from Peru, I caught up on Google Duo with an old pal from Kentucky, I played a board game (poorly) online with some friends from college. I hope that I can carve out time to continue that kind of intentional outreach and conversation even after coronavirus. But certainly, my access to a broad network of friends has been a great help in terms of coping with these unique circumstances. 

My greatest hope is that we are reminded of our shared humanity; when we return to some semblance of normalcy, we carry with us a feeling of camaraderie and community that was absent as we all hunkered down in our homes. 

My greatest fear is that we liked the way things worked during stay-at-home, or we got used to the way they worked, and we carry that way of working forward in a way that supplants our feeling of shared humanity. I don’t mean that people won’t do more on Zoom post-COVID-19 than they did before (they will) but rather that those meetings will continue to stand in for most of our professional in-person social interactions. Getting stuck on our screens is a real danger, because in so many ways it simplifies logistics. We need to remember why the logistical difficulty of arranging in-person gatherings is worth the trouble. 

I am here to remind you why the Playhouse is important. I don’t think of my job as convincing people most of the time; I’m reminding you of something you already know. My mantra is “if the Playhouse did not exist, we would have to build it.” You may not see a performance on our stage until next year, but reach out to us, reach out to me, participate in the programs we’re putting out in the world, support us with a monetary contribution if you can. I will be here when the smoke clears, and I can’t wait until that day when we open the front doors onto the patio in full bloom and invite you back into our sacred space when we can share stories in this very special way again. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Diane Benke & Family

“We have lived in Westport 10 ½ years. I am a stay at home mom & amateur triathlete/swimmer. My husband works in finance in NYC. He is working from home. 

We’ve settled finally into a routine after 5 weeks. My biggest challenge is keeping my two boys 1) academically engaged/challenged with the homeschooling, 2) having them physically active and 3) preventing them from spending too much time on video games! Managing a household and maintaining “order” with everyone home is a challenge – my work has increased in terms of parenting, rule and chore setting but also keeping everyone in good spirits, etc. 

I feel like folks are managing the best they can. Some are giving back by setting up donations to Gillespie Center or making masks and distributing them, collecting for food banks etc. Others are helping their neighbors in need (who are vulnerable and can’t leave their homes). Folks are trying to reach out to one another with zoom calls, and small acts of kindness (just checking in on how we are doing) etc. Like anywhere else, situations like this one can bring out the best and worst in people. I try to look for the good. We’ve participated in birthday drive-by parades for my children’s friends.  

My father is a holocaust survivor and my mother grew up in Slovakia under communism so I try to keep perspective that this situation could be way worse. Seeing bare shelves at the supermarket gives me a sense of what it was like for my mother growing up with limited produce and grocery options. I try not to complain because my father told me he was under house arrest for two years (only able to get out once a week for two hours). I am trying to teach my children resilience, perseverance and gratitude by example. I’ve learned how to dig deep from endurance sports and the long-distance races I’ve participated in. There is a moment in the training or race where it gets tough, and you get through it. Life is a roller coaster. There is hardship and suffering, but experiencing the lows, make the high points that much richer. 

Life is a roller coaster. There is hardship and suffering, but experiencing the lows, make the high points that much richer.  

My fears are that our lives will never be the same – that we won’t be as social or interact with one another as much as we did before. I fear that the new norm will be life behind a computer screen, phone, face mask and closed doors. I mourn less travel and larger group events like concerts or Broadway shows. I don’t want to lose what is special about the human experience – connecting with each other on a personal and deep level. My greatest hope is that we learn from this pandemic in multiple ways. I hope we learn to be more present, to treat the environment and one another better. I hope we practice gratitude and come out of this stronger, better prepared to deal with adversity. 

I am grateful that we have made a home in Westport and it is a true community. During this pandemic and stay at home order, we’ve been able to connect with our local friends, support local restaurants and businesses. I believe that what you put out in the world comes back to you — and the relationships we’ve made in town are helping us get through this together. Westport has so much to offer from its beaches to its cultural and educational resources – much of this still exists but in a different format. I am grateful for my children’s’ teachers and the daily assignments they’ve created (how quickly the Westport education system prepared for this!).” 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Michelle Murphy & Family

As I write this, we are in week six of social distancing. Although I have less fear than six weeks ago, I am still wary of the unknown and what the future looks like. The lead up the week schools closed knowing it was coming but not knowing how long it would last and what social distancing “looks like” was a bit daunting. I still don’t understand the right answer to that, which is tough. I do think (and hope) there are responsible ways that we will be able to visit with family and friends as we come out of this quarantine, but in the meantime, we will just wait and see. We are fortunate that the weather is warmer and hopefully sunny days will allow for outdoor social distancing. 

The biggest change for us has been to be able to sit down to dinner with my kids every night. I had started traveling a fair amount for work before this started so between that, volunteer work and other social commitments I was always on the go. Time is something that we don’t get back and I look at this chapter of our lives as a gift because I am able to slow down and spend time with my children that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.  

Professionally, I have shifted my work hours to accommodate the needs of my family but fortunately I have the flexibility to do that. Socially, I am still able to connect with family and friends thanks to technology so it is not as isolating. And to some degree there are people I “see” more now than I did before we were told to stay at home. The other big change is school! I come from a family of educators so I have always had an appreciation for teachers and their roles in the development of children…but this takes it to a whole new level. The older kids (7th and 9th grade) are more self-sufficient but working through 4th grade learning is tough so a big thank you to all the teachers out there working hard to keep our kids on track. For the kids, I think missing the routine of school, friends and social activities is tough. We were looking forward to a spring of baseball, lacrosse and dance. 

I think that everyone is doing the best they can and that is all we can hope for. This is unchartered territory for all of us – town leadership, educators, first responders, small business owners, parents, children, even pets! All we can do as a community is look out for each other and have empathy. Everyone handles stress differently and we have to accept that without judgement, which is easier said than done. Town leadership has been very communicative from the beginning and I feel that has helped alleviate some of the unknowns, along with the many resources available. Watching the community come together for organizations such as Westport Food Fund and Food for the Front Lines has been heartwarming and inspiring. We need to help our neighbors because we never know when we will need them to help us. 

All we can do as a community is look out for each other and have empathy

Becoming a divorced mother of 3 when my kids were under the age of 7 forced me to accept that which we have no control over. I learned that I could feel all the emotions that one has, going through traumatic experiences, but I couldn’t marinate in those feelings as I needed to be present for my children. Every day I reminded myself it could always be worse, and that is true in today’s current environment. We can’t let fear bring us down, we need to stay strong and positive and take comfort in knowing that we are truly all in this together. I was taught a long time ago and try to instill it in my children now to find something beautiful in every day. Just because there are clouds, it doesn’t mean the sun is gone. When people ask me now, how I am doing, my answer is always – I am healthy, my kids and my loved ones are healthy, I am still employed with a roof over my head, food on the table and for the most part I am still sane. I have nothing to complain about. 

I hope that a year from now the country is in a place where we have the vaccinations and immunities needed to combat this virus. I hope that families that have lost loved ones during this time find peace. I hope that my children remember this period of time fondly albeit challenging. I hope when they think back, they remember the gift of time they got to spend with family. I hope that we all come out of this as better people. It is amazing how quickly this pandemic has changed the way many view the world. Things that used to seem so important no longer are. It’s all about perspective and I hope that people remember that. My hope is that hope beats out fear. My greatest fear is not knowing if I am doing enough to keep my kids safe both mentally and physically, or something happening to me that would prevent me from being there or being able to provide for them. 

I recently did one of those “what does your birthday month say about you” gimmicks and the message for mine was: “no matter how tough life gets you have a way of always keeping hope alive for yourself and your loved ones. You smile, even when you’re sad because you will never give up, even when the going gets tough.” I think this is very apropos to who I am not just today, but every day. Hang in there Westport – we are strong and we will get through this together. Sending a big virtual hug to you all. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Laura Tucker & Family

The Tuckers, Laura, David and their three kids Lili, a college freshman; Avery a Staples sophomore and Eily a 3rd grader at Long Lots, have lived in Westport just over 7 years. They celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary on April 22nd

“Today is our 20th wedding anniversary.  We are on on week six of quarantine. 

David and I were planning to celebrate our anniversary in Amsterdam, where we first met in 1994. Instead, we are home in Westport. I am disappointed that we are not able to go on our anniversary trip, but if I have to be quarantined somewhere, Westport is a nice place to do it. We are lucky to have a house with enough space for five people. We have a backyard and we are trying to spend as much time as possible outdoors. We are planting a garden, hiking and enjoying the sun when it is not raining (we have had way too much rain!). Westport is a beautiful town to ride bikes and walk our dogs.   

I think our family is reasonably well prepared to cope with this situation. We have lived in different places/countries and have adapted to many new situations. This is just another new situation. We also lived in New York City on 9/11. My first child was born 6 days before that awful day. I learned quickly that things can change in an instant and sometimes you have to change as well to get through tough times. 

Every family has their strategies for getting through this. What do the Tuckers do to survive? We get more animals! We have two dogs and they bring us so much happiness.  They have been great quarantine companions! We added a hamster to our family and we are getting a puppy on May 16. The kids are begging for chickens too! If quarantine doesn’t end soon, we are going to end up with a zoo! 

There have been lot of changes to our daily lives. Our kids are now homeschooled, there are food and toilet paper shortages, we have to wear masks in public, we are only seeing our friends and family over Zoom…and the list goes on. I think I am handling most of our “new normal” pretty well, but I must admit I am having a hard time with all the disappointments. Everything we were looking forward to has been cancelled. Lili has to complete her freshman year of college at home. Avery made it to the World Championships for cheerleading, and now that isn’t happening. Eily worked for months to be in her school play and it was cancelled two days before they were supposed to perform. We were going to visit my husband’s parents in Australia this summer, but now it will be postponed until next year. The Australia trip is probably the hardest one for our family to deal with because my kids have not seen their Australian grandparents in a long time. A lot can happen in a year and the thought terrifies me.  

I am usually a very optimistic person, but I have found the longer we are in quarantine, the more I worry. I fear the aftermath of the quarantine is going to be worse than the Great Depression. I look at our beautiful downtown and almost everything is closed. How are we going to come back from this? If we do, how long is it going to take? The longer they stay closed, the more likely the stores will not re-open. What will happen to those people who own or worked in those businesses? Will they be able to keep their homes? Will they be able to feed their families? So many people are losing their jobs. Not everyone can work from home. I love the idea of Westport’s slogan “You are not stuck at home, you are safe at home.”  This is true for many, but what about the people who are not safe at home? We can’t forget about all of the other problems in the world just because this virus reared its ugly head.  

There have been many beautiful moments that have made me proud to live in Westport. I am impressed with the way the community has come together to help others. So many people are volunteering and donating to local causes. Unfortunately, there have been some ugly moments too. I have seen people fighting in CVS (over which direction to walk), shaming others on social media and in person. Someone screamed from their convertible at my teenagers (she thought they were riding bikes too close to each other). We should not be turning against each other in this time of crisis. When this is over, we still have to live in the same town. These are our neighbors, our friends and their their children. 

I am impressed with the way the community has come together to help others

We were listening to the “Dear Evan Hansen” soundtrack while making dinner the other night”(music written by Staples grad, Justin Paul).  

The words to the song “Anybody Have a Map” really hit home.  

Does anybody have a map? 

Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this? 

I don’t know if you can tell 

But this is me just pretending to know 

So where’s the map? 

I need a clue 

‘Cause the scary truth is 

I’m flying blind 

And I’m making this up as I go 

None of us have been through a pandemic before and I think we are all doing the best we can. We don’t have a map or any kind of instructions to follow. Everyone is struggling with this in their own way. So many are experiencing some kind of disappointment and fear. I think if we show kindness to one another, it might ease some of the pain. If we show compassion toward our neighbors, hopefully our community will come out of this more connected.  

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Netta Levy & Family

I am a PTA volunteer (Staples high school PTA President) and a marketing consultant. I’ve been able to still do most of my work from home so from that perspective my life hasn’t changed that much but getting time during the day to get stuff done with everyone around has been a real challenge! 

At the beginning of all of this, I was reading too much searching for answers: news, social media, etc. I found that the more I read, the more questions I had, the less I slept. Once I made a conscious effort to limit my social media and consume less news, it had a big impact on my physical and mental wellbeing. Now, I am definitely less neurotic 🙂 

Not being able to see family has been a real challenge. We are very close with our relatives–my parents are both elderly, and not being able to see either of them for so long and knowing they’re all alone has been very hard. But we’ve found ways to do Friday candle lighting every week on zoom (once they figured out how to use it) as well as celebrate my son’s 13th birthday online (we had to cancel his bar mitzvah and are trying to figure out when we can do it). Technology has been a big help in all of this, in helping us all to stay connected while being isolated. 

This community is amazing. I have the best neighbors and friends in Westport. When there is a challenge most of us rise to that challenge. We help those around us. That is what has kept me going through all of this: our resilience and our strength as a community always shines through during times such as this.  

I think that my generation (I am 46) has the coping skills to deal with this. My greatest hope is that my children think back to this time we all had together and remember more good than bad.  

However, as you look at some of the younger families and people in communities such as this one, they’ve never had to deal with any adversity in their past—and this tests us all. My next door neighbor who is 89 is a good guiding light for me during times like this – she is always so calming, optimistic and helps keeps things in perspective. She’s become part of our Westport family. 

Times like this are a good reminder to be kind to one another. It’s always true that you never know what someone else is going through. During difficult times such as this it’s even more important to remember that simple fact. Go that extra mile. Take that extra step. Ask your neighbor if he/she needs anything. I may not be in control of how long this will last or what other people will do, but I am in control of my own attitude and actions. And hopefully my kids are watching and learning from my husband and me. 

Go that extra mile. Take that extra step.

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.