Lawrence Langner, who founded the Westport Country Playhouse, drew up plans for the theatre in 1950 with the support of New York City Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed. Reed financially supported the theatre during his life but did not leave money for it in his will. Following his death in 1973, the state took over the theatre in 1983. It was renamed the American Festival Theatre in 1988, and, after it was cut from the state budget in 1991, the town took over the property in 2005.
Two proposals about the theatre have been presented to the Stratford Town Council. Both would keep the landmark building standing and utilize it to present theatrical productions. A proposal from the Stratford Stage Group would provide income to help fund stage productions by building a hotel on the campus. The Elm Street Theatre Company would refurbish the building and present stage productions by using funds from historic tax credits, green tax credits and government loans, as well as a town $750,000 "pre-development" loan.
A third proposal to demolish the theatre will be heard by the council soon. Lou DeCilio, the Republican registrar of voters and Republican town committee chairman, said he is offering his plan to the Town Council as a private citizen along with Jim Connor, 8th District town councilman and the Republican majority leader, and Dave Fuller, zoning commission chairman.
"How can we bring back the arts without sending the taxpayers a big bill?" DeCilio said to John Burgeson of the Post. "We can do that by taking down the existing building, replacing it with an outdoor amphitheatre and creating a smaller 'black box theatre' to the rear of the `White House,'" referring to the Greek Revival house that fronts the theatre park on Elm Street.
"That place has been closed as long as it's been open," DeCilio told the Post. "And going forward and investing in a model that has failed is clearly not the right way to go about things... The fact is, even in its heyday back in the 1950s and '60s, that theatre never turned a profit. It was kept alive from one year to the next by a private benefactor." DeCilio said his proposal represents the opinion of the "silent majority" in town. But the proposal has been met with opposition, with people citing the history of the theatre as well as its impact on the area.
"This theatre is Stratford's brand, and it's about the only game in town when you talk about attracting people here," Ed Goodrich, of the Stratford Arts Council, told the Post. "I have the signatures of 80 businesses, all saying that they want the theatre. And I could get 150, but I just don't have the time."
The Town Council floated a "request for proposals" to locate a group with a plan to operate the theatre in spring 2014; the result was the Elm Street and the Stratford Stage Group submissions now before the council. A special committee, which was created to sort through the ideas, agreed on the Elm Street group. The Post reports that council members say the SSG plan is still being considered.
"When it comes to raising money from companies, all they're interested in now are kids - education," Connor told the Post. "I hate to say it, but money for the arts these days is really hard to come by, and that'll make it all the more difficult for anyone operating the theatre to cover their losses. That's the reality we're looking at now."
"This is all very disturbing," the Post quoted Ed Goodrich, of the Stratford Arts Council, saying during a rally. "This is the turning point in this town and there's going to be big changes in Town Hall, thanks to this."