Andy’s Summer Playhouse in Wilton will be celebrating its 40th year this season.
In the summer of 1971, as the voting age was being lowered to 18 and China was being admitted into the U.N., Margaret Sawyer and William (Bill) Williams, two teachers at Mascenic Regional School, opened a summer theater in Mason to encourage youth in the performing arts. They named this summer playhouse after beloved Mason resident named C.W. Anderson, affectionately known as “Andy.”
Forty years later, having moved to Wilton, the summer playhouse is still going strong, though it has seen its difficulties. In 2008, the playhouse hit a rough spot and almost closed, but three alumni came to its rescue. Jaimie Harrow, Mark Haley and DJ Potter grew up at Andy’s and believed their time there truly changed their lives. They also thought they weren’t alone.
“Andy’s has about 75 to 100 kids each year,” Harrow said. “Over 40 years that’s a lot of kids. We tapped into this huge alumni base and were able to raise money.”
Andy’s is similar to many youth theaters in that its final product is a performance. This summer kids will put on three shows, Dick Tracy, Swiss Family Robinson and The Day the Earth Stood Still (a musical). What is unique is that these performances are designed specifically for Andy’s, so every show is a world premiere. Also, according to Harrow, kids ages 8 to 18 are involved in every aspect of the production. Not only do kids perform but kids also build the sets and run the lighting, which can lead to a memorable blackout or two.
“We find it important to have the kids explore their artistic side,” said Harrow, who is now a managing director. “But we really take the educational aspect seriously. We’re not focused on the end product but on the process, and as a result we’re a lot more open and give kids more attention and they really respond to that scenario.”
Harrow has been involved with Andy’s since he was nine years old and said his experience there had a profound influence on his life. He said this is because Andy’s encourages kids to explore the boundaries of who they are.
“If a kid wants to speak in a funny accent or jump around, we encourage and channel that and as a result they really feel like they fit in,” Harrow said. “Theater arts is an amazing avenue to cultivate that expression.”
When asked if constantly pretending to be someone else could have a negative influence on a child’s development, Harrow said he had never seen that.
“At these ages it a process of experimenting,” Harrow said. “As kids grow up they try on personalities like hats. One day they’re a cowboy, the next they’re a rich kid. We take the danger out of it by providing a controlled environment that allows the creative process to flow.”
The large age range of students also helps in establishing bonds. Harrow said the youngsters often look up to the older kids and the older kids take on the role of mentors. Harrow said a lot of that is because Andy’s requires so much involvement and the kids take that responsibility seriously.
And although the world has changed a great deal over the past 40 years, Harrow said the experience the kids are getting is the same.
“Sure, now we have a no-cell-phone policy and kids get to learn cutting edge theater technology,” Harrow said, “but it is really about the relationships.”
These develop over the course of a production when kids practice between three or four hours a day, five or six days a week. Such dedication is not limited to the stage and technical aspects. Andy’s also offers the C. Russell Playwriting Lab, which teaches kids how to write plays. Their plays are then performed by their peers.
There will be a season opener on Friday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Andy’s Summer Playhouse, 582 Isaac Frye Hwy in Wilton. The show will include performances by alumni and staff, which includes 15 professionals.
“We’ve got some big-name actors coming down from New York,” Harrow said. “It should be an impressive performance.”