By FRANK RIZZO
Mark Lamos and husband Jerry Jones sit on the stone wall in the backyard of their colonial home on a rolling green lawn off a winding countryside road in Litchfield County. Bella, their English Springer Spaniel, nudges to be included, too.
It’s a time of year Lamos would normally be gearing up for another season of plays in Connecticut, something that he’s done for more than 30 years, first as artistic director at Hartford Stage and then at Westport Country Playhouse.
But not this year. Lamos is stepping down from his position at Westport, a not-for-profit theater like many across the country that are facing unprecedented financial crises that threaten their very existence.
But after an extensive career, first as an actor, then director, artistic director and freelance theater and opera director, Lamos is stepping away from full-time theatre responsibilities.
Trim and still buoyantly boyish at 77, Lamos is as charming, erudite, and curious, quick with a quip or a hearty laugh, as he was when I first interviewed him more than 40 years ago. But this time our conversation has a broader, deeper and unflinching perspective, both professionally and as a gay man.
A Good Boy
Lamos and his older sister grew up outside of Chicago in Melrose Park, the children of Lutheran parents and in a house filled with music.
“I was a very good boy, if you know what I mean,” he says. “I loved music and my parents sensed that in me so when I was in the third grade, I began studying the violin religiously, and continued up until college.”
But in high school, Lamos became involved in theater and discovered he found another home on stage. That’s when the tension began between the two arts began and continued into college, where he majored in music.
“But all my best friends were in the theater department,” he says. “I didn’t feel copesetic with the musicians.”
A pivotal moment came when he was offered the role of The Dauphin in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark which conflicted with a concert.
“By being offered this part I was being validated and whatever [the theatre director] was seeing in me was more than any of my music teachers ever saw.”
An angry orchestra conductor confronted him with the soul-searching question: “When are you going to decide what you want to do with your life?”
At that moment, Lamos says he instinctively knew—and immediately called his parents on his decision to focus on theatre, not music. “My mother was furious and in tears, but my dad heard a voice coming out of me that he never heard before. By the end of that conversation he said he would figure out how he could make it all work out for me.”
Following college in 1969, Lamos remained in Chicago, working in theaters there. Veteran New York actor Shepperd Strudwick, who was in a play with Lamos, was so impressed with the young actor that he urged him to relocate to Manhattan to continue his career there. Lamos did, sleeping on a friend’s couch, and getting signed with Strudwick’s agent, the legendary Milton Goldman, who represented Laurence Olivier, Meryl Streep, and a host of theatrical greats.
Within in a week, Lamos had a part on a Broadway stage and by the end of 1972 he was in a new Arthur Miller play, The Creation of the World and Other Business. By the following year he was playing Christian on Broadway in the musical Cyrano, opposite Christopher Plummer.
But for years there was always something tugging at his heart. Throughout his teens and early career, Lamos struggled with his sexuality. His acceptance of being gay, he says, “was a long time coming.”
In college, “it just wasn’t on my radar. I knew I had feelings for men, but I felt it was just because I was ‘artistic.’ I dated women, though not a lot.”
Shortly after college he married a female dancer, a union that lasted seven years. “I thought maybe I was bisexual, but maybe not. Looking back, I saw I was so uptight I could not break out of the culture at the time. It’s hard for younger gay men now to know that in that day and age it was unsafe [to come out]. When I became an actor in the ‘70s, and being cast as a leading man, I thought to myself, ‘I cannot be gay. I have to be straight.’ “
Lamos began to direct plays when he was part of the company at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre in the mid-’70s, staging modest shows at its smaller venue. When he was starring in Hamlet in San Diego in the late ‘70s, he received an offer from the Arizona Theater Company to direct Equus, his first large-scale production.
While in Arizona, he fell in love with an actor in one of his productions—Jones—and Lamos no longer had any doubts. “It was our attraction that turned it around completely,” he says.
While in Arizona he was asked to be the theater’s interim artistic director and in 1979 he was offered the permanent position—but at Hartford Stage. That would begin his long association with Connecticut and its theaters.
While at Hartford Stage he occasionally acted (The Importance of Being Earnest, Anatol, and A Doll’s House), but principally he directed and oversaw the theater’s programming, mixing fresh interpretations of the classics with new works. He also became an early advocate of non-traditional casting.
During his tenure, Lamos formed a close working relationship with actor Richard Thomas, supported adventuresome directors like Richard Foreman and Anne Bogart, transferred more than a half dozen productions to Broadway, and elevated careers of theater artists, like Lincoln Center’s Bartlett Sher, who was then Lamos’ associate artistic director. In 1989, Hartford Stage received a Tony Award as outstanding regional theater.
Now partnered with Jones, Lamos was assured when he accepted the job that his sexuality would not be an issue in Hartford. “That said, Jerry was pretty much under wraps.”
Lamos recalled an instance in the mid-’80s when he was invited to a dinner party at a board member’s home in which composer Stephen Sondheim arrived as expected—but unexpectedly with a male date. “So, here was Sondheim with someone who was clearly his boyfriend, while Jerry stayed home because that wasn’t public. I felt, ‘Shit, here’s my lover locked away.’ I remember that whole evening feeling so regretful.”
During his tenure in Hartford, he programmed two significant events with gay themes. The first was in 1985 when he wanted to produce Larry Kramer’s landmark AIDS-era play The Normal Heart, which was a sensation off-Broadway. The Public Theater’s Joe Papp gave the go-ahead for this regional premiere; the Connecticut-born Kramer was thrilled. But Lamos says the theater’s managing director “just lost it, saying, ‘We cannot have that play on our stage. What are you thinking?’ “
The play eventually landed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre with Oscar nominee Thomas Hulce in the lead role.
When the opportunity in 1991 to combine for the first time two of composer William Finn’s gay-themed one-act musicals as Falsettos, Lamos seized the chance. “It was a wonderful experience because people could see this is what I believed.” The managing director relented, “because it was a musical…but he was still nervous about it.”
The production, staged by Graciela Daniele, who Lamos added “revealed so much heart in the show,” was such a hit “that there were limos from New York lining up to the theater.
Falsettos finally did transfer to Broadway—but not the Hartford Stage production. James Lapine, who directed the original one-acts off-Broadway, ended up staging the now-twinned musicals. (Lapine, however, was denied Daniele’s coup de theatre when at the end of the production the AIDS quilt was unfurled.) Seeing Lapine’s production—not Hartford’s—win the Tony Award was heartbreaking for Lamos.
In 1989, Lamos was offered a major role in the landmark movie Longtime Companion, the first feature film about people with AIDS, with Lamos playing a man in a loving relationship dying of the virus. [See related story.]
After 17 years, Lamos left Hartford Stage to begin his freelance directing career “which was liberating and fulfilling.”
But early in his freelance career Lamos was being wooed to head Yale School of Drama and Yale Repertory Theatre. “But it was just too soon, and I didn’t want to be tied to academia.”
He and Jones bought their home in Sherman as he received offers for projects in opera, regional theater, and New York. During this period, Lamos became the A.R. Gurney’s directorial collaborator for the playwright’s later plays.
After a decade of freelance work, though, Lamos missed not being fully in charge of productions and as various openings for artistic directors around the country emerged, “I had twinges, but I didn’t want to leave this area.”
In 2008, Lamos received a call from Westport Playhouse’s Anne Keefe, who was interim co-artistic director with Joanne Woodward, who years before led the campaign to rescue, renovate and revitalize the summer theater into a year-round venue. Lamos was asked to direct Of Mice and Men, replacing Paul Newman who had stepped down as director as health issues dramatically worsened.
Lamos was in rehearsals when he received a call that Newman had died at the age of 83. “I arrived in Westport and the playhouse driveway was filled with flowers. The actors were shellshocked. Annie was awash in tears. Nobody could rehearse and I told everyone to go home.”
Shortly after, Lamos was offered the role as artistic director.
When asked about the difference between the two theaters, Lamos says “Hartford Stage came into existence because a group of people in the community wanted a theater. Westport Playhouse was started [in the 1930’s] by commercial producers, so it never had a grassroots solidity and a mission that was behind it.”
When the board announced it was cutting its 2023 productions from five to three this year, Lamos felt it was time to leave, especially when the nature of the season’s shows he had selected was challenged. One of the trustees asked Lamos, ‘Who’s the target audience for Antigone? And the director thought, “Oh, maybe the world? Women?” (A colleague suggested the trustee’s question would a great title for Lamos’ memoir.) And when even Gurney’s quintessential WASP play The Cocktail Hour was questioned as a fit for tony Westport, Lamos knew he was making the right decision.
As for the future of the playhouse, Lamos says: “One of the wonderful things is that I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” But he sees the playhouse’s financial challenges as part of a wider crisis for American not-for-profit theaters.
“I think [not-for-profit theaters] may be permanently changing to something else. Maybe it will just go away. Maybe it was a moment started by a group of like-minded people that lasted for half a century, and maybe that’s it. This whole sea change could end up being wonderful, but I have no idea what the future’s going to bring.
“In my remarks at the Connecticut Critics Awards in June I talked about what it was once like when foundations insisted I do works of Shakespeare and new works—and audiences came to see these plays and filled houses. You can’t imagine what it felt like for an actor playing before 1,400 people night after night at The Guthrie, performing in works from Shakespeare to Shaw. That’s where I started—and look what I’m walking away from in institutional theater.”