Lunch with the FT: Theatre of dreams

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I was choosing my clothes carefully, wondering what would be the correct look for taking an Oscar-winning actress to lunch, when my mobile phone sounded. It was Joanne Woodward’s publicist calling to tell me that she had decided not to meet me at our original venue, an intimate Italian restaurant near the Westport Country Playhouse where Woodward is artistic director, but preferred to have her regular takeout lunch at the theatre. I was invited to share sandwiches and smoothies from the Organic Market.

“She hates to talk in restaurants,” said Chance Farago, whose improbable name might have suited one of the southern drifters that Woodward’s husband, Paul Newman, played in their early films. I was not surprised. For more than four decades, Woodward and Newman have tried to fit in with life in the smallish shore-side town of Westport, Connecticut, so it would be unlike Woodward to hold forth in a public restaurant with a tape recorder next to her plate.

“Welcome to the Smilow Lounge,” Woodward says when I arrive at the theatre. Lunch arrives in a brown paper bag: a tuna salad sandwich for her, an avocado cheese sandwich for me, followed by fresh smoothies made with apple, pear, bananas and protein powder. She has one almost every day.

At 75, her voice still has traces of the southern accent that first seduced the nation in the 1950s. She is casual about the Academy Award she won for Three Faces of Eve - “That was just a fluke” - and dismisses her career rather breezily as “a few good films and a lot of mediocre ones”. But she is fiercely proud of her success spearheading the multi-million-dollar renovation of the dangerously dilapidated Westport Country Playhouse.

Once little more than a barn with seats set in an empty field, the Playhouse is a living link to the glory days of American theatre, and to the era when Woodward and Newman were earnest young drama students dreaming of a life on stage.

“I remember coming out by train in the Fifties when I was in drama school in New York and going to see it and I was just mesmerised with the theatre itself,” she says, managing, unlike me, to appear elegant while eating an overstuffed sandwich from a small paper plate on her lap. “It was, ‘Here’s a barn, let’s do a play,’ and I loved that. And I loved the obvious disabilities, the bathrooms that you couldn’t find and the leaky roof.”

Soon after that first exposure to the playhouse, she and her future husband were teamed as understudies in a Broadway show called Picnic. Newman got his big break when the actor in front of him was fired, but Woodward never got the call. Nevertheless, her work as an understudy helped her get a role as the ingenue in a musical starring Shirley Booth.

That should have been her big break, except that Woodward - a disciple of Sanford Meisner and his introspective Group Theatre approach to acting - spent so much time questioning her character’s motivation that, she says, she turned rehearsals into an endurance test. Her technique might have been appropriate for a drama, but it was way over the top for what was simply a frothy musical.

“Shirley Booth put up with this for about four days and then said, ‘She’s got to go’ and I was fired,” Woodward says, moving on to a cabbage salad. “I just wasn’t learning the lines. That was the only time I was fired, thank goodness.”

She soon rocketed to Hollywood’s A-list with a string of acclaimed films. The next time she acted with Newman, in The Long Hot Summer, both were stars, not understudies. Most couples have photos or other mementoes of the early days of their romance, but Woodward and Newman have an entire feature film: Newman was married, but that didn’t stop the pair from catching fire, on screen and off.

When I start to tell Woodward that the two of them seem to sizzle in that movie, she interrupts. “I should hope so,” she says. “We had a great time. We shot it outside of Baton Rouge in September and I told Marty Ritt [the director] that I went to school at Louisiana State and every year at that time we have a hurricane. We always do. I told him it was not a good time to shoot. And he said, ‘Don’t be silly.’ We got down there and had such a hurricane and it rained for at least a week and there was no way we could shoot but to get the insurance we had to stay there. So we were in campers - not big ones like they have now, just campers. Going back and forth. It was great.”

The lovers were soon married, and when their first daughter was born, Woodward started pressuring Newman for a move from Manhattan into the countryside. The Westport playhouse was a draw, as was the presence of a close friend who lived in the adjacent small town of Wilton, and the two soon purchased a house and barn on three acres of land in Westport.

Besides providing a stable home for a couple working in a notoriously unstable business, the property has proven to be a magnificent investment. They bought it for $96,000, and it’s worth millions today. And it allowed the stars to raise their children out of the public eye - no one paid any attention when they were shopping downtown, or when Newman was zipping around the streets on his motorcycle. The only exception came during what Woodward somewhat derisively calls Newman’s “international sex symbol period”, when unwanted female visitors would sometimes arrive on their doorstep hoping for a peek at their idol. They were chased off by the Newman children h wolfhound.

When Newman reached his late forties, Woodward hoped trom acting and conrious films. Instead, he discos day. The couplso agreed to play the lead role in a summer production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which helped the moribund cash flow. He still had charisma, but Woodward says that when it came to learning his lines, he needed far more time - many months in fact - than he had as a younger man.

By then, Newman had launched his third career as a philanthropist, with extraordinary results. What started in 1982 as a small idea - marketing the home-made salad dressing he usually gave away to friends at Christmas, with the proceeds to go to charity - had mushroomed into a line of “Newman’s Own” foods that has so far raised more than $175m for worthwhile causes, including a number of camps Newman runs for children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. Their daughter Nell got into the act, marketing “Newman’s Own Organics” to raise money for similar causes, and it is her creation - non-fat organic Fig Newmans, a play on the popular Fig Newtons brand - that Woodward chooses for dessert.

“Nell used to argue with her father about the fact that his products were not organic, so he, in a fit of rage I’m sure, said why don’t you start your own company and she said, okay I will,” says Woodward, enjoying both the fig-stuffed cookies and the memory of the confrontation that led to their creation. “Nell is always saying, Mom, you don’t have to have the non-fat ones, get the low fat, it’s not that much difference and it tastes better, but actually I like these more.”

Woodward and Newman have been blunt in their criticism of the Bush administration and the Iraq invasion. She tried at first to stay out of the debate because the Playhouse board of directors includes some Bush supporters, but finally she decided to speak at weekly anti-war rallies. “You would have to be a raving maniac not to be very upset about what’s happening in this country,” she said. “It’s too important, so I started to speak.”

Now that the playhouse is on a sound footing, financially and physically, Woodward plans to direct an adaptation of David Copperfield this December and then step down as artistic director. She is lukewarm about taking on any more film or stage projects and seems enthused mainly about the prospect of going back to university. Her goal is to get a master’s degree, possibly in Italian studies, although she is also considering medieval history and the history of the United States as possible subjects.

“I’m a great lover of going to school,” she says, finishing her third cookie and calling it a meal. “When in doubt go to the library and just sit and read and be quiet. People say I should learn how to use a computer and use the internet - but I would rather go to the library and look through the stacks.”

The Organic Market, Westport, Connecticut

1 x tuna salad sandwich

1 x avocado cheese sandwich

2 x red and green cabbage salad

2 x apple, pear and banana protein shake

2 x Fig Newman cookies

Total: $26.69

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