Star of stage, film and television, Christopher Walken returned to the Stratford stage he walked as a young actor on Sunday, called the American Shakespeare Theatre, and said the building is “a treasure” that is perfectly suited for music, plays, musicals, and even movies.
“Get the talent and they will come,” Walken told reporters as he toured the long-dark theater. “I would do a play here.”
Walken’s visit was part of the American Shakespeare Theatre Alumni Talk series produced by the Stratford Arts Commission and the Stratford Center for the Arts, seeking to bring renewed attention to the theater and benefit their multi-phase plan for restoration. Walken played Hamlet here in 1982. On Sunday he took the stage, reminisced in his old dressing room, and admired the space from the balcony.
After the tour of the Shakespeare Theatre, Walken, who starred in movies including The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction and Batman Returns, captivated a sold-out crowd at the Scottish Rite Theatre in downtown Stratford in a conversation with arts and theater writer Frank Rizzo of The Hartford Courant.
“I am glad to see it again,” Walken said of the Shakespeare Theatre building on Elm Street. “It’s built of good stuff … good bones. It’s a big place. Seems built for music, and it’s closer than New Haven.”
When Walken heard that one idea being considered by the theater restoration organizers is creating smaller stages for smaller audiences, Walken added, “For plays, smaller helps.”
About the market in general he noted, “Westport Playhouse is successful … and what they do at Goodspeed [Opera House in East Haddam] they could easily do here.”
Walken lives in Wilton.
While walking around the Shakespeare Theatre’s upper level, Walken looked longingly at a lobby, which he said was a little nightclub back in the day.
“People used to come,” he said in his characteristic calm, quiet tone.
When a reporter asked the much-awarded star of film, television and stage if returning to the theater made him think of all the successes he has had since he played here, Walken deadpanned, “No. I am thinking of when I stood here afraid I was going to miss my cue.”
Stratford Arts Commission Chairman Ed Goodrich welcomed the audience to the Conversation with Christopher Walken by saying, “This is about coming home. Chris Walken and the alumni are part of Stratford and the fabric of our town.” He reminded those gathered that “without art, all will be forgotten.”
Restoration, in brief
Matt Catalano, Stratford Center for the Arts executive director and a member of the Stratford Town Council, explained to the audience that “the state of the theater now is not our fault.”
The town of Stratford took ownership back from the state in 2005 after roughly 15 years of the theater’s being shuttered. Parts of the interior have been cleaned up for visitors, and other parts, particularly the level below the stage, are in disrepair. “We are now getting it opened to the public with events like this, to see the majestic theater,” Catalano explained. “We want to get the theater back on the conscience, so one day we can again present classic work.”
“Christopher Walken and Ed Asner [the first visitor in the Alumni Talk series in January] coming here show how important the arts are,” said Catalano. “It speaks to our soul.” He mentioned the advantages of Stratford with I-95, the Merritt Parkway, the train, and water access, and the goal of his group to get people to come here to spend their money.
Goodrich explained to The Star that the current project to restore the American Shakespeare Theatre and rebuild an audience for the arts in Stratford is being done differently from prior efforts. “We are growing outward, organically,” he said. In short, the plan calls for bringing attention to the revitalization efforts with the Alumni Talk series. Then they plan to fix the buildings, continue with the outdoor festival in the summer, and build programming to include Shakespeare, music, dance, and other performances. Goodrich likened the step-by-step plan to building a fire. “We are starting with the twigs. We will not go beyond our means,” Goodrich said. “We are doers. Half the fun is getting there, and we will not fail.”
The Conversation with Walken
The conversation between Walken and Rizzo, who was extremely well-prepared with countless details of Walken’s career and extensive knowledge of the bodies of work, began with a standing ovation for Walken and was marked with the star’s calm demeanor, direct answers, and dry sense of humor. At least a couple of attendees felt that Rizzo, at times, spoke over Walken’s storytelling and left the star in mid-thought, ready to continue but cut off by Rizzo’s unrelenting knowledge of the subject matter.
Walken talked especially about his youth in Astoria, Queens, and being just a 10-minute subway ride from Manhattan. He was involved in show business from a very young age. “I got an education by accident that I don’t think anyone else could have,” he said. “Everyone knew me” around New York City from his work in the business, he said, “and I was able to walk in and out of theaters … and stage doors.” He would stop in, stand in the back and observe great performances.
A member of the audience asked if Walken has ever played a part that was like himself. “No,” he said, “I wish I could get one!”
Walken mentioned that he has been looking recently and repeatedly at Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with an eye toward the role of Prospero.
The conversation ended with the crowd’s thunderous applause to Walken saying, yes, he would be interested in coming back when the theater is up and running.