Lowe Down

Malcolm Ewen, right, directing a rehearsal last summer for the Weston Playhouse production of “Fun Home.” Left foreground is lighting designer Stuart Duke.

Malcolm Ewen, one of the three founding directors of Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, lost his battle with cancer Monday at the age of 64. Not only did we lose one of this country’s most respected stage managers, and a co-creator of Vermont’s foremost theater company, we lost a beacon of humanity — both inside the theater and out.

For Malcolm was a friend, to me, to many others, and to the theater. It was always personal.

Malcolm’s co-founding directors, Tim Fort and Steve Stettler, his longtime collaborators, said in a shared statement: “Mal was our partner, our brother, and our soulmate for more than four decades. Although his career included Broadway and London’s National Theatre, he was never happier than when creating theater with the Weston family, which he helped to nurture. His love of life and theater was the essence of the Weston experience and remains an example for all of us.”

I remember meeting Malcolm in 2003 on the set of “Of Mice and Men.” It was my first story about Weston Playhouse, and Malcolm welcomed me to share his rehearsal, take photos, and interview whomever I wished. (Many directors are uncomfortable with a “critic” at rehearsals.)

This was a practice that was to continue right up until this past summer. We also enjoyed many dinners together, discussing everything from politics to — of course — theater. (Malcolm was not much of a gossip.)

Malcolm’s contribution to the theater world was one of quiet brilliance. As a director, his demand for the “truth” led to a deep humanity in his productions. He was able to make musicals, some of which I thought of as trite, like “The Music Man,” quite compelling. And what he did with last season’s “Fun Home” was simply devastating.

Whether by divine intervention, premonition or luck, Malcolm’s death came the spring after his, and Steve and Tim’s retirement as directors of Weston Playhouse. Like they did everything else, they had created an orderly process for a seamless transition.

Susanna Gellert, Weston’s executive artistic director as of last fall, responded to our loss: “Malcolm’s love for this theater, its artistry, and its community, are the cornerstone of Weston’s work today. His joy and abounding love for the family he created in Weston were infectious. We are profoundly fortunate to have known, loved, and learned from him.”

Weston will be dedicating this, its 83rd season, to Malcolm and honoring him with a memorial in Weston later this summer. Arrangements are being made and will be announced shortly.

It all began in 1988 when Malcolm, Tim and Steve, three recent college students performing summer stock at Weston, took the reins of Weston Playhouse. They reorganized it as a not-for-profit company, and entered into an agreement with Actors’ Equity, the professional union of actors and stage managers.

Later, Malcolm personally guided the expansion of the company’s accessibility, now a leader in the state. His impact on Weston will be felt far into the future, as he was instrumental in opening the new second stage in 2017, Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, an incubator for the new theater and a hub for community engagement.

At Weston, Malcolm directed many memorable productions including: “The Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Chicago,” “The Oath,” “The Threepenny Opera,” “Doubt,” “Urinetown,” “The Drawer Boy,” “The Full Monty,” “Ragtime,” “Stones in his Pockets” and “Of Mice and Men.” Last year, his production of “Fun Home” opened the inaugural summer season at Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm.

Actors remember his iconic “red tech hat” which came to symbolize Malcolm’s approach to the arduous 12-hour technical rehearsals. “Remember,” he would say, “It’s called a play for a reason. Have fun and tell the story.”

Malcolm was also a very humble man, so I must turn to the Weston press release for more history. He was also a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre family since 1987, receiving an invitation into Steppenwolf Ensemble in March 2019, the first stage manager to be asked to join the company. During his 32 years there, he stage managed more than 40 shows and took four productions to Broadway, including the recent Tony Award-winning production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“There is no one who embodies what it means to be an ensemble member more than Malcolm Ewen,” Anna Shapiro, Steppenwolf’s artistic director, said then. “We all know the lie of the theater is that it’s made by the people you can see. For more than 30 years, Malcolm has been a pillar of Steppenwolf, contributing immensely to the honor, to the legacy and to the spirit of this company. Malcolm has touched the lives of every single member of our ensemble, and it’s time for the world to know the impact he has made — and continues to make — on us all.”

Malcolm was the 2014 recipient of the Robert Christen Award for Technical Collaboration presented by the Michael Merritt Awards, and in 2018 he received the Del Hughes Award for lifetime achievement in stage management, given by the Stage Manager’s Association of the United States.

A lifetime advocate for actors and stage managers’ equitable treatment in the workplace, Malcolm served on the Council of Actors’ Equity Association, fighting for the rights of his fellow union members. Malcolm was also a long-serving board member for Season of Concern, and helped many theaters raise money over the course of his career. He previously served on the board of The Actors Fund.

In addition to his theater family, Malcolm is survived by his brother William Ewen, sister Camilla Durbin and five nephews and nieces.

For those of us who knew Malcolm, losing him is heartbreaking.

Jim Lowe is the theater critic and arts editor of The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.

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