Head of the class

In the film “My Dinner With Andre,” two men of the theater — Andre  Gregory and Wallace Shawn — have a conversation about the theater that is really about two different ways of looking at life.

Having lunch with Bram Lewis, artistic director of The Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, is a bit of a “Dinner With Andre” experience. Joined at Hudson Grille in White Plains by retired Texaco executive Joan S. Gilbert, a longtime arts advocate, Lewis riffs on Alexander the Great, the nature of leadership, Greek tragedy, the Caesars, Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and the presidential elections before he homes in on his own story.

It’s a protean, quicksilver mind that shaped his tenure as founding director of The Phoenix Theatre in Purchase (1987-97). Among the company’s memorable productions were a Caribbean-flavored “Twelfth Night” and a poignant interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” that set a new standard for this tale of grappling with demons before you can move on, even if it must be alone.

“The productions were breathtaking, original and inventive,” says Gilbert, an Ossining resident. “Bram is a gifted producer and director and whatever he brings to his audiences is extraordinarily thoughtful and creative, not to be missed. It was my privilege and joy to serve on the board of The Phoenix during its 10-year run at Purchase College, and I’m happy to continue in that role at The Schoolhouse Theater.”

The Schoolhouse is, Lewis says, the oldest nonprofit theater company in Westchester County, founded in 1985 by northern Westchester gallery owner Leandra “Lee” Pope, who turned the space — a onetime public elementary school (1922-75) — into a visual arts center as well as a theater.

“If they asked me, I could write a book. Lee deserves one,” Lewis says. “The Schoolhouse Theater exists because of the persistent, kind, vigilant, generous vision of its founder.”

The two have known each other for more than 20 years, with Lewis directing a number of Schoolhouse productions — plays from “Tantalus” by John Barton, “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman, “Three Hotels” by Jon Robin Bates, “Housewives on Prozac” by Joy Rose  and “The Speed of Darkness” by Steve Tesich. But it took a minor fender-bender between Pope and a Lewis fan in the parking lot of Staples in Mount Kisco last year to make the relationship more permanent.

As Amina Durani — “ a friend who makes the best curry this side of the Punjab,” Lewis says — was exchanging car insurance information with Pope, she recognized her connection with The Schoolhouse and suggested Pope get in touch with Lewis. Which she did — asking if he’d like to run The Schoolhouse.

Last season, his first as artistic director, Lewis wrote and directed a new version of “The Gift of The Magi,” based on the holiday classic by that master ironist, O. Henry, then produced “Cambodian Lullaby” — Sokeo Ros’ autobiographical journey from the Killing Fields of his native land to the mean streets of Providence, R.I. — before directing the world premiere of Janice Maffei’s “How to Bury a Saint.”

“This season we will revive our production of ‘The Gift of the Magi’ (Dec. 15-Jan. 1),” Lewis says. “In place of an intermission, we bring on cookies and carols and Christmas songs and we sing together. I never miss a single show and will lead the singing personally.”

Then in April, it’s Stuart Warmflash’s “The Mask of the Jaguar.”  “Set in a Mayan temple ruin in the rainforests of Guatemala, it is part-ghost story, part-Latin romance with music and choreography,” Lewis says. “I’m very excited about it.”

But theater is just one of The Schoolhouse offerings that include exhibits; poetry slams; concerts by saxophonist Houston Person (Jan. 16) and singer Laurel Masse (Feb. 14); “Stand-up Nights” curated by Adam Oliensis; Richard Lederer’s one-man show, “A Play on Words” (Nov. 20); and readings from classic and recent books by Alan Sklar (Nov. 19, Dec. 10 and Jan. 7).

All this with a full-time staff of just six and an operating budget of $300,000. Lewis is fundraising and looking to expand The Schoolhouse’s board. “But still, this is a year full of challenge,” he says. “Just this year the New York State Council of the Arts has unfunded 40 percent of their affiliates. We were one of them. This magnificent agency is the only state agency to be cut relentlessly over the past two decades, beginning with (Gov.) Mario Cuomo. Next, The New York Times has decided to withdraw all regional reporting.”

On the bright side, ArtsWestchester in White Plain has quadrupled its grants to The Schoolhouse to $8,000. Nevertheless, the NYSCA cuts and The Times’ withdrawal of coverage is a bitter blow to the arts, particularly the theater, for which a review here, a few dollars there can make all the difference.

If there’s ever an artist for these difficult times, it’s Lewis. Though he spent the first years of his life on a 300-acre farm in southwestern Ohio, he and his mother, Emily, were soon off to New York City, where he attended the independent Buckley School on the Upper East Side. For a hyperactive farm boy, it was “a weird transition.” But his mother and the theater got him through it. When he saw Richard Burton in John Gielgud’s landmark 1964 production of “Hamlet” — for which Lewis sat still for three hours — he had found his calling.

At 17, he began his professional theater career at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square Theatre, working for Ted Mann as his assistant. He then worked for Hugh Southern at the Theater Development Fund.  At  The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, he trained for the stage.  Back on this side of the pond, he appeared in more than 40 commercials and the soap operas “One Life to Live” and “Ryan’s Hope” as well as several regional theaters — Actors Theatre of Louisville, Alaska Repertory Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Hartford Stage Co. among them. At The Phoenix, he worked with such actors and playwrights as Alan Arkin, John Barton, Ellen Burstyn, Billy Crudup, Ruby Dee, Horton Foote, Julie Harris, Ellis Rabb, Jason Robards, Frances Sternhagen and Elaine Stritch.

After The Phoenix disbanded, Lewis worked in real estate finance for some 10 years with the now defunct Wall Street Equity Brokers. But Lewis, who recently shot two independent shorts for “The New York Sonnet Project” and makes his home in Manhattan with his mother and daughter Kaili, never tired of “the roar of the greasepaint — the smell of the crowd,” to borrow a show title.

Now he’s back where he belongs.

“It’s a time of renewal, a period of growth — reaching back to alumni and friends and forging ahead with new ideas,” says the man who’s always percolating. “It’s exciting.”

For more, visit schoolhousetheater.org and bramlewis.com.

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