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Article Published February 27, 2019
Al Jaffe: A Seat on the Aisle
Rita Christopher, Senior Correspondent

Al Jaffe loves theater and now he has a theater to love. Al has recently become the president of Board of Trustees of the Ivoryton Playhouse. He was also on the six-person selection committee that chose the four one-act plays, from 157 submitted, to be presented at the upcoming Women Playwrights Initiative on Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2 at the Ivoryton Playhouse.

Al, who lives in Old Saybrook, read 21 of the entries.

“I was humbled to think about women sitting down and pouring out their souls into a play. I enjoyed the experience, and I was very proud to support it,” he says.

On March 1, How to be a Widow and Water without Berries will debut, the former a conversational between Civil War widows and the latter a family conflict as two brothers try to move an elderly grandmother from a rattletrap tenement. March 2 features Partner of –, a play that focuses on Sally Hemmings, the slave who was also the mistress of Thomas Jefferson, and the Robertassey, the saga of a lost suitcase that contains the ashes of the protagonist’s father, to be buried in Ireland.

For the playwrights who attend the week of rehearsals preceding performances, Al points out the Women Playwrights Initiative offers many benefits, including suggestions from the directors and actors on how to make the play more effective. There are also talkback sessions each night in which the audience gets to offer their own ideas on the works they have just seen.

“They [the playwrights] laugh, they talk, they learn how to improve the plays; they love this experience,” Al says.

When he moved to this area in 2011, Al immediately bought season subscriptions to local theaters including the Goodspeed, Norma Terris, and the Long Wharf theaters, but he felt a special attachment to the Ivoryton Playhouse.

“I loved this theater, loved the building and its history, the pictures of all the actors who have been there,” he says. “It struck me that it was a place where that I could contribute.”

Even though the Ivoryton is a local theater, Al points out, it stages all its own productions rather than having traveling road companies come in with a cast of actors, sets, and costumes ready to go.

“Ivoryton does the whole thing itself,” he says.

Al is no stranger to production, but on another stage. He spent the early part of his career in television news at stations first in Boston and then as a news director in California. For the last 28 years of his professional life, he was an executive at ESPN. He joined the all-sports station in 1987, eight years after it began in 1979.

At the time he took a position at ESPN, the notion of a 24-hour sports program was still a relatively new concept. Al recalls telling his elderly mother, who lived in Massachusetts, he was moving back to the East Coast, to take a job with the sports network. She expressed skepticism at his decision, maintaining such a channel could not last.

Al started out managing the sports news broadcasts but for many years his primary responsibility, as vice president for talent negotiation and product recruitment, was hiring on-air broadcasters. One of his goals for the broadcasting staff was to encourage diversity in terms of gender, race, and even geography.

He recalls with pride the story of a young woman, working as a sports broadcaster in Nashville, Tennessee, who sent him a tape of her work. He felt she had real talent but was not yet polished enough for a national station. He sent her a letter with suggestions on how she could improve. A few years later he got another tape from the same woman, now in Atlanta.

“She told me she had followed my suggestions,” Al recalls, and he took another look at her tape.

This time he hired her. That sportscaster was Robin Roberts, who became a stalwart at ESPN before joining ABC’s Good Morning America. Among Al’s other hires at ESPN were Mike Tirico, now at NBC Sports, Jay Bilas, a basketball commentator for ESPN, and the late Stuart Scott, whose on-air style of delivering newscasts on ESPN2 was often described as a blend of hip-hop culture and sports expertise.

Al himself was not an on-camera personality except for one brief three-year interlude when he appeared as a judge on Dream Job, a program that gave contestants a chance to try out as on-air sportscasters.

“They learned it was much harder than they anticipated,” Al says.

Al started in broadcasting in high school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he recalls he was a regular presence at the local radio station. The result: He got a chance to help the sports director by giving the half-time statistic of local high school basketball games on air.

“I was in seventh heaven,” he says.

At Emerson College, he majored in broadcasting and got a job after graduation at the television station where he had interned. Now Al is co-vice chair of the Emerson Board of Trustees and, in his honor, the college named a lecture program featuring sports personalities the Al Jaffe Speaker Series. Al is very involved in the program, choosing the speakers every year and moderating a discussion with each.

For several years before his retirement from ESPN, Al, who had lived in Avon, commuted to ESPN headquarters in Bristol from the shoreline. But in 2015, the commuting was over. Al retired.

“It was time,” he says.

One priority for Al and his wife Kathleen now is their three grandchildren.

Members of the Ivoryton Playhouses’ Board of Trustees have the opportunity for a walk-on role in the holiday show, but Al has not done that and has no plans to. His last appearance on stage was as Senator Jack S. Phogbound in a high school version of L’il Abner. As a lifelong member of the audience, nonetheless, his belief in the power of theater is simple and direct.

“Theater sustains civilization,” he says.

Women Playwrights Initiative

Ivoryton Playhouse hosts the Women Playwrights Initiative performances on Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2, at 7 p.m. at the playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton. For tickets and information, visit or call 860-767-7318.