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50 Years At Hartford Stage: The Highs And Lows Via Its Artistic Directors

By FRANK RIZZO, frizzo@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

12:05 PM EDT, October 31, 2013

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Among themselves, they call each other by the order in which they led Hartford Stage with Jacques Cartier, who founded the theater in 1963 being "One."

"Two" through "Five" —- Paul Weidner, Mark Lamos, Michael Wilson and the theater's present artistic director Darko Tresnjak —- will gather to celebrate the theater's 50th anniversary and to discuss their times running the Tony Award-winning institution on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. at the Millard Auditorium at the University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave.

The "conversation" will be moderated by Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theater Communications Group, the national advocacy group for non-profit theaters.

In advance of the occasion, I asked each man what it was like to take over the theater, what their high and low points were and what they would have done differently. The following is that edited conversation.

JACQUS CARTIER, 1963 to 1968, Began Hartford Stage in the former warehouse at 65 Kinsley St.; now lives in Newton, Mass.

On arriving: When I finished the Yale School of Drama where I studied directing in 1961, there was something in the air because theaters were being created around the country. But I didn't know where to go and where to start. I was teaching at Smith College when someone said, 'Well, why don't you look at Hartford?' I didn't know a soul there so I went to the Chamber of Commerce and I told them I wanted to start a professional theater. They invited me to their next monthly meeting to make a presentation. Meanwhile the publisher of The Courant investigated me and [my Yale professor] made me sound like I could walk on water.

"But I realized I couldn't do anything without the support of the insurance people. Many were helpful but I couldn't get anywhere with Aetna and its head Olcott Smith.

So I paid his chauffeur $20 just to let me sit in the back seat of his car and when Smith got in, there I was. He said, 'What are you doing? Get out of my car!' I told him I had this idea for a theater and he said, 'So you're the guy who's been trying to get to me?' I said, 'Please let me stay in the car until the next traffic light and then I'll get out.' He said all right so there I was talking a mile a minute putting my best ideas forward and we get to the next light and and he doesn't say anything and we keep on going. And through other lights, too. We finally got to his house, he invited me in, mixed me a martini, gave me a check for the theater and put his wife on the board."

"Olcott opened the door and the first person who went through — and Hartford Stage would never have happened without him — was Charles E. Lord, who was the head of the Hartford National Bank. I didn't have a nuts and bolts type of guy and when I asked for his help, he turned to his wife Margaret and said, 'What do you think, Peggy?' And she said, 'I don't see how you can say no.' And that's what really started Hartford Stage. When Charlie came on, everyone else got on board. He became the chairman of the founders committee to raise the money that got us started. Another important guy was [architect] Jack Dollard, without him we wouldn't have found that little space that became out first theater.

Highs: "The biggest high was when I realized sitting at a meeting with Charlie and others that this was actually going to happen, that there was really going to be a theater. Up until then it was a strong wish but suddenly I was with guys who could make it happen. I remember going home to my wife Diana, 'Honey we're going to have a theater 'and she said, 'I always knew you would.'

The next high was the realization that I could direct a play. Of course, I directed as a student but now this was professional theater and I told this community that I was their guy. What if I couldn't do it? But I did. It was like my whole life was preparing me for the first day of walking into this rehearsal room.

The first year we did four shows of two weeks each just to prove we could. We opened with 'Othello' because it was one of the few Shakespeare plays I could understand. The other high was when Stanley Kauffmann, a reviewer for the New York Times came up, saw what we were doing, which was Genet's 'The Balcony' and loved it. There we were on the front page of the theater section of the Sunday Times, and immediately there was a line at the box office.

Lows: Well, we didn't have enough time to rehearse because we didn't have enough audience and needed to put on another show. So we just rehearsed three weeks. It was like stock. My goal was to do six plays for six weeks and we finally got that by the end of my tenure

Retro thoughts: Maybe I would have chosen some different plays but I was always against pandering to an audience. Once audiences are fed pap they will never change. No, we're going to start with the kind of theater we want and if they dont like it they'll throw us out.

It looked like I could have stayed forever but I was beginning to feel like a tenured professor and I was eager to discover what else life held for me. So I resigned. I left in 1969 and had a rough time psychologically. I felt I had made a mistake. But I didn't think it was healthy for me to dwell so I stopped thinking about Hartford and didn't talk to anyone who ran the theater.

It was not until Darko invited me to 'Twelfth Night' and asking me to please think of this place as my home, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. It meant a huge amount to me.

PAUL WEIDNER, 1968 to 1980; lives in New York.

On arriving: "I had been there for a few years as an actor and director so I was familiar of the turf when I took over but I wasn't aware of the shaky financial situation due to its growing pains. My first board meeting was an existential experience because there was the idea of abandoning it all.

That idea didn't prevail but I quickly realized I was taking on something I hadn't anticipated. It was quite a crash course but I had some really good people who were the heart of the board — Ellsworth Davis, Jack Huntington and Belle Ribicoff — and the company through those times, never trying to dictate my artistic policies. We muddled through and got it back into reasonable shape.

Moving into the new theater [at 50 Church St.] was euphoric because a few years before we were at another existential point. Some people thought we should abandon the whole idea of the new building because the money was not coming in. Cooler heads prevailed and the money eventually was found, among them from the United Arts Fund. They got wind that we were considering not doing the new building and they jumped in to pull us over the line. They recognized the sense of genuine enthusiasm the people in Hartford had towards the theater.

We didn't think of creating a second space in the new building because the old place was still available to use and stayed that way throughout my tenure. [It closed after that.]

Highs: Because it was a good production and also because it opened the new building, I'd say 'All the Way Home'. It had a strong American voice to it. Another highlight was a production of 'My Sister My Sister,' an African-American play and I was advocating getting African-American voices on stage.

And just for sheer ridiculousness, Christopher Durang's 'The History of the American Film.' I remember rehearsals being just laugh fests. It was a sharp, cohesive and collaborative production. It was a director's dream.

Lows: I remember a trying time when we were trying to get a production of a new play that also had a Broadway producer attached to it. It was going to start in Hartford, open out the season and then go to New York. But the star's schedule kept changing and we kept changing the dates and recalling tickets. It was quite hellish for the box office. We finally had to abandon the whole thing. It was a harrowing experience. [The show was "Bent" and the star was Richard Gere.]

Retro thoughts: Knowing what I know now, I think I'd have advocated the choice of Jack Dollard as architect for Hartford Stage's new building over the choice we eventually made of Robert Venturi. Venturi delivered what we needed — and were very explicit about — but I think we were seduced by his star power in the world of architects, and don't know what more he brought to the scene beyond that.

Dollard had designed the original theater on Haynes Street (renovating an existing building), which, despite its quirks, everybody loved. I'm sure he would have done as well starting from scratch on a new theater.

MARK LAMOS, 1980 to 1998; lives in Sherman, Conn., and is now artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse.

On arriving: It was a huge opportunity for someone who was in his early 30s. But I found it very daunting at first. The legacy of Paul was so strong I had a lot to live up to and needed to honor. There was a clear desire by the board to invest in large classical plays so for me that was a happy match.

I was really on a learning curve for a few years. There was a lot of responsibility but it was also glorious at the same time.

Highs: My five or six years partnership with [managing director] David Hawkanson. We were just completely in synch in understanding how the theater should grow, how it should be looked at, how it should function. But there were also a lot of challenges in our relationship, too.

Another high was my desire to diversify the staff and audience, which really came into fruition late in my tenure with the Lila Wallace Grant which brought more African-Americans to the theater. Paul has investigated work by black authors and that urge was always part of what the theater was about but when we got the grant money, it made a huge difference.

In terms of production, the first 'Cymbeline' and the last were both just really personal high points. I was so in love with its actors and designers.

Lows: There were some terrible failures but what was different then was despite the fact it was upsetting when a production failed, there was not intrinsic damage to the theater. Now that's changed.

What also became wearing for me is the attrition of many staff members and when i just felt we were constantly replacing staff.

But what was most depressing was the nature of the city was changing and the realization that we may have to get smaller. Also, some of our most important board members were transferred, or the corporations left town, and the ballet and symphony were in trouble and even the hockey team left. It was, overall, not a good time. I thought, 'Oh, boy, I don't think I can keep investing in this any more.'

Retro thoughts: A personal answer here. I was very young for my first 10 years there and I wish would not have tied myself in so many knots and personalized things so much. A failure of a show then was like losing a dog in a car wreck. And it was so much work to achieve the successes. I have a natural energy to push myself. But it was too intense.

MICHAEL WILSON, 1998 to 2011; lives in New York.

On arriving: When I arrived in April '98, Mark had been gone for some time and there was an intermediate season with no artistic director. My first charge was to work with Edward Albee and [oversee] Mark's return to direct a stunning 'Tiny Alice.' It was a nice way of passing the baton. And then I planned my first season.

The managing director left that June and it was just me and the staff —- a lot of talented, high powered, energized, passionate people —- crammed into this tiny space on Church Street. We joked it was just like fast-moving 'The West Wing', which was popular at the time. What we were trying to do was make Hartford Stage enliven the community. We were all over the place from 7 a.m. to 10 at night speaking at Rotary Clubs, at YMCAs, talking to CEOs and subscribers and gardening clubs. The aim was to let people know that the theater everyone had loved would not only be OK, but that we would nourish it and have it grow.

We took on a lot, creating the holiday entertainment and SummerStage and the playreading festival and establishing an outreach education program.

Highs: Tennessee Williams Marathon. And 'A Christmas Carol' because it expanded our reach deeply into families and doing it in a way that had great theatrical style. Also our new play development efforts, commissioning the Horton Foote Cycle and works by Quiara [Alegria Hudes, whose Hartford Stage-commissioned 'Water By the Spoonful' won a Pulitzer Prize] and Daniel [Beaty] and so many others.

Lows: There came a moment towards the end of my third season when some thought I had too big an ambition, more than the resources could support. There was a real discussion about whether I should stay. Ultimately I decided there was no way I was quitting and that a small insurgency would undo the work of this hard working, dedicated staff. So I came back like a lion. I wasn't ready to leave yet. I met them toe to toe very passionately and I got a contract renewal —- which I almost didn't get.

Retro thoughts: I was so driven to achieve a second stage that I got fixated with one approach that worked against the enterprise. We should have regrouped, re-strategized and created a consensus. Ultimately I believe that a space is necessary to do new and experimental work. Now Darko is building in that legacy and I think there's a real commitment behind new work.

DARKO TRESNJAK: 2011 to present; lives in downtown Hartford.

On arriving: "I thought the theater occupies a special place in the city and I fell in love with it, the staff and the board, not the least of which was Belle Ribicoff who has been the biggest supporter of the theater for the last 50 years.

Highs: 'A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder,' certainly. [The show, now in previews, opens on Broadway Nov. 17]. There was no recent institutional memory for doing a musical yet everyone stepped up to it beautifully. It taught me to test the limits of what we could do with the company.

Last year I was very proud of the work done by [directors] Jenn Thompson, Jennifer Tarver and Annie-B Parson, three women who are a joy to work with and I was so happy with their work.

Lows: I don't complain very much. The problems that come up get solved and I believe in the creativity of the staff and the artist but sometimes the hours and the tolls it takes makes for very long nights.

Future thoughts: One of the goals is to grow our subscriber base. Last year we added six percent. I think subscribers make the best audience. And more new play development. but what playwrights need are productions and not an endless series of readings. And that should be everything from new plays, to musicals to something entirely different. As for repertory of classics, we have to wait to see how people respond to the rep this year but I'm proud that the theater did it and that Shakespeare and classic plays are back on board on a steady basis. And I want to see further growth and quality for the education department because god knows that there is a need for it.

ARTISTIC DIRECTORS TALK on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. at the Millard Auditorium at the University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave. The event is free but seating is limited; reservations required by calling Hartford Stage box office at 860-527-5151.

FUNDRAISER AND PERFORMANCE will be held celebrating the 50 years of the theater Monday, Nov. 4, at Hartford Stage's 50 Church St. theater. The show will feature actors — including Dana Ivey, Richard Thomas and Bill Raymond — in signature scenes and musical numbers from each era of the theater. Also in the line-up will be Kate Forbes, David Patrick Kelly, Barbara Walsh, Matthew Rauch, Mary Layne, Kate MacCluggage, Novella Nelson, Lisa O'Hare and a scene from the annual youth group event, Breakdancing Shakespeare.Tickets for premium seats and dinner are $175. Show-only preferred seats are $100, and show-only regular seats are $35. (Preferred and regular tickets do not include dinner.) Seating is limited. For reservations, contact Kristen Mauro at 860-520-7241. Information: 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.

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