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A Stage Too Small In City's Center

With State Aid Expected, Theater Looks To Future

March 16, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

The public spaces are too small, there aren't enough bathrooms, the backstage is cramped, the fire alarm needs repair, the roof sometimes leaks and, according to its managing director, the outside of Hartford Stage "looks like a badly lit prison."

So the theater now finds itself at a crossroads. It could spend roughly $5 million to $6 million to repair and rehabilitate its existing downtown building on Church Street. Or it could look into expanding or building a new theater downtown - one that could better match the artistic space with its artistic vision.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell said she wants to help chart the theater's future, and today she will announce her support for $500,000 in state bond funding for a comprehensive study of the theater and its needs. The State Bond Commission is expected to approve the funding on March 24.

"Everyone believes we need to do something," said Walter Harrison, vice president of Hartford Stage's board and president of the University of Hartford.

The board has long known that the existing theater was inadequate, he said, adding, "It's great that the governor has the confidence in us to provide the money that will help us study this further."

Jim Ireland, the theater's managing director, said the board now will begin the hard work of deciding what is possible.

"The dreams have to balanced with the practicality, and then you step forward boldly," he said.

Michael Wilson, the theater's artistic director, has a vision that includes a second, smaller studio stage for newer productions that would attract a younger audience and offer lower-priced tickets. He also envisions a public space that could emerge "as the town square for the greater Hartford region," he said.

Neither can be accomplished in the theater's existing space, Wilson said. "We have completely maxed-out at our current facility," he said.

The board hired Joshua Dachs, of Fischer Dachs Associates in New York, to do a preliminary study of the theater and its future needs. Dachs' firm has worked on several large projects around the country, including the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

With Dachs' study done and the state funding likely to come through, the theater can now further study the possibilities and continue down the path Wilson says is irreversible.

"To have the state of Connecticut make this kind of investment in our future is a real shot in the arm," Wilson said. "It's going to enable the study, but it's also going to give momentum as we go to realize the ideas that come out of the study."

The state's vote of confidence also could inspire similar investment in the theater's future by corporate and individual donors, he said.

The Dachs study offers a range of options, which essentially boil down to two, Harrison said: expand the current site or build somewhere else. The board has resolved to stay in downtown Hartford, he said.

Building at the current site would be challenging, given that the stage is, in Harrison's words, surrounded by a parking garage. Even so, several board members spoke in favor of that option at a recent, preliminary meeting on the subject.

Harrison said the board must balance Wilson's vision with what donors will support.

"What can we raise, and how can we best use what we raise?" he asked.

According to the governor's office, the study will yield a report on the options for the theater, identify and hire a concept design team and include detailed costs. The theater estimates that the study could take a year.

"Hartford Stage is well respected in this region and across the nation as an innovative and award-winning professional theater," said Cathy Hinsch, a spokeswoman in the governor's office. "The governor is looking forward to announcing state support for the future of Hartford Stage as part of her commitment to arts and culture in our state."

Hartford Stage also has worked closely with the city, getting more than $20,000 a year in programming support. Hartford - which owns the land on which the theater sits - also agreed this year to waive lease payments for 12 years. That amounts to roughly $400,000 that can go to the theater's capital improvements instead of to the city, officials said.

In addition, the city is working with the theater to identify potential parcels on which it could build, including New Ross Park on Main Street over I-84, which was designed to support buildings, according to Matt Hennessy, chief of staff for Mayor Eddie A. Perez.

But such a parcel could present noise problems too costly to solve, Ireland said.

"That's the sort of thing this study will flesh out," Ireland said, adding that the park is a possibility. "The bottom line is, I believe strongly that only passion persuades, and we are passionate about this."

City officials would favor keeping an open parcel, known as 12-B, near Hartford Stage available for commercial development, and not let it be used by a non-profit arts organization, Hennessy said.

Hartford Stage has received more than $1.4 million from the state since 1998 for rehearsal spaces and a scene shop - neither of which is in the theater's main structure.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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