Sometimes knowing what you don't want to be is as important as knowing what
you do want to be.
As Hartford Stage tries to envision what its new and improved
theater complex should be in the 21st century, it at least knows
what it doesn't want to be: a Palace of Art.
That is, a place where one only goes for special occasions;
an executive suite for the arts; one that is intimidating in
its formality and programming; one that welcomes your patronage
but not necessarily your presence; your Aunt Tulip's parlor rather
than the family living room.
This seems the right approach
for the Tony Award-winning regional theater that is now in
its 41st year. It's programming since artistic director Michael
Wilson took over eight years ago has been a wild mix of eclectic
stuff: some shipped in, some produced in-house, some in development;
some that boast Oscar- and Tony-winning stars and some that
don't; some that aspire to greatness and some just making a
buck. The shows can be as highfalutin as the best of them (a
cerebral Edward Albee premiere) or be down and dirty (think "Hedwig and the Angry Inch").
As downtown Hartford tries to establish an identity, much less
a community, Hartford Stage continues to do its thing on 50 Church
St., attracting more than 125,000 people to what has become a
year-round facility, in a building that just happens to look
like a bunker. (The annual attendance was 95,000 when Wilson
The folks at Hartford Stage want to help give Hartford some
soul by - at least metaphorically, but perhaps literally - opening
up the theater, expanding its view and letting the light in.
And that means making it not just the place where plays are produced
but where a community congregates. It's a decidedly populist
- and necessary - approach to its long-sought expansion because
it specifically sets out to embrace a larger, younger and more
diverse audience. The strategy could not only lay the foundation
for the success of the theater in the coming decades but could
be a boon to the downtown revival that so far lacks the human
For all the millions of dollars
that have poured into downtown projects, there is, to borrow
from Gertrude Stein, no "there" there.
Not yet, at least. Hartford Stage envisions itself as being part
of the heart of the city. With a "town square" approach,
it is declaring itself the place where people congregate to discuss,
learn, laugh, cry, argue and bond.
And when you think about it, that element has been missing in
all the urban development plans.
The state has funded $500,000 of a $600,000 study that is examining
the theater's options and will recommend - with specificity -
the best choice.
Originally there were options, ranging from doing a minimal
upkeep of the existing theater, which hasn't had a facelift since
it opened in 1978 as the John W. Huntington Theatre; to expanding
or building on a contiguous location; to creating a new arts
complex at another location.
The theater's board recently rejected the idea of doing the
bare minimum and is now setting its sights on a more extensive
expansion, which would create a second stage and make the theater
more inviting to a larger community, beyond Hartford Stage subscribers.
The Hartford Stage board, guided by managing director Jim Ireland
and president Jennifer Smith Turner, has three task forces: one
to look at options using the existing facility, including building
contiguous structures; a second looking at creating a new complex;
a third figuring out how to pay for it, including how much governmental
support it is likely to get.
Whatever choice is made, theater leaders are determined that
programming will determine the building, not the other way around,
which has been the case with many arts capital projects and which
has led to ongoing frustration and grief.
Theater insiders predict a
decision sometime this summer. Then comes the hiring of architects
and engineers, followed some time next year (possibly at the
June, 2006 annual board meeting) with "the
big reveal" of what the new Hartford Stage would look like.
Fundraising in earnest would begin then and, depending on how
that goes, shovels could hit the ground as early as 2007. But
don't start planning to buy tickets just yet.
Certainly, the difficulties that some theater building projects
have experienced give one pause. The Bushnell is carrying a huge
debt to pay for the Belding Theater, and the institution is planning
lay-offs to cope with a $500,000 to $1 million deficit.
A new $30 million theater downtown that seemed to be a sure
thing is more a work-in-progress for New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre,
coming through in stages as the theater progresses from planning,
to architectural vision, to the point where it can put a shovel
in the ground.
Goodspeed Musicals is trying to get some traction, having switched
its focus from building a new theater in Middletown back to East
Haddam after Sen. Eileen M. Dailey, D-Westbrook, whose district
includes East Haddam, vowed to block state funding for the project
Only Westport Country Playhouse seemed to have a relatively
quick and direct route from planning, to funding to building.
Its new facility opens next month.
Whatever plan is selected by Hartford Stage, a major component
needs to be creating an endowment to help finance operations.
Otherwise, it is doomed to a perpetual struggle. Westport Country
Playhouse understood that. Of the $30.5 million raised, $12 million
was earmarked for endowment and programming. (Of course, Gold
Coast fundraising is a bit easier than in Hartford, where the
economy is less robust and there are competing drives.)
With careful planning and passion, the potential is there for
Hartford Stage to create not just a theater but a center for
all its peoples, and give Hartford a place to call home.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at