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Hartford Stage Company's Act II

May 15, 2005

`Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men," said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1707. I'd say Michael Wilson, artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company, just might like to have a marquee large and well lit enough to display this quote for all his potential benefactors to see.

The Hartford Stage has decided that it's time to dream a big dream, to consider a major expansion. I met with Wilson and board President Jennifer Smith Turner to talk about the future of the Tony Award-winning theater. As Wilson began to explain, he moved to the edge of his seat, his speech picked up pace and he was off on his vision thing.

He's well aware of the Hartford Stage's history, starting in1963 as a fledging repertory company working out of a small warehouse just off Kinsley Street on the back side of the former Sage Allen department store. In 1977, the Hartford Stage moved to its current location on Church Street. A deal was cut with city officials to carve out a piece of the proposed parking garage to make way for the theater. By no means a palace, the new theater was still twice the size of the old one and offered every patron a good seat with an unobstructed view.

The theater was designed by Robert Venturi, acknowledged leader of the post-modernist movement, and at the time one of the country's hottest architects. The best part of the building was its plan: compact, intimate and funky. The most controversial was its facade. Some thought it bland and boxy, a few appreciated the referencing of the herringbone brick patterning to the Mark Twain House, but few raved about it. As story has it, Venturi himself wanted something far bolder: enamel panels of contrasting colors, but the stage company board resisted. In Hartford, you build in brick, and red brick at that. Venturi withdrew.

For 28 years, the theater has more than done its job, and on numerous occasions left us with a transcendent experience. Wilson says the stage company has outgrown its space. We know that there are far too few toilets, and that the ticket foyer can be like a New York City transit stop at rush hour. He knows that he doesn't have the rehearsal spaces, changing rooms and office space, much less the space for all the other things he wants to do. Jennifer Smith Turner and her board agree. So does the state of Connecticut, which recently awarded the Hartford Stage a generous grant to study its physical plant needs.

Wilson feels the time is right for the stage company to look ahead. He points out that the Hartford Stage draws 135,000 people to downtown Hartford each year. It is operating in the black and has achieved a stability that is rare for an arts organization. He wants to strengthen and expand the core programs of the stage company, or as he calls them, "the four artistic vision points": establishing the stage company as a center for neo-American writing and a home for emerging playwrights; expanding Masterworks For Tomorrow, which re-presents the classics in a contemporary context ; the Town Square Program focusing on seasonal and holiday productions; and establishing the Hartford Stage as the artistic home for the region's expanding and diverse artistic community.

To do this, Wilson says, he needs more space and different kinds of space. He envisions a large open space, a public living room if you will, where audience members and artists can gather and interact. He wants to expand the window into the theatrical world so that its many functions are more visually accessible. There is a need for seminar rooms, rehearsal and lounge spaces. And, don't forget the toilets.

Where and how can these needs be met? Those answers will be the product of an 18-month study. The options are interesting and would have a significant impact on downtown. First of all, the stage company says it is committed to downtown. Wilson and board members do want to fully explore staying where they are if they could "grab" more space in the garage for their use. This presents many interesting possibilities that could include carving out more space, perhaps expanding the garage in the process, or building on top of it. Other possibilities including hooking up with existing spaces and institutions, and creating satellite facilities. Or there is the possibility of building anew somewhere else downtown.

Having moved the hearts of men (and women), the Hartford Stage will ultimately have to see whether its patrons are moved to write necessary checks to realize these dreams.

Tyler Smith is a Hartford architect and a member of the Place board of contributors.

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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