`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
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
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
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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