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Exit, Stage Right

Michael Wilson Looks Back At His 13-Year Run At Hartford Stage

FRANK RIZZO

June 19, 2011

Michael Wilson strolls along New York's Highline as a warm dusk casts a glow over an eclectic mix of passers-by taking in the sights and sounds of the cityscape.

"You know what the great thing is about Hartford," says the outgoing artistic director of Hartford Stage. "It is Grover's Corners. It is Harrison, Texas. It is Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It is a small-town city, and I've loved the exploration of the small town in my life and on stage."

He smiles as he surveys the picture-perfect Manhattan scene around him. "This is my new small town now."

Wilson, 46, is about to make Manhattan his permanent home after 13 years as the creative leader of Hartford Stage. On Monday night, the stage company will pay tribute to him; the following week, he will clean out his office to make way for his successor, Darko Tresnjak. A week later, he and Jeff Cowie, his partner of 20 years, and their cat Mister will leave their sprawling home in Hartford's West End to move into their newly renovated five-floor walkup in New York's Chelsea neighborhood.

Wilson will become a freelance director. It's one of the few times in his professional life that he has not been part of an institutional theater.

"As Liz Ashley told me, 'You're going to be flying free, sugar. There ain't going to be a net under you now, baby.' But the not-knowing is part of the excitement. But at times it's also scary."

Wilson won't be "between engagements" for long, however.

In August, he will direct the world premiere of a play that Hartford Stage commissioned, "The Ether Dome" by Elizabeth Egloff, at Houston's Alley Theatre. The 11-actor play is about 19th-century Hartford resident Horace Wells, who was the first to uses nitrous oxide as anesthesia in dentistry.

Next up is the remounting of Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate" at the Alley in October, followed by a run in January at San Diego's Old Globe that reunites many from the Broadway cast. In the spring, Wilson will direct a Broadway production of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man,'" starring James Earl Jones. (He also is in "conversations" with Angela Lansbury about joining the ensemble cast.)

In the summer/fall of 2012, "Divine Rivalry," which had its world premiere at Hartford Stage earlier this year, will play at a yet-to-be-announced West Coast theater.

"We're also still looking at reviving 'The Orphans' Home Cycle,'" Wilson says. "Houston is interested in the production in '12-'13, and Hallie [Foote] and I are still talking about the screen possibilities for it. The Broadway production of a new revival of 'Night of the Iguana' is on hold, but there's a chance that "Summer and Smoke" may come around again with Amanda Plummer in New York."

Heading for a meal at Tavern on Jane, a cozy restaurant-bar on Jane Street and 8th Avenue owned by good friend Horton Foote Jr., the conversation transitions to the past.

"A lot of it is so raw right now, but it's healthy to talk about it all," he says, looking back at the highs and lows of his tenure as the fourth artistic director at Hartford Stage in its 47-year history.

Shooting the Moon

"When [Hartford State board president] Tuck Miller called me on that January night in 1998, my first call was to Mark Lamos, to tell him how humble and excited I was to be succeeding him. My second call was to Chris Baker, asking if he and his fiancÚ [now-wife] Michelle would join me on this adventure to run the classics program. The next call was to Tracy Brigden, asking her to leave Manhattan Theatre Club to run the new play development program.

"Those first three years were so terribly exciting," Wilson says. "We shot the moon and just went for it."

Without a full-time managing director, the 33-year-old Wilson and his staff pulled together a season that included the launch of his 10-year Tennessee Williams marathon, the introduction of the "Brand:NEW" play reading series, the theater's long-running holiday tradition "A Christmas Carol" and a SummerStage series.

"We had an ebullient president in Tuck, someone who was very passionate about the theater's opening its doors and building bigger and younger audiences. It was really 24/7. You would start meeting with people at 7, 7:30 in the morning and then have a full day's and sometimes night's schedule. Deb Forand, who now works for Riverfront, would take me around the community and have me meeting with Dollie McLean in the North End and then with the country club or at the YMCA or the libraries in West Hartford and Simsbury.

"We were all over the place, broadcasting what we did throughout these communities and the state and eventually to the halls of the State Capitol."

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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