After Painful Westport Exit, Tazewell Thompson Finds Fresh New Directions
September 12, 2010
Tazewell Thompson is back in Connecticut doing what he loves best: directing.
The 58-year-old director-playwright is staging the Connecticut premiere of Nathan Louis Jackson's "Broke-ology" at Hartford's TheaterWorks, an intimate comedy-drama that centers on a struggling and loving single-parent African-American family. The play begins previews Friday and runs Sept. 24 to Oct. 24.
The last time Thompson was in Connecticut was when he was abruptly let go in late December 2007 as artistic director at Westport Country Playhouse after the board bought out the final year of his three-year contract, citing "artistic and professional differences."
"It took me completely by surprise," he says during a recent dinner interview at Max Downtown, not far from TheaterWorks, where he is in rehearsal.
"We were doing very well at 'that place,' " he says, referring to the playhouse. "No one ever complained about an actor in any of the shows. The production values were high, and we always did better than the year before. I'm very proud of my years there. We did poetry readings and Christmas programming. I personally campaigned in Washington on my own dime and got the first NEA grant for the theater."
Creating An Identity
Thompson, after turning down the Westport job twice, was hired in June 2005 to run the one-time barn-turned-summer-theater on Connecticut's "Gold Coast." His appointment was announced with great fanfare as the first full-time artistic director of the newly rebuilt playhouse, which was expanding to year-round programming. He was also one of the few African Americans to head a major American regional theater of the playhouse's history, size and scope, and one from a not especially diverse community. (When he was hired, African Americans represented 1.1 percent of Westport's population.)
"It takes years for a theater to create an identity, and that's why I appeared before audiences each night to make my pitch," says Thompson, who as playwright wrote the often-produced "Constant Star," a play about Ida B. Wells, a civil rights advocate who died in 1931. (He also adapted Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which the playhouse presented, and Aristophanes' "The Birds" for young audiences.)
During Thompson's tenure, the playhouse raised its profile by presenting "Thurgood," starring James Earl Jones as the first black Supreme Court justice; "All About the Us," a Kander and Ebb musical based on Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth"; the first of the Ayckbourn comedies staged by John Tillinger; several works by local playwright David Wiltse; and "Jam and Spice," a well-received revue of works by Kurt Weill.
Mark Lamos, who was artistic director for 17 years at Hartford Stage, became artistic director at Westport in 2009. "Mark is a wonderful artist," Thompson says, "and I hear he has a managing director who is on his side."
Thompson says his termination from Westport was "very painful, very hurtful, and it took me a long time to recover."
He says that with the support of his partner of 43 years, a good agent and some really strong friends in the theater, he was finally able to return to writing and directing. But he did not simply lose his artistic home when he left Westport; he and his partner gave up the rent-controlled West Village brownstone apartment they had for 23 years when Thompson relocated to Connecticut. "Ohhh, that broke my heart," he says.
Refocusing On Writing
Thompson says he focused on four commissions that awaited him as a playwright — from Lincoln Center Theater in New York; South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif.; People's Light and Theatre Company in Pennsylvania; and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where he got his start under theater pioneer Zelda Fichandler, who founded the Arena 60 years ago.
Among those projects is a new play, "Mary T. and Lizzie K," about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckle, a former slave.. "It's a wonderful story and perfect for Washington," Thompson says.
He also returned to directing operas, another facet of his career that he gave up for Westport. This year he staged "This Tender Land" at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y. The day after he finishes "Broke-ology" in Hartford, Thompson is off to direct "Porgy and Bess" for the New Orleans Opera Association, then back to Manhattan to stage Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending" at New York University and then to Massachusetts for a new production of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the Boston Lyric Opera.
Directing for TheaterWorks' intimate space brings Thompson back to the bare-bones theater he loves, he says, with staffers wearing a variety of hats. "They're all so sweet and committed. It's in the tradition of 'let's put on a show,' and that's so touching to me."
He also loves the play, which he was not familiar with until TheaterWorks approached him.
"The dialogue just crackles," he says. "It's straight-forward, honest writing, with characters brimming with humanity. It's been a long time since I've been at a first reading of a play and went, 'Ohhh, this is so lovely.' "
Role Of Artistic Director
Thompson, who was a finalist in late 1997 to become artistic director at Hartford Stage ( Michael Wilson got the job), says that role has evolved as theaters move several generations away from the original mission of the founding artistic directors who burst on the scene in the '60s. (Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre and Goodspeed Opera House will all be celebrating their 50th anniversaries in the next few years.)
"Some boards — not all — need master classes so they understand what their role is and what the role of an artistic director is and what their relationship is," Thompson says. "In some cases, the board is overstepping its mark."
When asked how he was feeling about life this year, Thompson says, "I'm feeling good now — about my state of health and the future of my work. And I'm also feeling optimistic in general about the theater world. I think for a lot of theaters this recession was a wake-up call, with everyone re-examining who they are and what they want to do next.
"A theater is a living organism that is supposed to change and be open to change, to keep it exciting and fresh."
That sentiment also seems to apply to Thompson.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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