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A Decade Of Dramatic Direction

Wilson Steadies Hartford Stage

By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer

November 04, 2007

When Michael Wilson arrived to take over Hartford Stage, he was an energetic, optimistic wunderkind, a dazzling people-person full of ideas, projects and dreams.

A decade later, the 43-year-old Wilson is still pretty peppy, upbeat and filled with commitment to the community.

But the years have made him a more measured man not only realistic about how far he can push artistic and financial envelopes but also savvy in knowing that significant change often takes time.

Sometimes a long time.

He is not alone in the wait.

The challenges Wilson has faced in terms of budgets, audiences and expansion plans are echoed in other regional theaters in the state indeed across the country as not-for-profit institutions are increasingly pressured to make it on their own in a competitive commercial market.

Despite dramatic changes in theatergoing habits (fewer subscriptions, more single-ticket buyers), less philanthropic giving, 9/11 and other societal needs drawing support away from the arts), and the rising expenses in producing plays from scratch, the theater continued to grow, but often in different ways than under Wilson's predecessors, the last being Mark Lamos, who headed the theater for 17 years.

Wilson's inaugural year was a breathtaking one, underscored by the fact that he was doing it without a managing director. He expanded the number of the productions to include a holiday extravaganza, which provides a stable, annual source of profits; a summer series of shows; the new play development series "Brand:NEW"; and the launch of his multi-year Tennessee Williams Marathon. He brought distinguished actors and playwrights to its stages as works introduced here moved on to other stages, including Broadway ("Enchanted April," "The Carpetbagger's Daughter," "Tea at Five," "Necessary Targets").

During the past decade, the theater got a new production facility for set-building and storage but plans to expand the theater's complex, including a long sought after second stage, were deferred.

"Artistic directors today have to be savvy about producing, budgets and balancing seasons," says Wilson recently during lunch before another premiere ("Chick, the Great Osram," based on one of Hartford's local heroes, Chick Austin of the Wadsworth Atheneum). "But the question is: How do you keep your [programming] vital and risky and daring while keeping and building audiences? The two don't always go hand in hand."

Campo, Price Long-Timers

Wilson's tenure is still half of that of Steve Campo's 21 years' running TheaterWorks, and that is almost half of Michael Price's staggering run at Goodspeed Musicals. But even Price's longevity (at Goodspeed's helm for 40 years in 2008) and his connections (as chairman of the Connecticut Commission of Culture & Tourism) not to mention the theater's national reputation and ability to send shows out beyond its tiny stages were not enough to achieve his long dream of building a bigger, better theater. Finances also forced him to reduce activity on the second theater in Chester to just one show this year ("Happy Days").

Price and Campo, who have the clout as either founders of their theater (Campo) or being synonymous with its entire history (Price), have the advantage of running their theatrical enterprise as they see fit, more or less. Enterprising is the operative word for both men, whose activities included real estate and other projects as a means of survival and control of their theater's environment. In Goodspeed's case, it includes the Chester theater, the Gelston House and touring. For TheaterWorks, it bought its own building and became a landlord for others. (Several of its shows have moved on as well, including "Ella" and "Make Me a Song").

But other artistic directors in the state have boards to deal with and in some cases increasingly involved (or over-involved, depending on your point of view).

In the last 10 years, Long Wharf Theater saw the exit of Arvin Brown, who ran the place for more than 30 years, only to have its dazzling new artistic director (Doug Hughes) fleeing the place because of board conflicts (some personal, some professional). Hughes became a Tony Award-winning director in New York.

Artistic director Gordon Edelstein, now in his sixth year, has given the theater a sense of artistic quality and stability as Long Wharf continues to define its identity and audience. Since getting a $30 million commitment from the state more than three years ago to build a new theater complex in downtown New Haven (former Gov. John G. Rowland's last arts largesse), it's been a painfully slow process with a groundbreaking date not even estimated. (Don't look for any clarity of what that project might be until well into 2008.)

Things were fast-tracked in comparison at the Westport Country Playhouse several years ago, propelled by some major funders, not the least of which was Joanne Woodward, who not only saved the summer theater from demolition but reinvented it as a handsome, versatile, yearlong facility. Artistic director Tazewell Thompson, now entering his fourth season, has quickly given that theater an identity, purpose and stature, serving as a place for commercially rooted shows to try out ("Thurgood," "All About Us") as well as an originator of new works and revivals.

James Bundy recently received a renewal of his five-year contract as artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and as dean of the Yale School of Drama. Thanks to Yale's resources and Bundy's nerve, that theater has undertaken a number of large-scale, adventuresome projects that have become that increasingly rare thing in Connecticut: a theatrical event ("Brundibar," "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella"). But even the Rep is not immune to budget considerations, and although it has introduced some fresh theatrical faces and works ("The Clean House," "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow"), many of its shows are imports from elsewhere.

Smaller Productions

Continual financial constraints on the artistic side jeopardize the work at Connecticut's Tony Award-winning theaters.

Smaller shows can't be the model, says Wilson, who recently staged a 25-member cast in "Our Town" a rare large-scale production that was a hit for the theater.

It was stunning to see a stage filled with actors after a series of one-person and modest-cast shows last year, the smallest number of actors working during a season in Wilson's 10 years.

"We've made certain choices in order to respond to certain needs and conditions," says Wilson. "But part of our history and mandate is to do the large-scale work in a balanced season. You've got to have the large-scale work, too."

Meanwhile, Hartford Stage's long-delayed expansion/endowment vision has finally found traction, and construction is planned to begin in spring '09. The 2009-10 season will be off site during the Church street theater's renovation. The new expanded theater, which is being built without state funds, will open for the 2010-11 season, Wilson's last year in his three-year contract renewal.

Efforts continue to find support for the second phase of an expansion onto Trumbull Street and a creation of second stage in order to develop new works and just as vital for the theater's future new audiences.

Sometimes it just takes a little time.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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