Rob Ruggiero, who arrived at Hartford's TheaterWorks as a freelance director in 1993 and stayed on as associate artistic director for many years, will be the theater's next leader in the new position of producing artistic director, overseeing both its creative and management sides.
Ruggiero, 51, of West Hartford, has been interim director since founding artistic-executive director Steve Campo, 60, took a medical leave of absence in January. He resigned in June. Ruggiero begins his new job, with an open-ended contract, on Jan. 2.
"It's a dream come true," says Ruggiero. "It's very emotional for me having been part of the development and evolution of the theater. It will be 20 years this February."
When Campo left, the board started a search for a "producing artistic director," which combines the roles of artistic and managing directors. It was a position that Ruggiero, who had an active freelance career in New York and around the country, was at first hesitant to pursue.
"I changed," he says in a phone interview from New York. "In the course of being interim artistic director I stepped up to the plate and surprised myself that I could contribute to the business as well as the artistic side. It inspired me to pursue the job after all."
There were 130 applicants for the position, The search committee whittled it down to a handful in late fall. When Ruggiero threw his hat in the ring, he became the unanimous choice of the 10-member board.
"It's a whole new day," says board president Michael G. Albano, who is working on hiring of the theater's first full-time development director.
Ruggiero staged more than 40 productions at the 191-seat theater on Pearl Street in downtown Hartford, including "Take Me Out," "The Laramie Project," "Rabbit Hole" and "The Little Dog Laughed."
Ruggiero developed and staged two premieres at TheaterWorks that transferred to off-Broadway, "All Under Heaven" with Valerie Harper and the revue "Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn."
At TheaterWorks, Ruggiero conceived, developed and staged "Ella," a bio-musical about the life of Ella Fitzgerald, starring Tina Fabrique. The show premiered at TheaterWorks as "Ella: Off the Record" and its revised version has played at dozens of theaters across the country.
He directed two plays on Broadway written by Connecticut's Matthew Lombardo, "High" starring Kathleen Turner and "Looped" with Valerie Harper who received a Tony Award nomination for her performance.
But Ruggiero's career suffered a significant setback when he learned in 2007 he had a cancerous tumor that wrapped around his spinal column. Operations and aggressive chemotherapy saved his life, he says, and he is now cancer free.
In addition to TheaterWorks responsibilities, Ruggiero, who was born and raised in Milford, Mass., will fulfill commitments to direct this year: the tour of "Looped," starring Harper, which will begin the tour next month at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts' Belding Theater; "Other Desert Cities" at Pittsburgh's Public Theater; a production of "South Pacific" at the MUNY in St. Louis; and "The Most Happy Fella" for Goodspeed next fall.
Ruggiero says the TheaterWorks board understands the importance of doing work that improves his national profile and the opportunities for co-productions with other theaters.
"My freelance career took me somewhat away in the last few years but doing the interim position this past year re-ignited my feelings for the theater and its success," says Ruggiero, a Rutgers University graduate who was mentored and encouraged by directors Hal Scott, Gerald Freedman and Bill Esper.
"I certainly plan on preserving and honoring all that Steve did in his tenure, but also embrace the opportunity to have my own voice in this next chapter. But having 'the keys to the car,' as one of the board member said, allows me to take it further in new and exciting directions that I feel strongly about."
Ruggiero acknowledges "the whole community, staff and colleagues at other theaters who have all stepped forward in their support. I'm proud how we came through a difficult time. We're focused on the future right now.
The theater faced a six-figure deficit in January, forcing it to downsize the last two shows of its 2011-12 season and restructure its finances. It spent the rest of this year stabilizing its fiscal house, renegotiating tenant leases in the four-story building it owns, and beginning its search for a new permanent steward.
TheaterWorks' has a staff of 12, including general manager Nicole LaFlair Nieves Its annual operating budget is $1.7 million. The theater has one of the largest subscription bases in the state at about 5,600. It operates an art gallery on its first floor and its four-story Art Deco building, which the theater owns, is home to about 10 small not-for-profit arts groups. Ruggiero's salary was not disclosed.
Ruggiero directed the theater's current show, "The Santaland Diaries" and will stage the final play of the season, Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still." Between those shows are "Almost, Maine," "The Mountaintop" and a third show still to be announced.
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Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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