March 16, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
The public spaces
are too small, there aren't enough bathrooms, the backstage
is cramped, the fire alarm needs repair, the roof sometimes
leaks and, according to its managing director, the outside
of Hartford Stage "looks
like a badly lit prison."
So the theater now finds itself at a crossroads. It could spend
roughly $5 million to $6 million to repair and rehabilitate its
existing downtown building on Church Street. Or it could look
into expanding or building a new theater downtown - one that
could better match the artistic space with its artistic vision.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell said she wants to help chart the theater's
future, and today she will announce her support for $500,000
in state bond funding for a comprehensive study of the theater
and its needs. The State Bond Commission is expected to approve
the funding on March 24.
"Everyone believes we need to do something," said
Walter Harrison, vice president of Hartford Stage's board and
president of the University of Hartford.
The board has long known that
the existing theater was inadequate, he said, adding, "It's
great that the governor has the confidence in us to provide
the money that will help us study this further."
Jim Ireland, the theater's managing director, said the board
now will begin the hard work of deciding what is possible.
"The dreams have to balanced with the practicality, and
then you step forward boldly," he said.
Michael Wilson, the theater's
artistic director, has a vision that includes a second, smaller
studio stage for newer productions that would attract a younger
audience and offer lower-priced tickets. He also envisions
a public space that could emerge "as
the town square for the greater Hartford region," he said.
Neither can be accomplished
in the theater's existing space, Wilson said. "We have completely maxed-out at our current
facility," he said.
The board hired Joshua Dachs, of Fischer Dachs Associates in
New York, to do a preliminary study of the theater and its future
needs. Dachs' firm has worked on several large projects around
the country, including the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and
the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
With Dachs' study done and the state funding likely to come
through, the theater can now further study the possibilities
and continue down the path Wilson says is irreversible.
"To have the state of Connecticut make this kind of investment
in our future is a real shot in the arm," Wilson said. "It's
going to enable the study, but it's also going to give momentum
as we go to realize the ideas that come out of the study."
The state's vote of confidence also could inspire similar investment
in the theater's future by corporate and individual donors, he
The Dachs study offers a range of options, which essentially
boil down to two, Harrison said: expand the current site or build
somewhere else. The board has resolved to stay in downtown Hartford,
Building at the current site would be challenging, given that
the stage is, in Harrison's words, surrounded by a parking garage.
Even so, several board members spoke in favor of that option
at a recent, preliminary meeting on the subject.
Harrison said the board must balance Wilson's vision with what
donors will support.
"What can we raise, and how can we best use what we raise?" he
According to the governor's office, the study will yield a report
on the options for the theater, identify and hire a concept design
team and include detailed costs. The theater estimates that the
study could take a year.
"Hartford Stage is well respected in this region and across
the nation as an innovative and award-winning professional theater," said
Cathy Hinsch, a spokeswoman in the governor's office. "The
governor is looking forward to announcing state support for the
future of Hartford Stage as part of her commitment to arts and
culture in our state."
Hartford Stage also has worked closely with the city, getting
more than $20,000 a year in programming support. Hartford - which
owns the land on which the theater sits - also agreed this year
to waive lease payments for 12 years. That amounts to roughly
$400,000 that can go to the theater's capital improvements instead
of to the city, officials said.
In addition, the city is working with the theater to identify
potential parcels on which it could build, including New Ross
Park on Main Street over I-84, which was designed to support
buildings, according to Matt Hennessy, chief of staff for Mayor
Eddie A. Perez.
But such a parcel could present noise problems too costly to
solve, Ireland said.
"That's the sort of thing this study will flesh out," Ireland
said, adding that the park is a possibility. "The bottom
line is, I believe strongly that only passion persuades, and
we are passionate about this."
City officials would favor keeping an open parcel, known as
12-B, near Hartford Stage available for commercial development,
and not let it be used by a non-profit arts organization, Hennessy
Hartford Stage has received more than $1.4 million from the
state since 1998 for rehearsal spaces and a scene shop - neither
of which is in the theater's main structure.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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