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Decision Looms For Hartford Stage

May 1, 2005

Sometimes knowing what you don't want to be is as important as knowing what you do want to be.

As Hartford Stage tries to envision what its new and improved theater complex should be in the 21st century, it at least knows what it doesn't want to be: a Palace of Art.

That is, a place where one only goes for special occasions; an executive suite for the arts; one that is intimidating in its formality and programming; one that welcomes your patronage but not necessarily your presence; your Aunt Tulip's parlor rather than the family living room.

This seems the right approach for the Tony Award-winning regional theater that is now in its 41st year. It's programming since artistic director Michael Wilson took over eight years ago has been a wild mix of eclectic stuff: some shipped in, some produced in-house, some in development; some that boast Oscar- and Tony-winning stars and some that don't; some that aspire to greatness and some just making a buck. The shows can be as highfalutin as the best of them (a cerebral Edward Albee premiere) or be down and dirty (think "Hedwig and the Angry Inch").

As downtown Hartford tries to establish an identity, much less a community, Hartford Stage continues to do its thing on 50 Church St., attracting more than 125,000 people to what has become a year-round facility, in a building that just happens to look like a bunker. (The annual attendance was 95,000 when Wilson took over.)

The folks at Hartford Stage want to help give Hartford some soul by - at least metaphorically, but perhaps literally - opening up the theater, expanding its view and letting the light in. And that means making it not just the place where plays are produced but where a community congregates. It's a decidedly populist - and necessary - approach to its long-sought expansion because it specifically sets out to embrace a larger, younger and more diverse audience. The strategy could not only lay the foundation for the success of the theater in the coming decades but could be a boon to the downtown revival that so far lacks the human touch.

For all the millions of dollars that have poured into downtown projects, there is, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, no "there" there. Not yet, at least. Hartford Stage envisions itself as being part of the heart of the city. With a "town square" approach, it is declaring itself the place where people congregate to discuss, learn, laugh, cry, argue and bond.

And when you think about it, that element has been missing in all the urban development plans.

The state has funded $500,000 of a $600,000 study that is examining the theater's options and will recommend - with specificity - the best choice.

Originally there were options, ranging from doing a minimal upkeep of the existing theater, which hasn't had a facelift since it opened in 1978 as the John W. Huntington Theatre; to expanding or building on a contiguous location; to creating a new arts complex at another location.

The theater's board recently rejected the idea of doing the bare minimum and is now setting its sights on a more extensive expansion, which would create a second stage and make the theater more inviting to a larger community, beyond Hartford Stage subscribers.

The Hartford Stage board, guided by managing director Jim Ireland and president Jennifer Smith Turner, has three task forces: one to look at options using the existing facility, including building contiguous structures; a second looking at creating a new complex; a third figuring out how to pay for it, including how much governmental support it is likely to get.

Whatever choice is made, theater leaders are determined that programming will determine the building, not the other way around, which has been the case with many arts capital projects and which has led to ongoing frustration and grief.

Theater insiders predict a decision sometime this summer. Then comes the hiring of architects and engineers, followed some time next year (possibly at the June, 2006 annual board meeting) with "the big reveal" of what the new Hartford Stage would look like. Fundraising in earnest would begin then and, depending on how that goes, shovels could hit the ground as early as 2007. But don't start planning to buy tickets just yet.

Certainly, the difficulties that some theater building projects have experienced give one pause. The Bushnell is carrying a huge debt to pay for the Belding Theater, and the institution is planning lay-offs to cope with a $500,000 to $1 million deficit.

A new $30 million theater downtown that seemed to be a sure thing is more a work-in-progress for New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, coming through in stages as the theater progresses from planning, to architectural vision, to the point where it can put a shovel in the ground.

Goodspeed Musicals is trying to get some traction, having switched its focus from building a new theater in Middletown back to East Haddam after Sen. Eileen M. Dailey, D-Westbrook, whose district includes East Haddam, vowed to block state funding for the project in Middletown.

Only Westport Country Playhouse seemed to have a relatively quick and direct route from planning, to funding to building. Its new facility opens next month.

Whatever plan is selected by Hartford Stage, a major component needs to be creating an endowment to help finance operations. Otherwise, it is doomed to a perpetual struggle. Westport Country Playhouse understood that. Of the $30.5 million raised, $12 million was earmarked for endowment and programming. (Of course, Gold Coast fundraising is a bit easier than in Hartford, where the economy is less robust and there are competing drives.)

With careful planning and passion, the potential is there for Hartford Stage to create not just a theater but a center for all its peoples, and give Hartford a place to call home.

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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