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A Tribute To City Pioneer In Arts

'Chick' Austin Profiled In Play

October 23, 2006
By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer

Everett "Chick" Austin, the charismatic arts visionary who transformed the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Hartford in the '20s '30s and '40s into a major force in modernism, is back.

One of the city's most influential and dynamic figures is the subject of a new play by David Grimm, whose "The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue" debuted at Hartford Stage last year and whose "Measure for Pleasure" opened this year in off-Broadway.

"The Great Osram" is part of the theater's annual "Brand:NEW" festival of play readings that begin today and continue through Oct. 30. "Osram" will be presented Wednesday at 7:30 at the Aetna Theater at the Atheneum , 600 Main St.

"I have completely fallen in love with these characters," says Grimm of Austin and his wife Helen, who is also depicted in the play.

The project began when Michael Wilson, artistic director of Hartford Stage, suggested that Grimm read Eugene R. Gaddis' biography of Austin, "Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America," and "see if there could be potentially a play in there," says Grimm.

"I was instantly hooked by his personality and achievements," says the playwright, who also wrote "The Savages of Hartford" (a drama about two brothers, developed at Hartford Stage). "But I also felt a little overwhelmed."

Austin, who took over the Atheneum at age 26 in 1927 and ran it until he was ousted by the museum board in 1944, introduced modern art to America while transforming Hartford into a cultural center. Under Austin, the Atheneum acquired major works by Dalí, Mondrian, Miró, Balthus, Max Ernst and Alexander Calder, and became the first museum in the United States to mount a major Picasso retrospective. Austin embraced all new art forms and made film, photography, architecture and contemporary music part of the museum. Austin also created - and designed - a theater inside the museum where he staged the premiere of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera "Four Saints in Three Acts" with an all-black cast in the '30s. Thomson called Austin "a whole cultural movement in one man."

Austin, who died in Hartford in 1957, was also a larger-than-life showman who loved to act, give lavish costume balls and entertain as a magician, The Great Osram.

Grimm's play, set in 1943 and 1944, is a two-character piece made up of two monologues by Austin and one by his wife Helen Goodwin Austin, a daughter of one of Hartford's leading families. Robert Sella and Enid Graham (Hartford Stage's "Enchanted April") play the Austins.

"There are a number of issues and questions that come up in the work," says Grimm, such as "what is the role of the artist in society, how does an artist function within a bureaucracy, what role does art play in our life and how is one married to an artist - which also examines what is the nature of marriage?"

Jeremy B. Cohen, associate artistic director who heads the play-reading series, says Grimm was approached for the project "because of his language-driven, joyful, energetic style would be the perfect match to capture the spirit, passion and genius of Chick." Cohen says "The Great Osram" is a work in development and could evolve in many different ways.

The theater is developing projects that "capture the spirit and stories of Hartford," says Cohen. Other subjects include poet Wallace Stevens and Horace Wells - Hartford mayor, dentist and the father of anesthesiology. Wells' stage work is being developed by playwright Elizabeth Egloff ("The Swan"), a West Hartford native and Yale School of Drama grad.

The following is the schedule for Hartford Stage's "Brand:NEW" play-reading series through Oct. 30. A pass to all readings costs $25 ($20 for Hartford Stage subscribers), although some readings are free.

Tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St.: "Words on Fire" features short works by African American playwrights Zakiyyah Alexander, Carlyle Brown, Cheryl Davis, Marcus Gardley and Robert O'Hara. The works feature Linda Powell, Annemarie Davis, Lynda Gravatt (Hartford Stage's "A Raisin in the Sun"), Cyrus Farmer, Pascale Armand and Stephen Williams. Hana Sharid and Liesl Tommy directs. (This reading is free.)

Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Rehearsal Studio, 942 Main St., will be Adam Bock's "The Receptionist" with Lola Pashalinski, Damian Young (HBO's "The Comeback"), Brian Hutchison and Melle Powers. Jeremy B. Cohen directs.

On Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art will be "The Great Osram." Michael Wilson directs.

On Thursday at 7:30 p.m., "No Holds Barrio" starring, written and directed by Luis Alfaro, Aetna's Voices playwright in residence at the theater, will be presented at the Rehearsal Studio.

On Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Rehearsal Studio will be Migdalia Cruz's "Yellow Eyes" with Jose Febus, Shirley Rumierk, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen Williams and Tanya Perez. Candido Tirado directs.

On Friday at 10:30 p.m., at the main theater will be "Prozak and the Platypus," book and lyrics by Elise Thoron, music by Jill Sobule with Peter Frechette, Alicia Irving and Clayton Dean Smith. Steve Cosson directs.

On Saturday at 3 p.m. at the main theater will be Naomi Wallace's "The Fever Chart: Three Short Visions of the Middle East" with Daoud Heidami, Gordana Rasovich (Hartford Stage's "Othello"), Ariel Shafir and Amy Carle, directed by Cohen.

On Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at the Rehearsal Studio will be a free playwriting panel, featuring many of the "Brand"NEW" writers.

On Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Rehearsal Studio is Jose Rivera's "Brain People" with Sona Tatoyan and Rebecca Wisocky, directed by Erica Gould.

On Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Rehearsal Studio will be Ginna Carter featured in her own two-person play, "Dorothy."

On Sunday at 7 p.m. at the main theater will be "Write On!," the winners from the high school playwriting competition. (That event is free.)

On Oct. 30 at 7:30 at the main theater is "Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner" with Felix Solis (Hartford Stage's "The Cook"), Adriana Sevan, Florencia Lozano and Joaquin Torres, directed by Lisa Peterson. (The play will be presented in a full production on the main stage in March.) The reading is free.

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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