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Hartford Stage, After Michael Wilson

Future Unclear As Theater Company Searches for New Executive Director


August 27, 2010

In June, Michael Wilson announced he will be stepping down as artistic director of Hartford Stage at the end of the 2010-11 season. He took over 13 years ago from Mark Lamos, who held the post for 17 years before that, so such a change in leadership at the respected theater company is a very big deal.

This is a moment that calls for trumpets.

In conversations with theater folks throughout the region and beyond, several key points have emerged that the search committee, and Hartford Stage's board, should consider as the search begins for new artistic leadership.

Take a good, hard look around

In the 2013-2014 season, the theater will celebrate its 50th anniversary. But Hartford Stage — indeed American regional theater overall — has changed dramatically in that time. Audiences are older and far from diverse. Competition for the arts and entertainment dollar is fierce. People want more than art from their theater. Social networking has rewritten the marketing playbook using a strange new language. The safety net for a subscriber base is badly torn.

This calls for a leader in tune with these changes and willing to act boldly, especially in its search for younger audiences. It calls for a tricky balancing act while trying to keep the faithful in line. That's why a smaller, no-frills second stage — which Wilson never got during his tenure — may be so important (and downtown Hartford has plenty of empty spaces). The riskier plays that appeal to this vital audience could be produced at the smaller venue without jeopardizing the main-stage box office. Without it, there will be a constant and unsatisfying tension for those precious six slots.

What is Hartford Stage, anyway?

Audiences have traditionally been split between those wanting new and challenging works and those attracted to classic repertoire that's been re-envisioned (but not too much so). One thing the Tony Award-winning Hartford theater is known for is its original productions. But that reputation is in peril as the theater turns to works that are little more than bookings and local remounts of recent New York productions. The board has to determine if the reasons that made its theater nationally distinguished are worth fighting for, or if it is satisfied to transition into a TheaterWorks-type presenter with a bigger budget.

Hartford Stage does not belong to the board

The board of directors is institutionally charged with preserving the theater, but its members are more custodians than visionaries. With theater in general having a tough time escaping the "elitist" label, the local search for a new director offers an opportunity for the theater company to open up, not close down. To not have significant input from the staff and the community (including longtime partner Hartt School) would be worse than insulting; it would be dumb.

Do we even need an artistic director?

There are other theater models out there, such as a producing director or an executive director with an artistic adviser. But the Hartford Stage board should not forget it oversees a tax-exempt, nonprofit theater whose mission is art, not commerce. If the focus becomes so bottom-line oriented, then the board should give up the company's special tax status and slog it out in the commercial marketplace.

Why does an artistic director have to be a director?

Yes, the word "director" is in the title, but do we really have to be quite so literal? Why not a playwright? (I remember A.R. Gurney's name coming up during one of Yale's searches.) It's not so difficult to imagine someone like a Paula Vogel leading a theater. Hell, she could lead a country. Or put an actor in charge. Kevin Spacey proved it was possible at the Old Vic in London. And Lamos had as much — more, really — experience as an actor than he did as a director when he took the helm here.) Or how about a stage manager such as Michael Ritchie at Williamstown Theatre Festival? Or even a brilliant theater visionary. Robert Brustein was a critic, after all, when Yale tapped him in the '60s. Bravo, Yale.

Avoid a bottom-line strategy

Watch out for those wanting more programming "to pay the bills." It's a slippery slope. I recently heard about a California theater famous for Shakespeare that offered its patrons "Forever Plaid" nostalgia programming. It then found that it was difficult for audiences to return to the Bard. They wanted more "Plaid." Beware of such bourgeoisie choices. You might have a short-term gain by pandering to what you think is popular, but the theater's reputation in the long run will be diminished.

Who is out there?

There are a a number of good associate artistic directors and associate artists such as Eric Ting at Long Wharf Theatre, David Kennedy at Westport Country Playhouse, Justin Waldman at Williamstown Theatre Festival (formerly at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston). Locally, Rob Ruggiero has certainly raised the profile of TheartreWorks.

Other names mentioned among theater folks are Laura Eason at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre; Darko Tresnjak at the Old Globe in San Diego; Wendy Goldberg, who is director of the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford; Eric Rosen of Kansas City Repertory Theatre; Gideon Lester, formerly of A.R.T in Cambridge; and free-lance director Lisa Peterson.

There's also Tracy Brigden, who was associate artistic director under Wilson before she left to run the Public Theater in Pittsburgh. (Sometimes you have to leave a theater to be appreciated. That was the case with Gordon Edelstein at Long Wharf, who didn't get the job when he was associate artistic director there but was tapped after he ran a theater in Seattle.)

There are two other theater companies competing in a search for the best talent out there: South Coast Rep in California and Baltimore's Center Stage.

It would be deliciously ironic if Irene Lewis, who was nudged out at Center Stage after 20 years, returns to Hartford Stage, where she began her career. Or Tazewell Thompson, who was a finalist when Wilson was hired and ended up at Westport Country Playhouse, only to be let go in the second year of a three-year contract.

See the art

Don't be swayed simply by a dazzling interview or persuasive search consultant. The board should go to where the candidate works and see what he or she does on stage. And guess what? It's very likely to be similar to what you will be seeing at Hartford Stage. Legend has it that a Northwest theater board never took the time to see any of the shows of the person it hired and was then shocked to see the shows that were subsequently produced. (Oh, and don't forget to Google theater websites for any skeletons in the closet. )

Most important, talk to people yourself, those who work with your candidates —

especially the tech crew. No one knows better how a place is really run than the folks in costumes, props, electrical and scenic shop.

Let's move quickly, folks

Time's a wastin'! Any artistic director should be mulling over possibilities this fall for the 2011-12 year and checking availability of artists. Then he or she should be fine-tuning the titles at the top of the year in order to present something in late winter for the marketing department to sell in early spring.

If a search is expected to last six to nine months for Hartford Stage, that means that new leadership season ain't gonna happen. (Wilson said upon his resignation that he will make himself available for the transition. I wonder if he has second thoughts about that.)

Ideally, you want an artistic director to say, "Ta-daa! This is my season." A cobbled-together list is just clumsy and starts the new tenure saying, "Well, this really isn't my season." (See Lamos at Westport Country Playhouse after that board's painfully prolonged search.)

Then Get Out of His or Her Way.

Once selected, let the artistic leadership thrive. Don't micro-manage. You've made your hire. Live with it; support it; market it.

Keep it about the art

I don't want boring, safe or small art on stage. Astonish me. And remember, no one gets excited by a sensible season. Board members should keep in mind that theater lovers write checks for the art, not to the suits.

Read Frank Rizzo's blog about theater and the arts— and for a few more suggestions for the Hartford Stage search — at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And follow him on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.

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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