A Connecticut theater executive recently called it “the biggest change in American theater since the start of the regional theater movement in the ’60s.”
Joshua Borenstein, managing director of Long Wharf Theatre, was referring to the flood of openings for new artistic directors across the U.S., including at his own New Haven theater. In the past year more than two dozen theaters — some of the country’s major regional institutions among them — have kept search firms hyperactive. Never has such a massive leadership change happened at one time, spurring hope for a new and more diverse generation of artists waiting for their turn at the creative reins.
In Connecticut, two Tony Award-winning, half-century-plus theaters are in the final stages of finding fresh faces to reinvigorate the institutions. But who will they be and what will they represent?
Hartford Stage is seeking a successor to Darko Tresnjak, who is exiting in June 2019 after eight years. He’s leaving in a big way, too, with the premiere of his third new musical-with-Broadway-aspirations: The Flamingo Kid. Tresnjak’s career has been hot since he won a Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. This fall he’s launching the national and international tours of Anastasia. Both musicals, which premiered at Hartford Stage, will bring six-figure royalties to the theater for some time. Tresnjak also made his directing debut at the Met last month with Samson et Dalila and has more lucrative opera gigs ahead.
Gordon Edelstein’s exit at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre is a different matter. Edelstein kept the theater’s legacy alive during difficult financial times with productions of artistic excellence, many of them premieres by new as well as established playwrights, works that lived on in New York and beyond. But his 16-year tenure abruptly ended with his firing in January after several women, empowered by the #MeToo movement, came forward with sexual harassment charges. Indeed, the movement was a driving factor behind vacancies in other theaters, including Houston’s Alley Theatre.
Female artistic directors such as Carey Perloff, Molly Smith, Diane Paulus, Irene Lewis, Emily Mann and Lynne Meadow have led high-profile theaters for ages, but by percentage, the number of women running major theaters is relatively low.
The same goes for artists of color, with Kwame Kwei-Armah, Kenny Leon, Keith Grant and Snehal Desai among those belonging to that small fraternity. In Connecticut, Tazewell Thompson’s run at Westport Country Playhouse ended 10 years ago, after just two years. None of the state’s major theaters, including Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks in Hartford, Long Wharf, the Goodspeed in East Haddam, and Yale Rep in New Haven, have either a woman or a person of color at the helm.
In 2018, the mantra being heard in searches is “EDI — Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.”
“ ‘How are you going to address community outreach?’ is the No. 1 question that is being asked in these interviews,” one candidate says.
But will these aspirations result in a new reality by the largely white board members who ultimately hire? Will change also include staff, crews, artists and even the board itself?
“I sincerely hope that all of those conversations [about the importance of EDI] make it back to the boards,” Tresjnak says. “Because if they don’t, we might not see as big a change as everyone is hoping for — and then we’re going to have a very angry field.”
So far some of the new appointments nationally are in a positive direction. Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon succeeded Perloff at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre in July, but this was a gender “wash.” Stephanie Ybarra, who ran special artistic projects at New York City’s Public Theater (and is a Yale School of Drama grad), takes over at London’s Young Vic in December from Kwei-Armah, who is black.
Other moves have increased diversity: Maria Manuela at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre succeeded Howard Shalwitz, who co-founded and led the theater for 38 years. Hana S. Sharif, former associate artistic director at Hartford Stage, will take over next year at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis when Steven Woolf retires after more than 30 years. And Johanna Pfaelzer, formerly at New York Stage and Film and a graduate of Wesleyan University, succeeds Tony Taccone who has been with Berkeley Repertory Theatre for 33 years.
White males are not being excluded from these positions. At the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Simon Godwin, associate director at London’s National Theatre and who previously served as associate director of the Royal Court Theatre and Bristol Old Vic, will succeed Michael Kahn, who has been at the helm of STC since 1986, next summer. David Ivers, artistic director at Arizona Theatre Company, succeeds Marc Masterson at South Coast Repertory.
Other major openings, including at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and a few in New York, are expected soon. As well as here in Connecticut, of course.
Who’s out there?
In speculative conversations with theater insiders, certain names keep coming up: Obie Award winner Melia Bensussen, who also worked at Hartford Stage and Waterford’s O’Neill Theater Center, is highly mentioned. Another, Wendy Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, was a finalist the last go-round at Hartford Stage. Tracy Brigden was associate artistic director at Hartford Stage and headed Pittsburgh’s City Theatre for 16 years until her run ended last year. Eric Ting certainly knows Long Wharf, having served as associate artistic director under Edelstein before taking the reins at the California Shakespeare Theater. But will he want to return? Freelance director Jenn Thompson, who has theater cred in Connecticut and New York, also has the right stuff.
Other names: Shawna Cooper, Woolly Mammoth director-in-residence and Yale School of Drama grad; May Adrales, artistic associate at The Public Theater and a Yale School of Drama grad; Tony Award-nominated director Liesl Tommy and freelance director Arin Arbus. Then there’s Elizabeth Williamson, current associate artistic director at Hartford Stage who helped nurture Matthew Lopez’s two-part play The Inheritance, which the theater commissioned and developed — and which is London’s current sensation. It will undoubtedly be New York’s next big thing — and bypass Connecticut.
Let’s not forget talented men, too: formerly the artistic director of Hartford Stage, Michael Wilson, who in the ’90s was associate artistic director of Houston’s Alley Theatre, would be a natural for that spot — or could he return to Hartford? Or New Haven? Other names mentioned include Scott Schwartz, now artistic director at Bay Street Theatre in Long Island’s Sag Harbor, who was a Hartford Stage finalist eight years ago. Maxwell Williams, associate artistic director under Wilson, is now artistic director of New Orleans’ Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre.
And Rob Ruggiero, producing artistic director of Hartford’s TheatreWorks and with a host of credits on Broadway and around the country, is a plum to be picked. Other names of note include director Michael Arden (Broadway’s Once on This Island) and Eric Tucker, creative force behind off-Broadway’s Bedlam.
It’s not just the status but the salary that makes the top artistic positions attractive. Over the past decade, while pay increased incrementally for actors and staffers, artistic directors have seen their income rise significantly. Edelstein’s salary and compensation for the fiscal year ending June 2017 was $228,000; for Tresnjak, $243,000. But the highest-paid nonprofit theater executive in the state is likely David Fay, CEO of the Hartford presenting house The Bushnell. For the 12-month period ending in June 2016, Fay’s salary/compensation was nearly $500,000.
EDI aside, also necessary is artistic leadership that will excite the box office — as well as major donors. Hartford Stage did well the last few hires. Wilson gave the theater a burst of energy, community focus and big ideas and initiatives. Tresnjak laid a foundation of dazzling Shakespearean productions, brought in commercially minded musicals, fostered new works and, like Wilson, attracted stars (Mikhail Baryshnikov and Kevin Bacon among them).
But what’s next? Hartford Stage is interested in greater community engagement — but it also doesn’t want to lose its national network, legacy cachet and magnet for big names. Fundraising and new revenue streams will be increasingly vital as the old business model for nonprofit theaters — created when the regional theater movement began — is failing. And though its physical theater is finally upgraded, Hartford Stage is still limited by having a single, 500-seat theater.
Stronger connections to community is much on the minds of Long Wharf board members, too. Meanwhile, the theater is part of a consortium with New Haven’s Shubert Theatre and Albertus Magnus College that is bidding to take over a former nightclub space in downtown New Haven and turn it into a 200-seat theater and a 90-seat cabaret space.
Announcements of the two theaters’ new artistic leaders are expected around the end of the year. Then the stages will be set for further big changes.