Scene and Heard: LIVE! Zoom conversations with Artistic Director Melia Bensussen and guests
A Community Carol (17-21 Dec.) Adapted in the spirit of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by Rachel Alderman Live Streamed Dec. 17, on-demand through Dec 21.
Inaugural American Voices New Play Festival (23-26 Jun.) Live Streamed Ash Tree by Georgina Escobar, Her Math Play by Christina Pumariega, and Simona’s Search by Martín Zimmerman.
Artistic Director Melia Bensussen and Managing Director Cynthia Rider had their first season at the helm of Hartford Stage cut short by the global pandemic that shuttered theatres across the country on March 12th, 2020. Hartford Stage cancelled the season through the spring, though it presented an online reading of The King’s Speech by David Seidler directed by Michael Wilson. In the spring, the theatre reduced employee workforce from a pre-pandemic level of 200 down to twenty-one, and both Bensussen and Rider took salary reductions.
Through the spring of 2020, Bensussen and Rider presented Scene and Heard, a live Zoom series, which began with weekly installments that became monthly episodes as the pandemic wore on. These virtual events included conversations with guest artists and a few dramatic readings of scenes from a variety of plays.
Originally, Hartford Stage had hoped to open a six-play season in January of 2021, but in July of 2020, the theatre put out a statement announcing that it would cancel all performances through June 2021 due to public safety concerns. “Having to cancel our productions has created a serious financial hardship for the theatre,” said Managing Director Cynthia Rider. “Canceling our 2020/2021 season as well is a painful but necessary decision to ensure the safety of our audiences and staff and the long-term survival of Hartford Stage.”
With the production activities of the theatre shuttered, Hartford Stage launched a robust online education program in the summer of 2020 that included classes for youth and adult students. Classes served seventy-five students during the summer months, and the fall line-up included seven youth classes and five adult classes. It also expanded its scholarship program to provide free classes to Hartford youth.
The lost revenue challenged the theatre, and to ensure it could reopen in the fall of 2021 it held the annual gala virtually and launched a Raise the Curtain fundraising campaign. Patronsand corporate partners were encouraged to donate funds as well as any outstanding tickets back to the theatre. Patrons who donated tickets were offered two exclusive virtual events: The Not-So-Complete History of Comedy,an evening of stories and material from the cancelled production of A Complete History of Comedy (Abridged), and A Broadway Evening hosted by Bensussen, Adam Heller and Beth Leavel. Plans were also announced for a New Works Festival in November 2020 (which was not produced until June of 2021), and A Community Carol, a collaborative performance created in the spirit of A Christmas Carol.
A Community Carol, adapted and directed by Artistic Producer Rachel Alderman, was billed as “a beacon of light at the end of a very dark and difficult 2020.” More than eighty collaborators participated in this project (presented live December 17th and available on-demand through December 21st). Contributing creators included returning Christmas Carol cast and Youth Ensemble members; members of Breakdancing Shakespeare (an ambitious summer youth program co-sponsored by the Greater Hartford Arts Council); students from Capital Community College and The Hartt School at the University of Hartford; the Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus; religious leaders; and a cohort of local artists. Bensussen noted, “This production… emphasizes the three aspects of our work that most matter to us: art, community and education.” The creative team included Video Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson, Sound Designer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, Assistant Director Zoë Golub-Sass, Dramaturg Sally Lobel, Videographer Alonzo L. Beckett of NE Video and Audio/Visual Coordinator Lucas Clopton.
The inaugural American Voices New Play Festival was launched virtually in June with three new plays by writers with Latinx and Hispanic roots: Ash Tree by Georgina Escobar, Her Math Play by Christina Pumariega, and Simona’s Search by Martín Zimmerman. Each play received a 4-day workshop in preparation for the live public reading, and each play was presented once in a virtually broadcast reading offered free (with suggested donation) to ticket-holders. The population of Hartford, Connecticut was over 40% Hispanic or Latino as recorded in a 2019 census.gov report. It is clear that Hartford Stage has selected programming designed to serve this large demographic, and has set its sights on expanding its audiences. Launching an annual new play festival is an ambitious project, and launching one during a pandemic reflects this team’s strong commitment to nurturing playwrights and to its commitment to practice anti-racism. A statement on the website reads, in part, “We have been called to action by our BIPOC colleagues in the national theatre scene and in our local community. We see you. We hear you. And we see ourselves: a predominantly white institution in a city with a population that is majority Black and Latinx. We are currently working on changes to our organization’s culture, policies and practices that address these inequities and racial disparities.”
In January of 2021, a coalition of donors issued a $1 Million matching challenge for the theatre’s Raise the Curtain fundraising campaign. In July, Hartford Stage met the challenge and surpassed its fundraising goal for the campaign, announcing plans to reopen with a full five-play mainstage season plus a holiday performance, beginning in October of 2021. Bensussen said “Our intermission is over! There is much to celebrate as we raise the curtain and invite everyone to join us for a season of plays that will re-connect us to each other. I cannot wait to see everyone in person again. ¡Me alegra darles la bienvenida de nuevo!*” (*Glad to welcome you back!)
The 2021-22 season will include: Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill; It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Playadapted by Joe Landry; Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous by Pearl Cleage; Dishwasher Dreams by Alaudin Ullah; and Lost in Yonkersby Neil Simon. All performances will be held at the 50 Church Street theatre in Hartford, newly named for Stanley Black + Decker in recognition of their leadership support of Hartford Stage’s Raise the Curtain campaign.
With substantial new fundraising and a new play festival featuring Latinx and Hispanic playwrights, there is promise for what lies ahead with this new leadership team.
Western Connecticut State University
Melia Bensussen and Cynthia Rider
courtesy Hartford Stage
Quixote Nuevo Octavio Solis (19 Sept. – 13 Oct.)
Cry It Out Molly Smith Metzler (24 Oct. – 17 Nov.)
A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas Adapted from Dickens by Michael Wilson (29 Nov. – 28 Dec.)
Pike Street Nilaja Sun (9 Jan. – 2 Feb.)
Jane Eyre Adapted from Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Williamson (13 Feb. – 14 Mar.) Cancelled March 12th
The King’s Speech David Seidler (19 Mar. – 19 Apr.) Not Produced – live reading online/zoom 7pm May 27th
Ah, Wilderness! Eugene O’Neill (7–31 May) Not Produced rescheduled 22 Oct. – 15 Nov.
The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged) Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (11–21 Jun.) Not Produced rescheduled 1-11 Oct.
There is so much to write about this season. Beginning with new, female leadership at the helm of this flagship institution; continuing with our nationwide quarantine that caused cancellations; to the most recent national and international Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. So, with sensitivity to the very weighty, unforeseen national events of this spring, I would like to begin this review by honoring the work that was presented this season.
The heart is back at Hartford Stage!
With the arrival of new leaders Artistic Director Melia Bensussen and Managing Director Cynthia Rider (announced in last year’s column), the work at Hartford Stage has focused more on actors and storytelling, with less reliance on spectacle. This is a welcome change in priorities.
This season opened with the fantastic Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, produced in association with Houston’s Alley Theatre and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Billed as a contemporary reimagining of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Quixote Nuevo, beautifully directed by KJ Sanchez, starred Emilio Delgado, who gave an elegant and wrenching performance. Takeshi Kata’s understated scenic design allowed for the wide-ranging play to move swiftly and worked well with the evocative lighting design by Brian Lilienthal, who created vivid desert skies on the cyclorama. The Tejano songs came as a joyful surprise in this Brechtian production. Also noteworthy was the charismatic Hugo E. Carbajal who gave a riveting performance as Papà Calaca, all culminating in an entertaining and powerful evening of theatre.
The second show of the season was the provocative Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler, billed as an “ode to modern-day motherhood,” or, as the press materials boldly stated, “Motherhood is a real mother.” Metzler’s play offers an unflinching look at the challenges of new motherhood, scrutinizes the economic realities that force parents to make hard choices, and sheds light on the double-standards that exist between mothers and fathers who choose to work. All of the actors in this four-hander did a wonderful job, particularly Evelyn Spahr as Lina and Rachel Spencer-Hewett as Jessie. The terrific unit set by Kristen Robinson was comprised of shared grassy backyards with houses in the background, which thrust the actors into primary focus and served the play well.
What do you get when two women take leadership of a theatre company? The audacious, radical, visionary offering of free childcare, of course! This season Hartford Stage developed a revolutionary “Play Date” program to provide free babysitting services for children aged 2-10. This program, piloted for one performance of Quixote Nuevo, was offered for several performances of Cry it Out, and then extended through the rest of the season for select performances. Artistic Director, Melia Bensussen stated, “Hartford Stage wants to lift all obstacles to parents and caregivers joining us and make attending the theatre part of their routines.” To which this reviewer-parent shouts, Hallelujah!
In January, Nilaja Sun performed her one-woman show Pike Street, in which she brought to life a variety of characters from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, presenting the central story of a Puerto Rican mother caring for her disabled daughter, and the friends and family members who surround them. Sun’s physical prowess was a feat to behold as she transformed from one character to the next using only her breath, body and voice. Sun also served as a guest artist for Hartford Stage’s ninth annual Project Transform program, which provides a diverse group of high school students the opportunity to create, rehearse and present an original performance piece.
The final production which was unable to complete its run before the March 12th Covid-19 closure was Elizabeth Williamson’s adaptation of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Adaptations are tricky. A writer must make choices about what to include and how to treat the source material stylistically. While Williamson’s production was mostly true to the novel, the production was missing the sensuality and longing that seethes under the façade of “proper” society. Williamson’s staging lacked inspiration, and in light of recent boldly physical productions like director Sally Cookson’s version for London’s National Theatre, this retelling was a disappointment.
Following the theatre’s closure, in spite of a 70% reduction in staff, Melia Bensussen and Cynthia Rider have been working to keep connected with their audiences by presenting a weekly live zoom series entitled Scene and Heard, that includes conversations with guest artists and dramatic readings of scenes from a variety of plays. In April, Hartford Stage offered one online performance of a reading of The King’s Speech by David Seidler directed by former Hartford Stage Artistic Director Michael Wilson, and starring the cast of actors who had signed on for the planned production. The free reading was performed nicely, despite a few technical difficulties, including sound issues and a few actors who did not implement the seemingly agreed-upon zoom background.
This year, in addition to the aforementioned Project Transform outreach program, Hartford Stage’s community engagement initiatives included an art exhibit showcasing the work of six local Latinx artists during the run of Quixote Nuevo; a food drive that collected 800 pounds of food; a reading of Marley and Scrooge: Frenemies Reimagined at the Mark Twain House; a community reading of a new Spanish translation of A Christmas Carol; and a new partnership with CT Inclusive Arts to make performing arts classes accessible for students of all abilities. Through these activities the theatre is striving to serve the Hartford area, particularly the Spanish-speaking members of the community who have not traditionally comprised a large portion of the theatre’s regular audiences.
The company’s public statement regarding Black Lives Matter concluded with the following: “May the stories on our stage, the voices of our artists, and the ever deepening work in community with our neighbors, students and audiences contribute to the fight against racism in our region and in our country.” This season, Hartford Stage was undoubtedly taking steps to strengthen bonds and expand their presence within, and service to, the Hartford community. It will be interesting to see how the new leadership team envisions the next chapter.
Central Connecticut State University
Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Make Believe Bess Wohl (6 – 30 Sept.)
Henry V William Shakespeare (11 Oct. – 11 Nov.)
A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas Adapted from Dickens by Michael Wilson (23 Nov. – 29 Dec.)
The Engagement Party Samuel Baum (10 Jan. – 3 Feb.)
Detroit ‘67 Dominique Morisseau (14 Feb. – 10 Mar.)
Jeeves and Wooster in “Perfect Nonsense” a new play from the works of P.G. Wodehouse by The Goodale Brothers (21 Mar. – 20 Apr.)
The Flamingo Kid Book & Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, Music by Scott Frankel (May 9—June 9)
For the first time in its 55-year history, two women have assumed the co-leadership roles of this flagship institution. In June of 2019, OBIE Award-Winning director Melia Bensussen became the sixth Artistic Director in the theatre’s history, and the first woman to hold this position. In July, incoming Managing Director Cynthia Rider, formerly Executive Director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, became the fifth person to hold that post. They join Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, who has been with Hartford Stage since 2012.
In an interview Bensussen said she hopes to “…further develop the theatre’s high profile, increase community engagement, and further expand its importance in the city of Hartford.” A remarkable goal. This season alone the theatre served over 20,000 school children; offered workshops, internships and performance opportunities to University theatre students; and offered free tickets to Hartford residents through a partnership with the public library.
This year Hartford Stage’s community engagement initiatives included an annual food drive; an oral history project chronicling civil unrest in Hartford in 1967; a panel discussion led by community leaders on social justice in Hartford today; and a storytelling workshop to empower LGBT high school students. Hartford Stage also plays an important role nationally in new play development. This season was noteworthy for three commissioned works, one of which – Bess Wohl’s Make Believe – is scheduled to open the 2019-20 season at New York’s Second Stage. It will be exciting to see how the new leadership team will build on these successes.
The season opened with Make Believe, a commissioned play by Bess Wohl about family trauma that included some evocative writing, particularly in the eloquent monologues. The play is structured in two parts played without intermission, shifting between 1980 in part one, when the characters are played by children, and the present day in part two, when the same characters are played by adults. Although it felt as though there was still more revising to do, it was a powerful evening of theatre with effective staging by director Jackson Gay and strong acting, including a heartfelt performance by Chris Ghaffari.
The second show was a gender-bent multi-cultural production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. This lively production featured 15 actors playing 34 characters, including the incomparable Peter Francis James as Chorus, a terrific Karen Aldridge as the Duke of Exeter, and a delightful performance by Baron Vaughn as Hostess Nell Quickly. Nick Vaughan designed the clever map floor for the in-the-round setting.
Samuel Baum’s The Engagement Party was the second commissioned premiere this season. The main problem with the play is that it is not believable. The plot turns on a missing ring that surely will be found, meanwhile the accusations fly. The set, designed by Alexander Dodge took too much focus with its two-story turntable design. By the time the missing ring is discovered, suspicion has destroyed all of the relationships, but unfortunately, with this assemblage of shallow, troubled characters, by then the audience doesn’t seem to care.
Next up was Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, the first play in The Detroit Project, her three-play-cycle. It begins with siblings Chelle and Lank discussing how to use the inheritance left by their deceased father, including competing desires of opening a nightclub with a friend and spending the money on more lofty pursuits like education. Morisseau’s homage to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, puts that play firmly in mind, so when the parallels of Detroit ’67 begin to diverge, unfortunately, Morisseau’s writing pales in comparison. The costume designer, Dede M. Ayite missed the biggest opportunity in the show – the contrast of Caroline wearing Chelle’s clothing. Instead of having fun with the incongruence, Ayite didn’t seem to recognize the possibilities. All that said, Myxolydia Tyler as Chelle gave a wrenching, unforgettable performance as she grieved the loss of her last chance at love and happiness.
The American premiere of Jeeves and Wooster in “Perfect Nonsense” included a lot of high-energy antics that was ultimately not very funny. The audience who stayed till the end seemed to enjoy the show, but there were many in the under-sold house who left at intermission. Hartford Stage brought the director and set over from London, but the result was not worth the effort.
Flamingo Kid with a cast of 25 rounded out the season. This world premiere musical based on the movie of the same title included some nice eye-candy with period automobiles and actors in bathing-suits, but the melodies by Scott Frankel were very repetitive. The cast sang and danced their hearts out, but ultimately it does not seem this musical will have legs.
Hartford Stage’s mission is “To enlighten, entertain, and educate by creating theatrical works of the highest caliber that have a transformative impact on our audiences, our community, and our field.” In the eight years under outgoing Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak’s leadership, the theatre produced many new plays including the recent commercial success Rear Window starring Kevin Bacon, and the Broadway transfers Anastasia and Tony-Award winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. During his tenure, the theatre’s focus was squarely on creating the next commercial hit, to the detriment of enlightenment, education and transformative impact. Tresnjak’s productions were notoriously trap-happy (using the trap door whether or not it made theatrical sense), with spectacle a defining element to the productions under his watch. Significant resources were devoted toward expensive scenery and haze effects, “to emphasize the beams of light” – as reported by an Assistant Director at a recent talkback – which it must be noted the lead actor could not attend due to respiratory problems. Hint: if the audience is admiring the beams of light, then the audience is looking at the wrong thing.
As Hartford Stage looks forward to a new era with new leadership, let’s hope the focus of the productions will be less on the commercial aspects – the scenery, the haze, the spectacle… those things are fine, but without compelling stories, characters, and actors who play them, they don’t hold interest for long.
Central Connecticut State University
Bess Wohl's Make Believe
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
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