Hartford Stage's Four Artistic Directors

Four of the artistic directors of the Hartford Stage gathered together for the first time for a forum to discuss the four-decade history of the theater. They are, left to right, Jacques Cartier, Paul Weidner, Mark Lamos and current director Michael Wilson. Missing is current artistic director Darko Tresnjak, the current director. (Cloe Poisson, cpoisson@courant.com / May 1, 2004)

Among themselves, they call each other by the order in which they led Hartford Stage with Jacques Cartier, who founded the theater in 1963 being "One."

"Two" through "Five" —- Paul Weidner, Mark Lamos, Michael Wilson and the theater's present artistic director Darko Tresnjak —- will gather to celebrate the theater's 50th anniversary and to discuss their times running the Tony Award-winning institution on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. at the Millard Auditorium at the University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave.

The "conversation" will be moderated by Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theater Communications Group, the national advocacy group for non-profit theaters.

In advance of the occasion, I asked each man what it was like to take over the theater, what their high and low points were and what they would have done differently. The following is that edited conversation.

JACQUS CARTIER, 1963 to 1968, Began Hartford Stage in the former warehouse at 65 Kinsley St.; now lives in Newton, Mass.

On arriving: When I finished the Yale School of Drama where I studied directing in 1961, there was something in the air because theaters were being created around the country. But I didn't know where to go and where to start. I was teaching at Smith College when someone said, 'Well, why don't you look at Hartford?' I didn't know a soul there so I went to the Chamber of Commerce and I told them I wanted to start a professional theater. They invited me to their next monthly meeting to make a presentation. Meanwhile the publisher of The Courant investigated me and [my Yale professor] made me sound like I could walk on water.

"But I realized I couldn't do anything without the support of the insurance people. Many were helpful but I couldn't get anywhere with Aetna and its head Olcott Smith.

So I paid his chauffeur $20 just to let me sit in the back seat of his car and when Smith got in, there I was. He said, 'What are you doing? Get out of my car!' I told him I had this idea for a theater and he said, 'So you're the guy who's been trying to get to me?' I said, 'Please let me stay in the car until the next traffic light and then I'll get out.' He said all right so there I was talking a mile a minute putting my best ideas forward and we get to the next light and and he doesn't say anything and we keep on going. And through other lights, too. We finally got to his house, he invited me in, mixed me a martini, gave me a check for the theater and put his wife on the board."

"Olcott opened the door and the first person who went through — and Hartford Stage would never have happened without him — was Charles E. Lord, who was the head of the Hartford National Bank. I didn't have a nuts and bolts type of guy and when I asked for his help, he turned to his wife Margaret and said, 'What do you think, Peggy?' And she said, 'I don't see how you can say no.' And that's what really started Hartford Stage. When Charlie came on, everyone else got on board. He became the chairman of the founders committee to raise the money that got us started. Another important guy was [architect] Jack Dollard, without him we wouldn't have found that little space that became out first theater.

Highs: "The biggest high was when I realized sitting at a meeting with Charlie and others that this was actually going to happen, that there was really going to be a theater. Up until then it was a strong wish but suddenly I was with guys who could make it happen. I remember going home to my wife Diana, 'Honey we're going to have a theater 'and she said, 'I always knew you would.'

The next high was the realization that I could direct a play. Of course, I directed as a student but now this was professional theater and I told this community that I was their guy. What if I couldn't do it? But I did. It was like my whole life was preparing me for the first day of walking into this rehearsal room.

The first year we did four shows of two weeks each just to prove we could. We opened with 'Othello' because it was one of the few Shakespeare plays I could understand. The other high was when Stanley Kauffmann, a reviewer for the New York Times came up, saw what we were doing, which was Genet's 'The Balcony' and loved it. There we were on the front page of the theater section of the Sunday Times, and immediately there was a line at the box office.

Lows: Well, we didn't have enough time to rehearse because we didn't have enough audience and needed to put on another show. So we just rehearsed three weeks. It was like stock. My goal was to do six plays for six weeks and we finally got that by the end of my tenure

Retro thoughts: Maybe I would have chosen some different plays but I was always against pandering to an audience. Once audiences are fed pap they will never change. No, we're going to start with the kind of theater we want and if they dont like it they'll throw us out.

It looked like I could have stayed forever but I was beginning to feel like a tenured professor and I was eager to discover what else life held for me. So I resigned. I left in 1969 and had a rough time psychologically. I felt I had made a mistake. But I didn't think it was healthy for me to dwell so I stopped thinking about Hartford and didn't talk to anyone who ran the theater.

It was not until Darko invited me to 'Twelfth Night' and asking me to please think of this place as my home, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. It meant a huge amount to me.

PAUL WEIDNER, 1968 to 1980; lives in New York.

On arriving: "I had been there for a few years as an actor and director so I was familiar of the turf when I took over but I wasn't aware of the shaky financial situation due to its growing pains. My first board meeting was an existential experience because there was the idea of abandoning it all.

That idea didn't prevail but I quickly realized I was taking on something I hadn't anticipated. It was quite a crash course but I had some really good people who were the heart of the board — Ellsworth Davis, Jack Huntington and Belle Ribicoff — and the company through those times, never trying to dictate my artistic policies. We muddled through and got it back into reasonable shape.

Moving into the new theater [at 50 Church St.] was euphoric because a few years before we were at another existential point. Some people thought we should abandon the whole idea of the new building because the money was not coming in. Cooler heads prevailed and the money eventually was found, among them from the United Arts Fund. They got wind that we were considering not doing the new building and they jumped in to pull us over the line. They recognized the sense of genuine enthusiasm the people in Hartford had towards the theater.