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)

We didn't think of creating a second space in the new building because the old place was still available to use and stayed that way throughout my tenure. [It closed after that.]

Highs: Because it was a good production and also because it opened the new building, I'd say 'All the Way Home'. It had a strong American voice to it. Another highlight was a production of 'My Sister My Sister,' an African-American play and I was advocating getting African-American voices on stage.

And just for sheer ridiculousness, Christopher Durang's 'The History of the American Film.' I remember rehearsals being just laugh fests. It was a sharp, cohesive and collaborative production. It was a director's dream.

Lows: I remember a trying time when we were trying to get a production of a new play that also had a Broadway producer attached to it. It was going to start in Hartford, open out the season and then go to New York. But the star's schedule kept changing and we kept changing the dates and recalling tickets. It was quite hellish for the box office. We finally had to abandon the whole thing. It was a harrowing experience. [The show was "Bent" and the star was Richard Gere.]

Retro thoughts: Knowing what I know now, I think I'd have advocated the choice of Jack Dollard as architect for Hartford Stage's new building over the choice we eventually made of Robert Venturi. Venturi delivered what we needed — and were very explicit about — but I think we were seduced by his star power in the world of architects, and don't know what more he brought to the scene beyond that.

Dollard had designed the original theater on Haynes Street (renovating an existing building), which, despite its quirks, everybody loved. I'm sure he would have done as well starting from scratch on a new theater.

MARK LAMOS, 1980 to 1998; lives in Sherman, Conn., and is now artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse.

On arriving: It was a huge opportunity for someone who was in his early 30s. But I found it very daunting at first. The legacy of Paul was so strong I had a lot to live up to and needed to honor. There was a clear desire by the board to invest in large classical plays so for me that was a happy match.

I was really on a learning curve for a few years. There was a lot of responsibility but it was also glorious at the same time.

Highs: My five or six years partnership with [managing director] David Hawkanson. We were just completely in synch in understanding how the theater should grow, how it should be looked at, how it should function. But there were also a lot of challenges in our relationship, too.

Another high was my desire to diversify the staff and audience, which really came into fruition late in my tenure with the Lila Wallace Grant which brought more African-Americans to the theater. Paul has investigated work by black authors and that urge was always part of what the theater was about but when we got the grant money, it made a huge difference.

In terms of production, the first 'Cymbeline' and the last were both just really personal high points. I was so in love with its actors and designers.

Lows: There were some terrible failures but what was different then was despite the fact it was upsetting when a production failed, there was not intrinsic damage to the theater. Now that's changed.

What also became wearing for me is the attrition of many staff members and when i just felt we were constantly replacing staff.

But what was most depressing was the nature of the city was changing and the realization that we may have to get smaller. Also, some of our most important board members were transferred, or the corporations left town, and the ballet and symphony were in trouble and even the hockey team left. It was, overall, not a good time. I thought, 'Oh, boy, I don't think I can keep investing in this any more.'

Retro thoughts: A personal answer here. I was very young for my first 10 years there and I wish would not have tied myself in so many knots and personalized things so much. A failure of a show then was like losing a dog in a car wreck. And it was so much work to achieve the successes. I have a natural energy to push myself. But it was too intense.

MICHAEL WILSON, 1998 to 2011; lives in New York.

On arriving: When I arrived in April '98, Mark had been gone for some time and there was an intermediate season with no artistic director. My first charge was to work with Edward Albee and [oversee] Mark's return to direct a stunning 'Tiny Alice.' It was a nice way of passing the baton. And then I planned my first season.

The managing director left that June and it was just me and the staff —- a lot of talented, high powered, energized, passionate people —- crammed into this tiny space on Church Street. We joked it was just like fast-moving 'The West Wing', which was popular at the time. What we were trying to do was make Hartford Stage enliven the community. We were all over the place from 7 a.m. to 10 at night speaking at Rotary Clubs, at YMCAs, talking to CEOs and subscribers and gardening clubs. The aim was to let people know that the theater everyone had loved would not only be OK, but that we would nourish it and have it grow.

We took on a lot, creating the holiday entertainment and SummerStage and the playreading festival and establishing an outreach education program.