Darko Tresnjak

Darko Tresnjak, left, has been named the new artistic director of Hartford Stage after the board of directors voted Monday morning. Michael Wilson the current artistic director, right, introduces Tresnjak to Jeffrey Hoffman, a Hartford Stage board member, shortly after the new appointment was announced. (STEPHEN DUNN, Hartford Courant / May 15, 2011)

Darko Tresnjak wanted to direct as far back as he can remember.

When the newly-named artistic director of Hartford Stage was a 7-year-old boy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, he was inspired by the opening-day ceremonies of the 1972 Olympics to organize his own spectacle in his neighborhood. When he was 8, he was knocked out by an Eastern European production of "King Lear," which he still remembers scene-by-scene. When he was 10, his life changed in dramatic ways, when he and his mother immigrated to the United States, finding themselves in a strange new world and one where Tresnjak wanted to pursue his directing dream.

Tresnjak's love of theater helped sustain him as he navigated the language, his shyness and a new way of life.

I spoke with Tresnjak (pronounced TRESHZ-nick) over a recent dinner in New York, where he was overseeing auditions for the musical "City of Angels," which will be presented this fall at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

At 45, the trim, small-framed Tresnjak looks about the same as when I first interviewed him a decade ago when he was staging "A Little Night Music" at East Haddam's Goodspeed Opera House. He remains courteous, soft-spoken and sincere. But in reality he's far from the non-athletic, serious intellectual some might assume from his first name (which does not have the brooding connotation in his native language that it does in English). When he directed "Carnival!" at Goodspeed last year he playfully joined the cast in the acrobatic exercises. He stays in shape, he says, by doing P90X, the "muscle confusion" work out, and gym rock climbing. "Is there any place to do that in Hartford?" he asks.

It has been a whirlwind week. He learned about his new job Monday, then flew from Stratford Shakespeare Theatre in Canada — where he is directing "Titus Andronicus" — to Manhattan to audition actors for the musical "City of Angels," which will be presented at Goodspeed in the fall. He was preparing to travel to Hartford the day following my interview to be introduced to the theater's staff before returning to New York and then back to Canada. (He officially becomes Hartford Stage's artistic director in July.)

The first thing Tresnjak did when he learned he got the Hartford job was call his 84-year old mother, who lives in Washington D.C. with his older sister.

"She's very frail and this meant a lot to her, and my sister," he says softly with a slight accent.. "My mother — her name is Maria — said she was so happy to see me in this moment, adding in Slavic fashion, 'while she is still around,' which she has been saying for 30 years.

"A lot of my sense of theater — even the feeling of why I put on shows — comes from wanting to entertain my mother, who has always had an adventuresome spirit, and my fear of boring her."

And to celebrate?

"When I'm the happiest,' he says, "I am very quiet so Josh [Pearson, his husband, and a costume designer] and I went out to dinner and then we curled up with a gin and tonic with my English bulldog, Prudence, who has had a big impact on me. Nine years ago when we got her, I felt all of a sudden I had my little family unit to keep and take care of."

Finding A Home

"Darko grew up at the Williamstown Theatre Festival around a family of artists," says Michael Ritchie, producing director at WTF for 10 years beginning in 1996 when Tresnjak was trying to start a directing career "Darko started to see the value of an artistic home at Williamstown and I think he related to that also in terms of his own life. The idea of having a home has become important to him and was a factor in his decision to be artistic director. He was looking for a home. And I believe he is going to Hartford to stay.

"Clearly he has a great talent in terms of being a director, says Ritchie, who is now artistic director of Los Angeles' Center Theater Group. "For Darko. It is just as much about the process as the product. He is a great, great collaborator. He gathers a team around an institution, with actors and designers, creating an environment where they can excel. With each show, there is added value. He's the full meal."

Diane Paulus, artistic director of American Repertory Theater of Cambridge, Mass. who went to Columbia University with Tresnjak says "Darko is the real deal and I felt that even when we were in school. He stands out for his kind of serious commitment to theater. He also has this deep generosity and kindness combined with a razor-sharp intelligence. Itt couldnt be a bettter moment of someone who has evolved as he has as an artist to lay his roots down and create a community."

Coming To America

Growing up in an increasingly troubled Yugoslavia, Tresnjak's mother sensed the changing political, social and economic landscape in that country "and she wanted to protect me." With an interest in theater and puppetry, "clearly I was not cut out for military," he says with a slight smile.

When his sister married an American diplomat in the mid-'70s, Tresnjak and his mother emigrated to the United States two weeks before the Bicentennial. "It was an instant love affair with America," he says. "Here there were parades that were fun instead of ones that were filled with military tanks." His father, an engineer, stayed in Yugoslavia (now Serbia) and occasionally would visit.

"It was tough for my mother," he says. "She was 50 and did not speak English." Tresnjak picked up the language after learning some phrases and songs ("Oh! Susanna" was one) when the family hosted American students in Yugoslavia.