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.
Once in the United States, he attended a Montessori School, the Barrie Day School in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Going from a Communist school in Yugoslavia to a school on some 300 acres with streams and lakes and animals to care of and studying in the woods, it was like, 'I really like it here.' There was no going back."
As a teenager he ushered at the Kennedy Center (he recalls a glorious day watching Liv Ullmann) and later went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania as an English major, which has served him well as a director. "Every director is first of all a reader.
"It was a wonderful school, but a pressure cooker," he says because of his insecurity with the new language. He found refuge in the non-verbal art of dance, and earned some grants as a choreographer and dancer in the Philadelphia area. When a colleague pointed out that his dances increasingly had less and less dance and more text, characters and plot, he began to think his talents were more in theater.
After graduating Swarthmore in 1988, he toured with the Mum Puppettheatre in Philadelphia for a year, and puppetry has had a presence in a number of Tresnjak's works. He went to graduate school at Columbia University in New York, where he studied directing under another transplanted Eastern European, Andrei Serban from Romania, and noted director Anne Bogart. Serban also helped start his career in directing opera.
It wasn't until Williamstown that Tresnjak started doing theater pieces that started getting him attention there and elsewhere, including gigs in the early 2000s at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, Westport Country Playhouse and Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
He credits legendary dancer Marge Champion, who selected him to receive a prestigious fellowship, and Ritchie as those he owes the most to in helping his career.
"Williamstown Theatre Festival did everything for me," he says.
A major career boost happened in 2005, when he became the artistic director of the Old Globe Theater's Shakespeare Festival in San Diego. He staged productions of the Bard's "The Winter's Tale," "Hamlet" and "All's Well that Ends Well" as well as well-received revivals of "The Women," "Bell, Book and Candle" and "The Pleasure of his Company."
When he was asked to be a candidate for the Hartford Stage position, he wanted to know if it was going to be a true artistic directorship or "just a name on the letterhead." At his meeting with the board and managing director Michael Stotts, he was reassured of their interest in a true artistic leader.
Tresnjak says he enjoyed the process of interviewing for the job.
"What a great thing to be asked these big questions, because as a [freelance] director you go from show to show and just think about each production . But what is it that I believe in? You can go through life not asking yourself these questions. But the process of applying for the job forces you to confront yourself in a really beautiful and tough way."
He also got to know the city. ("I asked to go to Katharine Hepburn's grave. I didn't bring calla lilies, just regular lilies.")
As much as he enjoyed the process, he says he nearly pulled himself out of contention when he saw the film "The King's Speech."
Though he does not have a stutter, "I had huge problems with public speaking growing up. I was terrified of that in high school. But I found that through directing and talking about a book or a play, I could speak well, but everything else was terrifying. I've had to learn how to deal with it over the years. At the Old Globe it was really tough, because if you heard [artistic director] Jack O'Brien speak, he was the sun and — I joked — I was the crescent moon.
"But seeing the film, it all came back and I had a crisis of confidence. I thought, 'I can't do this.' But Josh helped me, saying, 'Don't over-prepare and just speak from the heart.' "
Hartford Stage Impression
Though he has never worked at Hartford Stage, Tresnjak was well aware of the theater, going back to Mark Lamos' tenure and his "Peer Gynt" and "The Women" (directed by Bogart) as well as Michael Wilson's work, including "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore."
"Peter Zeigler [former director of the national non-profit theater service organization Theatre Communications Group] came to speak to us in grad school and in our discussions about a national theater he said the work Mark was doing at Hartford Stage was a national theater."
Though many people remark about Tresjnak's sense of theatricality and visual effects (he has designed many of his productions), he says he feels that text-based work is where he really excels. "It's a fairly literary sensibility," he says.
"But if people think that they know what I'm going to do as an artistic director based on the kind of work I've chosen as a [freelance] director, they're in for a big surprise. What I've learned from Jack and Nicky [Martin] and George [Wolfe] and Des [McAnuff] is what makes the mark of a great artistic director is his generosity and curiosity and finding out what makes people tick."
The Year Ahead
Tresnjak says the upcoming season — which has been chosen by Wilson and Stotts — gives him the chance to get to know the Hartford community and the theater's audience.
"I need to find out what the potential is and how to bring in new people to the theater and not alienate the ones that are already there." He specifically talked about the Hartt School, which has had an ongoing association with the theater under Wilson.
He also says he wants to explore co-productions, especially with the network of theaters in which he has worked. (He noted that off-Broadway's Theatre for a New Audience has a thrust stage similar to Hartford's theater.) International projects also interest him, he says.
"I also have a passion for comedy, especially comedy as a social tool," he says. "I think it's underestimated in this culture and we have some great comic actors, such as Paxton Whitehead. That's who young actors should be studying. Watching him or Dana Ivey listening, then finding a new laugh on a nightly basis, and then divide it and sub-divide it, without pushing, is fascinating to see."
A few titles that he mentioned that he's always wanted to do are Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost," Federico García Lorca's "House of Bernarda Alba" and Dawn Powell's "Big Night."
"I think it's important to throw out an aesthetic challenge every once in a while, too," he says.
Tresnjak says though his resume may not have a long list of new work, it is an area that the theater and he are both committed to. He understands the challenge of presenting new plays in a 500-seat theater. He sees opportunities in alternative spaces around Hartford. "The idea is to do something adventurous and raw, maybe there's a space that's adventurous and raw, too."
But he wants new work to be part of the main stage as well. "I'm saddened by the fact that playwrights are encouraged to write small [in order to get produced]. There's one play I'm looking at now that would look great in a 500-seat house."
His formal introduction to the theater's staff and community leaders last week was a moving experience, says outgoing director Wilson.
"He delivered a very thoughtful, down-to-earth talk, speaking deeply of his feelings about the theater and what it means to him, of creating memories that are lasting. He's a deeply sensitive, fiercely intelligent and wildly imaginative artist. But he's also a very kind and thoughtful human being. I feel so excited to pass leadership of someone of his vision, integrity and heart.
"Obviously, it's bittersweet to be leaving but I know it's in the good, strong and caring hands of someone who values the theater and Hartford Stage and understands the importance of artistic director leadership's role and responsibilities. I think he's going to be terrific."
Read Frank Rizzo's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment — and more on Darko Tresnjak, as well as reactions to his appointment — at http://www.courant,com/curtain. And be the first to know by following Frank on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.