Campo Breaks Silence On TheaterWorks Exit

Speculation about the mysterious resignation of TheaterWorks' founding artistic-executive director has persisted in the Connecticut theater community since December, when Steve Campo took an indefinite medical leave of absence.

There was renewed interest in June when Campo resigned, with no public explanation. The Hartford theater's board chairman, Michael G. Albano declined comment, saying he respected Campo's privacy. Interim artistic director Rob Ruggiero characterized Campo's malady as "not life-threatening." Campo himself shunned interviews.

And so, the talk continued even as TheaterWorks grappled with how to right its finances and find a producing artistic director. There was buzz about who would, or could, replace Campo, the force behind TheaterWorks' artistic and business sides and a distinctive voice in the Hartford arts community for 26 years.

In the first conversation outside his "immediate circle," Campo detailed why he left the theater he created, disclosed the nature of his illness and talked about his — and the theater's — future.

"I have what is referred to as neuropathic pain syndrome," Campo said, from his modern, 20th floor apartment in the Bushnell Towers overlooking downtown.

Pale and tired-looking, Campo leaned back in a fiberglass Eames chair as he narrated — in his characteristic careful and halting cadence — his 14-year history of complex, chronic pain. He managed it until three years ago, he said, when the pain unexpectedly intensified at the same time the pressures of the theater increased and he had pressing family issues.

"I psychologically just threw up my hands and gave up," Campo said.

It began, Campo said, in 1998, when he underwent conventional, open-method, bilateral hernia surgery. About 18 months later, he experienced the first occurrence of severe pain — one that would continue at various degrees over the next eight years. Doctors ordered a battery of tests, but they revealed nothing that would help them diagnose the cause of "the grueling pain" that traveled from his right hip to his foot.

Over time, and working with specialists, Campo said he learned to avoid the physical actions that triggered the worst of the pain outbreaks.

Then, two years ago, Campo said, a therapist discovered a mass in his chest that, when pressed, caused the most intense pain he had ever experienced. "She said, 'I think you have a neuroma.' I had never heard of the word before."

Campo learned that the condition — a thickening or localized swelling of a nerve that is usually the result of a compression or trauma — sometimes developed in the type of surgery he had undergone. Doctors told Campo that "there's really nothing to be done", that a full recovery was not possible. The best he could hope for, they said, was relief through injections or medication. They warned that weather (air pressure), mechanical factors (how he moved his body) and stress would determine how bad or good a day he would have.

He knew things had to change.

"Some things don't give you much choice," said Campo, who will be 60 in November.

While coping with that news, as well as family issues, Campo last fall took "a pounding" over the production of "The Motherf----- with the Hat." Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis publicly objected to the casting process and Campo's non-responsiveness to his concerns.

"It was just brutal," Campo recalled of the controversy that went beyond social networking exchanges and became headline news. "It's not that I didn't see and understand the perspectives that were being articulated but, boy, all it can say is I felt like I got hit by a Mack truck. I just felt like, 'God, yeah, this is the kind of stuff I don't want to deal with.'"

The extent of theater's financial problems — at its worst point there was an accumulated debt of more than $600,000 — also weighed on Campo and its small and dedicated staff of 12 who were trying to pick up the slack.

The atmosphere last fall was far different than it had been in 1985, when an entrepreneurial young Campo started the theater. He later found community resources to support local productions of recent off-Broadway and Broadway hits. The theater even owns its home, a four-story, historic building on Pearl Street in Hartford, which is also home to nearly a dozen other small arts groups.

"There was a period of time where I had personal friendships with funders, but those people aren't there any more," Campo said.

He said that throughout his career — and even now — audiences have remained loyal and that the 200-seat theater still has one of its largest subscriber bases, at 5,400.

"The strength of the organization is very much how people feel connected to TheaterWorks," Campo said. "It's a sense of personal connection that goes beyond what's on the stage."

As for Campo's future, he said he would like to be invited back to TheaterWorks to direct. But he has no interest in returning to administrative responsibilities because "that tightens my muscles up."

"I don't know what the path forward is right now," he said, philosophically. "I'm allowing myself to do the things I need to do now but what's further down the line, I'm not sure yet. I just get up in the morning and do what the day calls for."

What's in the future for TheaterWorks? Rob Ruggiero and board chairman Michael G. Albano talk about the past year and what they envision for the organization — and in its new leader — in today's Arts Section.

Read Frank Rizzo's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. Catch him talking about theater most Fridays during the 9 o'clock hour on FOX/CT's Morning show. And be the first to know by following Frank on http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz