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Rob Ruggiero Picks 10 Favorite Shows From His 25 Years At TheaterWorks

‘I really cut my teeth as a director” at TheaterWorks, says Rob Ruggiero, where in the past quarter-century he’s directed more than 60 shows.

Ruggiero — who also directs regularly at the Goodspeed Opera House, off-Broadway and at regional theaters around the country — has expanded the concept of what TheaterWorks — an intimate performance space that specializes in contemporary American plays — is capable of. He conceived and directed popular musical revues that went on to play off-Broadway and elsewhere. He experimented with larger casts and elaborate set designs. He created an annual holiday show that was well-suited to TheaterWorks’ loyal, up-for-anything audiences.

Starting as a freelancer in 1993, Ruggiero became TheaterWorks’ associate artistic director a few years after that. He served as interim artistic director when the theater’s founder Steve Campo stepped down in 2011, and in 2014 was named TheaterWorks’ producing artistic director.

TheaterWorks celebrated Rob Ruggiero’s 25 years there with a gala fundraising party June 16 in TheaterWorks’ 233 Pearl Street home. Later this year, the theater building will undergo a multimillion-dollar renovation(You can see pics from that event here.)

Ruggiero has witnessed TheaterWorks’ extraordinary growth from humble beginnings into a nationally recognized, influential regional theater. He recalls how in his early days “I had to call one of my friends from grad school to come to Hartford to light a show for nothing. When I came, TheaterWorks had 1,700 subscribers, which was a lot, but now there are more than 5,000.”

Ruggiero enjoys celebrating the past glories, but he is always looking toward the future. Facing full-scale renovations to the theater’s stage and auditorium, next season, Ruggiero will stage half of TheaterWorks’ 2018-19 season in an “alternate space” in collaboration with other Hartford arts institutions.

Ruggiero says his loyalty to TheaterWorks is due to “an amazing staff, and a board that gives me a lot of freedom to create outside of Hartford.” He continues to direct one or two TheaterWorks shows a year and keeps busy at other theaters. He's currently in rehearsals for “Oliver!” at the Goodspeed Opera House and will do productions of “Evita” and “Gypsy” in St. Louis this summer. But Hartford remains his artistic home.

Here, in his own words, are 10 highlights from his first quarter-century of directing at TheaterWorks.

Imagining Brad (1993)

Peter Hedges’ harsh relationship drama was paired with another Hedges one-act, “The Valerie of Now.” The review by Malcolm Johnson in The Courant called it “a curious, sometimes strident, occasionally overwrought, but mostly absorbing evening, directed with a fine blend of comedy and horror by Rob Ruggiero.”

“This was my first show at TheaterWorks. I was a freelance director from out of town. It’s how I met Connie Shulman. We bonded immediately, and did three shows together.

“The first preview was happening during a blizzard. We shut down for three days. I was trapped in my hotel. It was a magical moment, when I realized my connection to this theater.”

(Shulman, now known for playing Yoga Jones on TV’s “Orange is the New Black,” will be a special guest at the June 16 TheaterWorks gala.)

The Dragon and the Pearl (1997)

TV star Valerie Harper starred in this biographical drama about novelist Pearl S. Buck.

This was where my connection to Valerie Harper began. It’s a dear friendship of my life. As a kid watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda,” I always wished Rhoda could be my friend. Valerie’s connection with Hartford and TheaterWorks resulted in a huge boost in our subscription base.”

The Laramie Project (2001)

This influential ensemble drama, devised by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, is about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.

“This was the most powerful and inspirational show for me. I was turning 40 and considering whether I should even stay in theater. Then came “The Laramie Project” and 9/11.

“It was a very large cast for us, eight or 10 people. ... I put eight chairs in a row and that became the production.

“When it opened, it was really moving people, and it really moved me. Then at the beginning of the run, 9/11 happened. We closed down for a couple of days. We wondered how people would respond when we continued. They flocked to it. It was so emotional. It’s what made me decide to continue with my task; I knew in that moment I could do nothing else.”

Ella Off the Record (2005)

Ruggiero conceived this tribute to jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald. Following its premiere at TheaterWorks, it was reworked (and retitled, to just “Ella”) and became a success at regional theaters around the country.

“I had done the Billie Holiday show, ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,’ in 1995. That production went multiple other places. ‘Ella’ picked up on that, in a sense. That show ended up catapulting my profile, as well as TheaterWorks’, nationally.”

Make Me A Song: The Music Of William Finn (2006)

A revue of songs by the composer of “Falsettos” and other cult hit musicals.

“I loved the work of William Finn, so I called him up. He didn’t want to anything to do with [staging] it; he said ‘Do whatever you want.’ I was told I could use just one song from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’ but everything else I wanted to use was fine. It ended up going to off-Broadway.”

Take Me Out (2006)

Richard Greenberg’s locker-room drama about a professional baseball player coming out as a gay man to his teammates.

“I had done the play in St. Louis. At TheaterWorks, we actually had to go to Hartford Stage for support because it was a huge production for us. They partnered with us, and that’s what made it happen. It was huge in terms of the evolution of the theater.

“Having all that nudity on the stage probably brought a lot of people in the door, but the play really spoke to them and showed what we were able to do.

Rabbit Hole (2008)

David Lindsay-Abaire wrote this dark comedy-tinged tragedy, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, about a couple who’s suffered the loss of a child.

“This was a shared production with Pittsburgh Public Theatre, which became an important relationship for us. It’s a difficult play that I really connected with. It was very hard to market, but I consider it some of my best work in terms of myself as a director.”

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti (2012)

Giulia Melucci’s memoir cookbook about her love relationships (and their aftermath) was turned into an endearing one-woman show that has had productions around the country since its TheaterWorks premiere.

“I was made the interim artistic director and had to worry about our financial situation. This was a big transitional year for the theater and I had to make some changes. So I called up Jacques Lamarre and we did ‘I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti’.”

“Christmas On The Rocks” (2013)

Reaching out to seven contemporary playwrights, Ruggiero created a comic anthology show wherein beloved characters from TV Christmas cartoons drowning their sorrows at a neighborhood bar. “Christmas on the Rocks” became a counterculture holiday tradition in Hartford and has spawned productions elsewhere.

“In terms of having playground to play around in, this was the one. It was so clear in my head. I called up seven playwrights, and everybody understood what I was going for. I thought it would run just that one time, but now we’re going for year six.”

Next To Normal (2015)

A major endeavor for the intimate TheaterWorks, and a difficult project to pull off under any circumstances, this sensitive musical theater piece by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey chronicles a mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder and the effect it has on her family.

“To do that musical in our space was hugely risk taking. We thought we were going to lose money, maybe in the six figures. But it paid off. It all clicked. Audiences loved it. People who’d loved the show in New York were coming to see it here, to experience it through this different lens. The cast really came together; we’re still a family of sorts. I got to work with Christiane [Noll]. And we ended up making as much money as we thought we might lose.

“Nothing great comes without some level of risk.”


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