What happens to a theater when it loses its founding director — especially when that person is such a singular and high-profile force for decades in the community?
Hartford's TheaterWorks faced a series of quick and dramatic hurdles following the announcement in January that longtime artistic and executive director Steve Campo, 59, would be taking a medical leave. In June, Campo resigned from the theater he created 27 years ago
Over the last eight months, the 12-member board named an interim artistic director, downsized its last two shows of its 2011-12 season, announced plays for its new season, stabilized its finances, renegotiated tenant leases in the building it owns, and began its search for a new permanent steward.
"We're feeling very good now," says Michael G. Albano, the theater's board president. "We've got our house in order and we're feeling confident. We were very concerned in December and January but I don't think we could have envisioned a scenario as good as the one that has happened."
The board has begun search for what it is calling a "producing artistic director" who will succeed Campo. The goal is to have the theater's new leader in place starting in January.
"We're looking for someone who can continue the special experience of this theater and its traditions, but ultimately will put their own stamp on it," says Albano.
He says the board is sensitive to the nature of the theater-going experience at the complex on Pearl Street in downtown Hartford; its programming of many off-Broadway and Broadway hits; its personable, multi-tasking staff; its flexible patron privileges; its general seating, which means audience members arrive early and then socialize in the upstairs gallery or subterranean theater. "We would be foolish to change that."
Albano says the theater does not have the money to hire two executive positions: one on the artistic side, the other dealing with finances. The producing artistic director, however, will be supported by a new development director, something the theater has never had before. (A part-time development consultant has been hired during the transition period.)
"We have a great potential from our subscriber base of 5,400 that has never been fully tapped," says Albano. "But we need to know more about our audience and how to reach them."
He also says the theater has to expand its connections to corporations and foundations "in ways we haven't done before. We tended to rely on the same loyal and generous groups over the years."
Albano says the 12-member board, which meets almost weekly, has stepped up in a way "that might not have been expected" — and is in the process of expanding its number of members. "We didn't want to begin that until we were on pretty sound financial footing which we feel we are now."
It took several months of audits after Campo left before the board could identify the extent of its red ink and accumulated debt which amounted to more than $600,000, including a $300,000 deficit for the year ending Aug. 31, 2011.
Because of dramatic cost-cutting measures taken recently, including a new credit card system, smaller-cast shows, lower housing costs, choice of directors, the move of its offices to the building that it owns, the popularity of the plays and generosity of some funders, Albano says this fiscal year ending this month will break-even or even see a modest surplus.
He notes the support during the transition and for the new season from the Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation, Travelers, United Technologies, the J. Walton Bissell Foundation, Aetna, the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the Connecticut Office of the Arts and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Albano says the board is developing a long-term plan to reduce the overall debt. One aspect of this will be for TheaterWorks, for the first time, to take out a mortgage on the four-story Art Deco building it has owned since 1995. "It's not to pay old debts," he says, "but to have money to tide us over in case there are any unusual expenses."
The Pearl Street building has tenants — the armed services recruiting offices and about 10 small not-for-profit organizations. A re-negotiated lease arrangement will provide a modest increase to help operate the building's needs. Our physical plant is in good shape," Albano says.
"Our ability to continue had a lot to do with the good will of our audience, supporters and the strength of the brand we have developed over the years," says Albano. "Obviously that is something we would not have gotten without Steve. I have enormous respect for what he did for this theater and this community. We also owe an enormous debt to Rob [Ruggiero, former associate artistic director and now interim artistic director], the staff and our audience."
Ruggiero, 49, who has been affiliated with the theater for 19 of its 27 years, says, "What we discovered these past months is that TheaterWorks is secure and solvent enough to sustain a life beyond Steve, who wants nothing more for the theater to thrive, grow and succeed. The transition period is focused in sustaining the wonderful things that are TheaterWorks."
Is he interested in becoming its new producing artistic director?
"I'm just at the point of figuring out what I want to do," he says. "It's been a challenge for me to be here and also do my outside obligations. Now that the dust is settling I'm figuring out what the right thing for me is and what the right thing is for TheaterWorks.
In the past few years, Ruggiero directed two Broadway productions, both by Wethersfield-raised Matthew Lombardo ("Looped" with Valerie Harper and "High" with Kathleen Turner); oversaw the bio-musical "Ella" throughout the country; and regularly staged works at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and other leading regional theaters.
"I think TheaterWorks has a unique profile both in what it does and how it does it and whether its me or a new person, everyone feels strongly about preserving that experience," he says. "But I also think there's room for growth . But I don't see anything radical changing."
Ruggiero says he hopes the theater will continue to occasionally do new works, like its recent hit of his staging of of "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," adapted by local playwright Jacques Lamarre — which has also received interest from other regional theaters as well as from New York producer.
Other premieres at the theater over the years include a co-production of "High," as well as "Ella"," "Make Me a Song: the Music of William Finn" and "The Dragon and the Pearl" with Valerie Harper. In choosing the five-play 2012-13 season, Ruggiero will include a new work, still to be announced.
"I think TheaterWorks is a wonderful place to develop new and young creative talents, younger directors, playwrights and artists."
Another person who has made his mark on Theaterworks in the past few years is Tazewell Thompson, 58, who stepped in to direct most of the productions over the last two seasons.
"I love that theater mostly because I love the staff — which does everything — the atmosphere and the audiences, particularly how they respond to the theater's mission and their sense of ownership in the place. I felt completely supported there in producing the very best theater possible. The production values are as good as any A-plus company."
Thompson says he is not interested in the position of producing artistic director, and says it may be a mistake for the theater to have one person oversee so many responsibilities.
"I strongly feel," says Thompson, "that there needs to be two at the top: an artistic director and a managing or producing director. It is an extremely rare, once-in-a-lifetime, genius-saint who can establish and maintain the artistic integrity of the theater, direct, chose a season, cast, supervise all the visiting guest artists and oversee the work of the shops while also being responsible for the fiscal day-to-day accounting of budgets, fund raising and working with the development director and the board.
"Should the board want to solicit my help or advice in any form, I am there," he says. "I love this gem of a theater and its dedicated, hard-working and extremely skillful staff. I wish them all the very best."
TRYST is now playing through Sept. 9 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St. Tickets are $50 to $63; $17 for student rush. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m,.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. (check schedule for specific dates). "Venus in Fur" opens the 2012-13 season Oct. 5 to Nov. 11. Information: 860-527-7838 and http://www.theaterworkshartford.org.