Darko Tresnjak was 7 when he directed his first show. He recruited all the kids on his street to mount the Olympics, complete with opening and closing ceremonies, long-distance spitting contests, and medals made out of cardboard. It began epic, and he still favors the classics, especially Shakespeare (he's directed 20) and opera (he's directed 15).
Newly arrived in Hartford, Tresnjak spoke with The Hartford Advocate in his office as the incoming artistic director at Hartford Stage Company.
Serbo-Croatian was his first language, growing up in Yugoslavia. He moved to Washington, D.C., at age 10 with his mom to join his sister, who had married an American diplomat. As a kid, he saw lots of theater at the Arena and Kennedy Center. Plus, he says, the example of a transient professional population with each election cycle was great preparation for the itinerant life of a theater artist.
Tresnjak graduated from Swarthmore College as an English major. He loved it, but Swarthmore is famously intense — "a real pressure cooker," in his words — and English isn't his first language. So every day at 4 p.m. he ran to the dance studio for release. That physical training led to a short stint in New York at the Martha Graham studio, and then a five-year touring gig with a puppetry company based inPhiladelphia.
From puppetry he learned the crucial importance of technique — how much it matters to have precise skills that are fluid and flexible. That led him to develop directorial prowess through MFA training at Columbia under Andrei Serban and Anne Bogart. It was there, incidentally, that he was cured of wanting to act, after being directed by Serban in a piece where he had to speak his lines in old Spanish and use his contortionist skills.
How will such a physical guy stay active while running a major theater? In the past, he's joined a rock-climbing gym, or imposed on friends who are trapeze artists to let him play on their equipment. For now, he says, his exercise is carrying Prudence, his 9 year-old English bulldog with bad joints, aroundBushnell Park.
Tresnjak and his husband Josh Pearson, a costumer, have been in Hartford for just three weeks, though he's made multiple visits. "I want to be a good host. It takes so much good will to get through a day of rehearsal. Part of the job of an A.D. is to extend that kind of good will to the whole community. Since most of the season is set already, I've got a wonderful opportunity to get to know the staff, the audience, the students here and to learn about Hartford before I have to design the next season."
Tresnjak believes the mix of classics and new plays is healthy, since each pushes the standard of the other higher. He thinks comedy in general is underestimated: "It's perfectly possible to have an entertaining evening that's not vapid. Swanky comedies of the '30s, '40s, and '50s can have daggers underneath the text. There's an attack on complacency under the guise of good fun."
That's the first note he'll strike in Hartford, where his production of Bell, Book, and Candle (originally mounted at San Diego's Globe Theater where he worked for seven years) will be part of this season. He's hired a graduate of the puppetry program at UConn (where he performed 20 years ago) whose skills will prove useful in the last show of the season, as yet unannounced. And his long-standing love for the epic leaves him aching to direct the Greeks. He's got a yen to do Chekhov, too — a privilege rarely accorded to freelancers. What mix he'll deliver remains to be seen.
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