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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Rob Ruggiero: Producing Artistic Director
Hartford's TheaterWorks

Rob Ruggerio
Rob Ruggiero
Nearly twenty years ago at the age of 31, Rob Ruggiero, shortly after completing graduate school at Rutgers, arrived in Hartford to direct at TheaterWorks for the first time. The Off-Broadway style house asked him to work on Imagining Brad—and Ruggiero, mellow, inviting and actor-friendly, has been with the theater ever since. He has directed more than 40 shows at the 195 seat theater which is downstairs in a four-story art deco building in the middle of Hartford. These include Take Me Out, Rabbit Hole and The Laramie Project.

Ruggiero has also worked with Valerie Harper on All Under Heaven, which ran Off-Broadway, and Looped on Broadway and for which Ms. Harper was nominated for a Tony Award. Additionally, Ruggiero directed Kathleen Turner in High, which ran at TheaterWorks and moved to Broadway. His world premiere project, Ella, based on Ella Fitzgerald and starring Tina Fabrique, has been touring nationally for three years. He conceived and directed Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, an original musical revue which ran Off-Broadway and then was produced in London.

While at TheaterWorks, Ruggiero also began directing elsewhere and in many cases he was called upon to facilitate large cast musicals. Some at Goodspeed Opera House include Big River, 1776 and Show Boat. Additionally, his career has taken him to The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, The Pittsburgh Public Theater, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Actor's Theater of Louisville, and many more.

TheaterWorks, founded by Steve Campo in 1985, distinguishes itself in many ways. Smart management decisions and procedures allow the theater to keep admission prices down while affording season subscribers to choose nights when they will watch performances. The quality of its small cast work has often been enviably high. Some time ago, however, Campo needed to take a leave of absence to address illness and family issues and the theater needed to cut costs. Some observers felt the productions were more uneven. A search was announced to find a new leader and 130 individuals applied. Ruggiero was the choice of the hiring committee and TheaterWorks' loyal and large audience is surely heartened with the choice of someone talented and amiable.

Conversing easily at his office on the third floor of the Pearl Street building, he said, "I followed Imagining Brad with Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and then Patient A. When I came we had wooden risers and plastic seats—no designers were brought in. Then we evolved and this coincided with my own development. My freelance career took off but I also became Associate Artistic Director here and then Senior Artistic Associate. I stayed connected but I was asked if I could come back and manage artistically, as an interim while the board and others figured things out here."

Ruggiero said that Campo (for whom he has great respect) had been trying to maintain but "not really driving the boat and the iceberg was dead ahead." Meanwhile, people were missing Ruggiero's presence. As he described it, during its finest years, TheaterWorks enjoyed a "yin and yang" relationship between the founder and his right-hand man. The men are complements. Gradually, Ruggiero moved away to direct elsewhere. Then, Campo was beset was a serious health predicament.

"When I was asked in to shepherd during the interim period, I thought that might conclude my stay at TheaterWorks. At first, I did apply for the full time position. I wasn't sure whether I could be here all the time but the board saw that my national profile was of great benefit here. I became more confident about the management side. One of the board members saw me 'having keys to the car.' Previously, I really thought I was leaving, but I became excited, people wanted me, and I am fully motivated to stay."

The theater is now stable and moving forward, presenting John Cariani's Almost Maine later this month. Ruggiero sees TheaterWorks maintaining its tradition of catchy, sometimes edgy, oftentimes emotive small cast works. "We have always known who we are and so has the audience. People will re-subscribe without even knowing exactly what an upcoming season will include," he said. "We have a core group of individual and corporate supporters and this allowed us to navigate a dark period. I hope to build upon the sense of community here."

Those new to TheaterWorks may be surprised if they arrive 20 minutes early for a Sunday matinee and discover that most of the seats have already been taken. Regulars are there and waiting, reading newspapers, sipping espresso, speaking with one another. It's almost like late Sunday brunch—without the eggs.

Ruggiero feels people, at this very time, understand that he knows the theater. "I bring comfort and security. I know the brand, honor who we are, and who we will be. Someday, a person totally from the outside might very well lead here, but this is not that time. We should be a place to support young voices, new playwrights, young and upcoming directors. I want to bring the musical vocabulary with a two or three person musical. People can sow oats and hone muscles here, as many young actors have. We need to feed the vision of the theater and I want to monitor and support young people as they grow."

He also sees the value of co-productions with other theaters. He is friendly with artistic directors elsewhere. TheaterWorks fiscally supports actors working there. "I believe that we pay close to or just what Hartford Stage pays performers. Steve and I always agreed on that. No skimping on that."

What's the secret to having success directing "famous" actresses? "I just spoke with Valerie Harper last night. (Looped comes to Hartford's Bushnell on January 24th). I like to think of myself as a people person. I am not intimidated by strong women and/or experienced actors. I adjust to them: Valerie and Kathleen have very different personalities. The stars respect a director who they believe knows what he is doing. Great theater is a collaboration and I want actors to come to the table with ideas. I don't want to tell the actor what to do; no director worth his salt would. Someone does need to guide and create a vision or path. The most brilliant things emerge from everyone's input. Rosemary Prinz, too, is well respected and I have enjoyed working with her here, too."

Ruggiero directs on a small stage, with a few actors, at TheaterWorks; and then on a large stage, with a very full cast, elsewhere. "I think of myself as a storyteller," he says. "whether with or without music. My process does not vary much. It might when you have a huge musical to get together in ten days, sure. Otherwise, however, no. To me, Carousel is a play with music. Unlike a lot of other directors, I do not try to put my stamp on it but, rather, try to solve and honor. How I want to tell the story dictates approach and work with designers."

Ruggiero says he is a behaviorist who believes in relationships to tell the stories. "I look at that, always have. When I first arrived here, I was able to bring in friends. We now have close to 6000 subscribers, so far up from two decades back. We've had a full theater renovation, and TheaterWorks has become a well-respected place in the eyes of the national community. I see myself balancing work here with other projects. I have already been booked into next fall and then I will become more selective about outside offers. The relationships with the other theaters can be mutually beneficial. What has been touching to me, since I became Producing Artistic Director, were expressions of support, relief, congratulations, and even fiscal contributions."

TheaterWorks people no longer need worry about having the "old" Rob on the scene. What about someone to replace him in his former capacity? "You mean finding the new Rob?" he asks. Not soon. Time, in this case, will tell.

TheaterWorks presents Almost Maine January 25th through March 3rd. For further information, call (860) 527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org.


Photo: Lanny Nagler


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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