Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Darko Tresnjak
New Artistic Director's Vision for Hartford Stage

Also see Fred's review of Macbeth [1969]

Darko Tresnjak
Darko Tresnjak, who arrived at Hartford Stage as artistic director last summer, is a theater-lifer. He knew, pretty much, since he was seven years old, growing up in Yugoslavia, that he was destined to dwell in, on, or about the theater. "I directed my first show when I was seven. I was always destroying shoe boxes and making toy theaters," he says. Working and/or thinking 24 hours per day all week long about Hartford Stage these days is, for him, what he expects and wishes of himself.

Darko, as he is known virtually to all, is 46 and succeeds Mark Lamos and, more recently, Michael Wilson at Hartford Stage. This might seem a tall order given the triumphs of his predecessors, and Tresnjak acknowledges just that but adds, "I would not trade this job for anything. Michael (Wilson) works a lot of the same designers and Mark established Hartford Stage as a place where classical theater, specifically Shakespeare, was of great importance."

He led the Old Globe Theater's Shakespeare Festival in San Diego for five years concluding in 2009 and has directed excellent regionals in Connecticut: Long Wharf, Westport and Goodspeed. In other words, he knows the territory and believes that "there is a really healthy atmosphere among our theaters in this state." He lives a stone's throw from TheaterWorks in Hartford and just a few blocks further from Hartford Stage. "I love the city and its potential," he adds.

It was at Swarthmore, as an undergraduate, and at Columbia University, later, that Darko honed his skills and was tabbed as someone who would do well directing operas. Thus, he has an affinity for musicals and the ability to direct them. "Andrei Serban took me to Nice Opera (Opera de Nice) and San Francisco Opera, which changed my theater work. I studied dance and physical theater. Since English is my second language, I was worried, but the concentrating on opera served to prepare me well. I can hear gravel in a person's voice a few days ahead of a problem." We should look forward to a musical presentation, beginning next year, once per season.

He will direct back-to-back shows this spring. Before being offered the job as artistic director, Darko agreed to mount Bell, Book and Candle, a romantic comedy; and then Shakespeare's The Tempest. He explained that he begins work on a Shakespeare about a year before the production will actually open. Mentioning the assistance he receives from dramaturg Chris Baker, Darko also noted that he loves doing individual research as well. "It is actually therapeutic for me to do this. The closer I get to a production, I let ideas percolate and then see which ideas stick the most." Providing an early image of set design, Darko said, "The deck will be raised and the rear wall close so acoustics will be best possible. For me, it is all about words first. In terms of overall programming for the theater, it will be a conversation and balance between the classical and the new. The renovation of this theater means we can use proscenium from time to time; thus the opportunity for musicals. I do love, however, working on a thrust stage (which has been more typical at Hartford Stage)."

Michael Ritchie, at Williamstown Theatre Festival for several years a while ago, was formative as he offered Tresnjak many opportunities to direct. Jack O'Brien at the Old Globe, and George C. Wolfe at the Public Theater in New York were also influential in Darko's development. He says, simply, "I have been lucky and so blessed." He is a humble and modest individual.

At Hartford Stage, Darko plans to keep, honor, and cultivate older theatergoers while appealing to younger potential patrons, too. He says, "We need to pay attention to those who have some age. After all, we are all headed in this direction. Subscribers matter to me a great deal. Years from now, when I am not here, I hope certain people will have kept on with their seats. I, of course, like single ticket buyers but have not given up on those who will be here for seasons."

Tresnjak is one who enjoys input from his actors but notes that a director needs to come in with an idea. He recalls working with F. Murray Abraham one summer on a workshop of The Merchant of Venice. "He is, by far, one of the most fascinating and inventive people I've met." The director seized upon something the actor did in rehearsal and used it. As he assigns roles for The Tempest the director has elected not to work with a casting director. "There are people all over this country and elsewhere—not just in New York—who have devoted their lives to theater. I seek out people from different countries and locally, too, who have earned the right to speak these words. A student from (nearby) Hartt School auditioned and was really impressive. I have certainly taken note."

Hartford Stage maintains a vigorous theater education program. "Jennifer Roberts, who coordinates this for us, is almost like another artistic director. It is a huge part of what we do. The best argument for theater education is that it is a microcosm of life. Putting a play on involves lights, sets, computers ... I would love to come up with programs for high school students which take them through the whole process backstage and demonstrate how a stage manager calls a show. This would motivate students. Even a student not at all interested in theater might be engaged with the way a production is lit, for example. In the future I would like to teach acting classes, too." Hartford Stage currently offers musical theater, acting, scene study classes and more.

Thus, we have a versatile, caring man at the helm at Hartford Stage. He studied at the Martha Graham School, danced with companies in Philadelphia, toured Japan with Mum Puppettheatre, directed much Shakespeare as well as opera ... and is comfortable with his new administrative role. He also loves comedy and sees it as a science. "I am fascinated by it. Watch Paxton Whitehead (the British actor who has been seen at Connecticut theaters) and his every move. You will see what I mean."

Photo: The Defining Photo

Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol

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