From Guest to Host
Melia Bensussen and Michael Wilson in Conversation
Melia Bensussen: When I got the call that Hartford Stage scheduled me for a first interview, you were the first person I wrote. Having worked for you there as a director, when you were the company’s artistic director (1998-2011), you were very much on my mind through this whole process.
I remember when you took over from Mark Lamos, the artistic director before you (1980-97), there was a letter from him to you in the green room for everyone to see, wishing you well on your first season. I found that very moving.
Michael Wilson: Mark was incredibly supportive. In fact, when I got the nod from the search committee in January 1998, the first call I made was to Mark. I wanted his approval, his support.
Melia: I also wrote Mark saying that I couldn’t believe I was at this stage. Then meeting Darko Tresnjak, the artistic director I’m taking over from, and having him be so pleased meant the world.... As competitive as this profession is for all of us, I feel so welcomed. It is a kind of approval.
What’s exciting about these leadership transitions and the HowlRound series on them is reading all the different ways people are finding to decode theatres to each other. Since the appointment, I’ve been in touch with so many of the new artistic directors, like Maria Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth, Marissa Wolf at Portland Center Stage, Johanna Pfaelzer at Berkeley Rep, and Hana Sharif, who’s heading to the Rep in St. Louis. There’s so much opportunity for the exchange of ideas.
I feel the generosity of this profession and the connections that we forge circling back. There’s something about the privilege of suddenly having one of these positions that allows you to see all the connections you’ve made, all the ways we’re all connected through our different jobs in different theatres at different times. Now I get to be a host instead of a guest, and I love this shift and all the opportunities it presents.... You can see the wealth of the possibilities and artistry in our field.
Now I get to be a host instead of a guest, and I love all the opportunities it presents.
Michael: You’ve just hit on some very important points. I believe it is a privilege to serve in one of these artistic leadership positions. And part of that privilege, part of that honor, is to have the opportunity and the responsibility to look beyond your own work. Creating, curating—
Melia: Wanting to support other directors and playwrights and actors and designers.
Michael: The generosity that you spoke about, I know what that’s like. Before Mark, Paul Weidner was artistic director (1969-1980). In 1997, Zelda Fichandler—by then well into her second decade as chair of the Grad Acting program at NYU—called me to direct Tony Kushner’s Hydriotaphia as one of the third years’ two spring projects. We were in rep rehearsals, with Paul directing the other production, a Fugard play. I would leave my rehearsal and in came Paul for his, so he and I would have all these conversations. I was not even a glimmer in Hartford Stage’s eye but, within a few months I would be named Hartford’s fourth artistic director. When that happened, I remember feeling so grateful for Paul’s warm, interested words. I felt there was this kind of energy that was being passed down from him.
Melia: You do feel a sense of legacy and trust, a sense of shared stewardship among all of us. I don’t remember if I was asked this directly by the search committee or if I was being a little unfiltered, but at one point during the hiring process I said, “My worst nightmare about this is that I will in some way hurt this institution.” The search committee answered that I’d been running a large theatre program for eleven years, so it was evident that I had the skills. But it is different: as artistic director you are the CEO and have the ultimate responsibility. Being a department chair, as I have been, is more of a middle-management position, which comes with its own challenges but it’s not the same burden. What I greatly appreciate is that the theatre’s board saw my academic background as a great training ground for a future artistic director.
Historically, or at least over the last forty years or so, there has been a bias against theatre professionals working in the academy—unless they’re at the top grad schools. We tend to, as a profession, not be respectful enough of our colleagues who are teaching as well as working professionally. As though theatre artists in the academy have somehow abandoned the “real” business of theatre. I hope my appointment at Hartford helps in some small way point out how great it is when the “academy” and the “profession” are more intertwined.
Michael: I know many of our fellow directors who work a lot in the academy have felt the way that you’re describing. At the same time, I think there are many of us who feel those who serve in the academy are also doing very important research work, developing the next generation, and also are often, as you are, directing productions of classics and new plays elsewhere, winning awards, and all kinds of wonderful things in addition to the academic work.
Your experience at Emerson College is another thing that makes you so uniquely the right person to run Hartford Stage at this moment. In the sixties there was this explosion of these upstart companies like Hartford, Long Wharf, Yale Rep—all founded with the rebellious intent of providing an alternative to commercial Broadway, but what’s happened over the last fifty-plus years is that they have all become these very complex institutions integral to the life of the community they serve. The work on stage is still for many of us the first thing, but you’ve also got education and community outreach that have become essential program pillars. I feel that your creative and strategic mind, combined with your soul, which is passionate about exploring and connecting diverse cultures, makes you the perfect leader for the company in 2019.
Melia: I stopped being department chair after eleven years and thought, ”Now I’ll be able to do much more of my own work, as well as to continue to teach,” which is a really terrific combination. So, when I first went to the interview at Hartford, I went in feeling as though I wasn’t sure it really was the right thing to do at this time. Seeing my colleagues in these positions, I’d of course noticed, as we all have, how very brutal it can be to be an artistic director. In truth, it is utterly terrifying to contemplate how much I need to learn.
Michael: The work you’ve done at Emerson has only enriched and deepened and matured you—
Melia: It’s really interesting reading some of the other pieces in this series. Pam MacKinnon talking about the layers... She said she’d always been used to playing a complicated game while freelancing and juggling different projects but now as artistic director it’s in 3D. In the conversation between Joanie Schultz and Sarah Rasmussen, Joanie talked about trusting her own point of view as an institutional leader, and articulating that with confidence. For me, these were two examples of skills I was able to begin to develop as department chair. That being said, I know it will be quite different to run Hartford Stage, and I’m guessing a year from now when we chat I’ll tell you that being artistic director is nothing like being a chair and I was totally unprepared.
When I had that first interview with the search committee, I got so excited about how committed they are to the theatre and the community, and so excited by their outreach—by the library free ticket program, by their being open to looking at more bilingual approaches to work, that they were interested in Hartford Stage becoming even more crucial to the civic life of that city. That’s what sold me.
As a freelance director becoming an artistic director, one of the things you think is, “Oh good. I get to direct now the projects I want,” but it’s more complicated than that.
Michael: Far more complicated.
Melia: Because you actually need to do what the theatre needs, which is not always the same thing as you want.
Michael: Exactly, and that may have been what led or leads many candidates to want these positions, thinking they’ll get to do a lot of their work. That hopefully is true, and it is true that you will have an artistic home, and that is so wonderful for anyone to have, whether they’re an artistic director not.
But these institutions are so much more complex. If they have woven themselves into the fabric of the community, as Hartford Stage has, it’s both an opportunity to impact the life of people who may not even know the power of theatre but can be transformed by it, and it’s also a responsibility. The work you did as department chair, you had to listen to a multiplicity of voices, collaborate, listen. And then sometimes make decisions that were hard, I’m sure.
Melia: You get to say, “You may not agree with the decision I’m going to make, but I will share with you the why, and I will have listened.”
Michael: You’re going to do that all the time at Hartford, and if you have that process, even if someone doesn’t agree with what your ultimate decision might be, how can they really take exception to your methodology?
Melia: The great privilege of these jobs is that we get to have something so much larger than our own ego or our own aesthetic. There are certain pieces that I’m in the midst of working on that are perhaps not right for Hartford Stage. In an interesting way, taking on a job like this requires someone who’s as much thinking as a producer as someone who’s thinking as an artist.
Melia: Some of my own projects need to be developed either elsewhere or at a different pace right now while I focus on what serves that community at this moment.
Michael: If you’re talking about works that feel to you more radical than Hartford is ready for, maybe Hartford actually is ready for it.
Melia: I’m conscious of my first couple of choices being broad strokes towards what I’m after as an artist, but also not going in with a sledgehammer—going in and getting the temperature of the place, knowing that the audience will need time to get to know me. And I have faith that I will be able to get to the edgier work, however we define that.
Michael: Out of the six plays, Paul once said to me there was always one walkout play every year. And if there wasn’t one, people were upset. They thought we were becoming too mainstream, too commercial.
Melia: That’s a great way to look at it.
Michael: What’s unique about Hartford Stage is that it was founded as an alternative to the Bushnell and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford’s older and more establishment cultural behomoths. It already has this history of being created by the “other” within the community.
Now Hartford stage is a much bigger, and it has family programming, elementary school programming. But guess what? That doesn’t mean you can’t do a wide range of work, including experimental work.
I feel like these institutions right now are demanding so much of people like you. They’re wanting you to be the fundraiser, the producer, the great Chamber of Commerce external person out in the community. But at a certain point, they also have to step back and give you space to be an artist, to read scripts, to contemplate, to think, to respond to what’s happening in our culture, so that you can give them the work they want and need—especially when they don’t know yet they need it.
Melia: Darko said something very similar and supportive. He said that when he first came to Hartford they had him busy every night with events. He asked the board on my behalf that they be judicious with me, because he said that, as an artist, he really had trouble finding time to think that first year.
Michael: There is no one prescription for how we train and prepare someone to be an artistic director, and then how we launch them.
Melia: What’s interesting about all the different journeys in these new appointments is the variety of backgrounds we’re bringing, because you’ve got someone like me, whose leadership has primarily been in the academy and freelancing in the profession; you’ve got people who came up as producers and are not interested in directing…
When I got to Hartford, Mark was getting to the end of his seventeen-year tenure. He had started to step back a bit, and the community was hungry for a presence. When I arrived, the staff had a rollout planned that was very aggressive, much like a political campaign. It helped all of us. We would start at seven in the morning, coffee, a speech to the Kiwanis Club, and then lunch, more meeting new folks, followed by evening cocktails, schmoozing, listening. Anything to build connections or reignite people’s interests in the theatre. It became a team effort. If we could somehow get Hartford to buy this new guy named Michael Wilson, that could be such a victory for the theatre. But It was also scary. What if they didn’t?
There is no one prescription for how we train and prepare someone to be an artistic director, and then how we launch them.
Melia: I think you and I are probably more extroverted. Darko told me they had to get used to his energy, which wasn’t like yours, just as you came in as a counterpoint to Mark. The Hartford Stage board I think is very intelligent in this way, balancing out the strengths of their leaders over the years.
Michael: It’s terrific, you now going there... We haven’t said this, but you are the first woman to ever lead Hartford Stage.
Melia: It means a lot to me in part because of all the great women who paved the way before me, and all the ones who are coming after.
Michael: Zelda Fichandler. Margo Jones. Irene Lewis.
Melia: Anne Bogart, Mary Robinson, Emily Mann, JoAnne Akalaitis, Carole Rothman, all these great women I’ve had the honor to work with and know.
Zelda says something really interesting about how every good story has a through line, and so the story of an institution also needs to have a through line. That was very meaningful to me.
When I’ve reached out to Mark, to you, to Darko, I feel like I’m collecting ideas from all of you. I don’t know what I’ll bring to the mix yet, but you’ve each contributed something to the repertoire of the theatre, to its national reputation, and to its life in the community, and that’s exciting. I feel part of the building of a cathedral, not sure precisely of which bricks I am laying down, but knowing the edifice will outlive me. I find that very moving, that we are all building on each other’s work.
Michael: At the same time, as much as we love to think the through line is about our artistic leadership, it is the board of directors. And I’m telling you, having been around a lot of theatres, Hartford Stage has one of the best boards in the country. That’s why I also think the artistic directors have been successful.
Melia: I’ve experienced that. I totally agree that’s why they’re successful.
Michael: I think you’re going to be wonderfully supported. Now that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some drama with the board during my thirteen years. There was conflict. At one point, after three years, some even moved to get rid of me because they thought I was too ambitious for the company.
When I was hired, I led with the idea of bringing back the company’s second stage. But at a certain point, it almost sunk me—and the close team of artists, staff, and patrons around me—because it seemed like my artistic appetite was more suited, say, to a city like Houston, where I had been nurtured and trained at the Alley, than for “the Land of Steady Habits”—as Connecticut is oft called—that just wanted to spend X amount on new plays, and leave the bulk of “second stage work” to the smaller TheaterWorks down the road from us. And it was very heartbreaking not to achieve the second stage—physically, that is. Even though we won our new generation campaign, we lost on one of our biggest platform issues. I felt this deep frustration and shame that we’d failed. Like Hillary Clinton must have felt during those years when, as first lady, she fought unsuccessfully to achieve universal health care. Yet at the same time, we did all kinds of experiments around new work along the way, and we also transformed the main stage within the John W. Huntington Theatre (Hartford Stage's home since 1977), making it convertible from thrust to proscenium so the musicals could happen more easily later.
Melia: I don’t presume that I’m having any idea about Hartford that someone else hasn’t had. When you think you’re being original, you just haven’t done your research. But there are different ways of integrating ideas, and there are different windows of opportunity. For example, we haven’t talked at all about how Hartford, the metro area, is now 47 percent Latinx.
Michael: It has been for a long time, and believe me we were trying to respond to that.
Melia: I get to profit from all the work you and the Hartford Stage staff have done in this area, and to continue to build on it. It’s such an opportunity for me to bring my upbringing to the fore, having grown up in Mexico City and still feeling most at home there.
Michael: To hear people talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI)… We were doing EDI in what you might call the Stone Age, only because Hartford demanded it.
We haven’t even talked about managing directors and how they’re the third leg to the stool. There’s the artistic director, there’s the board chair, and then there’s that managing director. I had a great one in Michael Stotts.
Melia: I have been making jokes nonstop about Mike abandoning me.
Michael: It’s also an opportunity for you.
Melia: It’s both. At first I really did think: with Mike leaving, how could I possibly take this on? But the board has expressed that they’re there for me, and I can already see that. And so much of the theatre’s terrific staff has been there through all these transitions and can help guide me through this one.
Michael: I have so many things that I’m grateful to Darko for, the number one being the great artist and leader he’s been the last eight years, but also I’m thrilled he retained as much of the staff as he has that worked with me, because they were so terrific, and they just serve the theatre.
The other thing I want to say about board conflict, just going back a moment, was it could get really intense; there were times over the thirteen years it got almost ugly. However, I always came out at the end respecting board positions—there was rarely any one consensus there except: the artistic director sets the program. They rallied around that. Which is huge. But some still wanted a line item veto!
Melia: It’s like what we were saying about leadership: that you can disagree, but if you feel you’ve been listened to and your opinion has been taken seriously, it is easier to live with the outcome, even if you do not agree with what decisions were made.
Michael: Sometimes it almost raised that energy in you to keep fighting, because you believed in it, because you thought it was what the theatre and the community needed. I know that, in my time as artistic director at Hartford, I never failed to have a reason in the morning to get out of bed.
Melia: I feel the same way. There’s so much to do, and what’s really cool is that I welcome all of it. There’s not a part of this job right now that doesn’t excite me, and to have a new opportunity of this magnitude is such a gift.
Michael: The last thing I want to say in this moment of transition for you is to make sure you take time to take care of yourself. That’s really important. They’re going to be coming at you with so much, and you’re going to respond to it—brilliantly—but if you take care of you first, then you can do the rest. I sometimes forgot that.