It was a triumphant autumn in 2019 when TheaterWorks Hartford reopened after its $6 million renovation, the largest capital project in its history.
The stylish renovation included a new glassed-in theater lobby within the historic 1927 four-story beaux-arts building in downtown Hartford. The downstairs theater, which seats 188, was also reconfigured to be more spacious, adaptable, and up-to-date.
It was a major ta-daa for the little theater company that began in the mid-‘80s playing small-cast shows wherever it could scrounge a stage. But from those early days to the present, it was always known for its resilience, imagination, and hustle.
Since the ‘90s when TheaterWorks purchased the building — formerly owned by the Hartford Gas Co. — its inventive leadership, dedicated small staff, and loyal audiences had made it a major player among larger Connecticut’s Tony Award-winning regional theaters, even having bragging rights with the largest subscription base and, in some years, top awards from the Connecticut Critics Circle, too.
Like many of the regional theaters in the state, TheaterWorks has also produced shows that have had future lives in New York and around the country, such as the musicals Ella and Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, and Valerie Harper in the play, The Dragon and the Pearl. High, starring Kathleen Turner, even made it to Broadway.
The theater, now in its 37th year, has also produced a wide range of acclaimed plays and musicals — including many recent works from off-Broadway and Broadway — for local audiences. Recent productions include American Son, The Lifespan of a Fact, A Doll’s House, Part 2, Take Me Out, Hand to God, and The Wolves. Its original holiday show — Christmas on the Rocks — has become a popular perennial for years and enters the 10th go-round this December.
Among its “brand,” beyond the quality of its productions, are its flexibility in its programming, its nimbleness in trying new things, and the attentiveness in its customer services.
Indeed, the personal touch between its staff and theatergoers may be its most cherished asset. Many like “audience boss” Josh Demers and director of marketing and communications Freddie McInerney have been there for much of the theater’s checkered history. To get a sense of TheaterWorks’ personal touch, just take a look at TheaterWorks’s website (twhartford.org) and check out its staff page. It’s not a cold categorizing of names but rather as an assemblage of real people in a playful photoshoot, giving a human face and sense of warmth to a typically dry listing of theater personnel.
“We want to be Netflix, not Blockbusters,” says Rob Ruggiero, who has been with the theater for 30 years, first as director, then associate artistic director, and for the past seven years as producing artistic director, succeeding its entrepreneurial founder Steve Campo.
It’s a motto he frequently says as a way of explaining the theater’s openness and to move forward with the times “in making theater in new and innovative ways.”
But when the pandemic hit, closing theaters nationwide for months and creating an unstable operative landscape for more than two years, that philosophy was tested in profound ways.
Once again, TheaterWorks showed its indefatigable spirit.
“I feel like the ability to pivot and respond to the moment is something that has defined TheaterWorks over the decades — and continues to define us with even more meaning in this moment,” he says.
Many arts groups retreated or did modest engagement when faced with closures, but TheaterWorks rallied its troops and came up with an immediate plan of action to continue to connect with its followers — and perhaps even to reach out to new fans beyond its geographical limits.
“We knew we needed to respond to the moment,” says Ruggiero. “We immediately made the decision to persist, and we also saw it as an opportunity to explore new ways of creating theater.”
It brought in digital experts, invested in technology, and then offered a large menu of online offerings to keep audiences engaged and entertained. It ranged from concerts to readings to an at-home series, “Get Sauced With Rob,” which featured Ruggiero preparing pasta sauce in his kitchen while informally chatting with theater pals.
It partnered with other theaters and presenting new on-line work such as Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, which was a “critic’s pick” of The New York Times. TheaterWorks also brought film and theater directors together to collaborate on such works as the play, The Sound Inside. And when it was safer to gather outdoors, it produced a site-specific theater piece with the premiere of Walden in the woods and meadows along the Connecticut River, in a partnership with Hartford’s Riverfront Recapture. The theater also presented online a production it had previously filmed when it was on its stage, its hit musical, “Next To Normal (along with a conversation with its Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt).
As its programming changed, so did its business model, going from a subscription-based plan to one that was membership-based before changing to an eventual hybrid.
“We’re not just sitting here thinking we’re just getting through this and then it’s back to business as usual,” says Ruggiero. “The economy is going to be struggling and that landscape will be very vulnerable. We might have to take a few steps back but there are ways to go forward in that journey as well.”
One of those “steps back” during the pandemic was the furloughing a portion of its staff of around 20. For those who remained as the pandemic dragged on, the producing burden eventually took its toll.
Ruggiero says it had to reassess how much the theater could realistically do as the pandemic landscape changed from month to month.
“What we learned last year is that we bit off more than we could chew and that was hard,” he says. “We’ve always run with a lean, dedicated staff, and what we learned was we have to take car them, too.”
This year, there is a commitment for a better work-life balance for the staff, he says.
Beyond TheaterWorks, Ruggiero has also directed at regional theaters across the country and has staged some of Goodspeed Musicals’ most acclaimed shows for more than a decade. He also has directed High with Kathleen Turner and Looped with Valerie Harper on Broadway, who received a Tony Award nomination for her performance. Both plays were written by Connecticut native Matthew Lombardo.
It’s a career that the Massachusetts native couldn’t imagine in 2007 when a cancerous tumor was discovered wrapped around his spinal column. Operations and aggressive chemotherapy saved his life, he says, and he is now cancer free.
At age 60, Ruggiero says he has no plans to leave TheaterWorks any time soon, but he and the board have begun to think about what a transition would look like. Aware of the need for greater diversity, he anticipates that a woman and/or a BiPOC person will be heading the theater.
Upcoming at the theater is Zoey’s Perfect Wedding by Matthew Lopez (who wrote TW’s The Legend of Georgia McBride and Broadway’s Tony Award-winning The Inheritance). It will run from April 30 to June 5. The 2022-’23 season will be announced soon.
But TheaterWorks is already looking beyond the next season. Hurricane Diane was postponed from a slot this summer and will now open in September 2023 and begin the 2023-’24 season.