Writing in The New York Times in 1981, theater critic Mel Gussow described the Hartford Stage’s production of “Kean” as “an exemplar of America’s regional repertory system.”
The play about the life of British actor Edmund Kean, written by Alexandre Dumas and adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, is among the scores of productions that helped establish the reputation of the Hartford Stage as one of the nation’s leading resident theaters that has introduced new works and sent many to Broadway since “Othello” opened the theater in 1964.
“Stagecraft: 50 Years of Design at Hartford Stage,” an exhibition of theater, costume, and set design during the Hartford’s long and successful run is now on display at The William Benton Museum of Art as the final stop on a statewide tour, with an expanded presentation in Storrs.
“It seemed like an ideal opportunity and moment to go into storage and see what we had and somehow bring it out into the community,” says Michael Stotts, managing director of Hartford Stage, in a video introduction prepared for the UConn exhibition. “We were able to bring together a top quality, first-rate exhibition that demonstrates some of the best work that’s been at Hartford Stage over the last 50 years.”
While the exhibition that toured Connecticut focused primarily on costumes and some scenic and prop materials, the Benton’s spacious main gallery provided an opportunity to create full-scale dioramas that place costumes in context for visitors to the gallery.
“We took the same basic components and were able to flesh them out and tell a bit more of the story for each one,” says Jessica Palmer, who previously worked in the Hartford Stage costume shop and served as guest curator for the Benton exhibit. “The space is so large, and conducive to creating all of those little moments. It’s been fun to see them take shape there.”
One example is the armillary sphere and large brush bushes in the center of the gallery from 2012-2013 production of the Shakespeare comedy “Twelfth Night.” The steel armillary weighs about 400 pounds in order to hold an actor who sat in the sculpture, which served as a jail in the story. Another is the airborne display of two character costumes – the Ghost of Marley from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” production and Minerva from Luis Alfaro’s “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner” – in a tribute to productions that featured actors flying around the stage during the show.
“We were trying to capture as much of a range as we could … designers, types of shows, costumes, scenery, lighting, and props, and capture how much Hartford Stage has changed over the years,” Palmer says.
Among the costumes displayed is a doublet, a snug-fitting grey velvet tailcoat with applied metallic lace, worn by UConn professor emeritus Nafe Katter when he portrayed Count de Koefeld in the Hartford Stage production of “Kean” in 1981. UConn’s Nafe Katter Theatre with its thrust stage, used for many productions of The Connecticut Repertory Theatre, is named for the former professor of dramatic arts and longtime actor at Hartford Stage.
The video includes anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories by Stotts, artistic director Darko Tresnjak, associate artistic director Maxwell Williams, production manager Bryan T. Holcombe, and longtime costume shop wardrobe draper Barry Sellers.
Holcombe says the exhibition pays tribute to the 27 craftsmen who design and build the sets, costumes, and props that help bring the productions to life on stage.
“These folks are the backbone of this theater, in the sense that they actually create the art you see on stage and the art that you see in this exhibit,” he says.
The Balcony Gallery section of the exhibition vividly displays the creativity of the carpenters who build the sets, in the form of framed posters for many of the Hartford Stage productions. The carpenters use pieces from the scenery and props they built to make frames celebrating each production. These works usually hang in the scene shop, but are part of the exhibit for the public to see for the first time at the Benton.
“The carpenters do it for fun as a way to remember each show,” Palmers says. “It’s been incredible, but when you realize nobody else sees them. We wanted to get them out into the open, and get people to realize it’s not just what’s going on the stage that’s been happening. There’s all these incredible people working behind the stage, too.”
Hear staff from Hartford Stage describe how costumes and effects were developed for various productions as part of the “Stagecraft” exhibition.
Maxwell Williams, associate artistic director, discusses sound effects for “39 Steps.”
Maxwell Williams, associate artistic director, talks about research for costumes in “Boeing Boeing.”
Bryan T. Holcombe, production manager, explains how a new flying apparatus was developed for “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.”
Barry Sellers, costumes and wardrobe draper, describes how the lizard costumes were made for “Seascape.”
The exhibition also includes several audio tracks about some of the exhibits, where visitors can use their mobile phones to hear Hartford Stage staff describe some of the behind-the-scenes stories of preparing the set and the costumes on display.
Vince Cardinal, head of the Department of Dramatic Arts in the School of Fine Arts, says the Benton exhibition helps demonstrate the long relationship between Hartford Stage and the University.
“Many of our dramatic arts students have worked there as interns and assistants, and many members of our faculty have designed and acted there over the years,” he says. “Hartford Stage regularly hosts dramatic arts students for productions and professional talk backs with Hartford Stage artists. The University of Connecticut shares a close relationship with Hartford Stage.”
“Stagecraft: 50 Years of Design at Hartford Stage” continues through Aug. 10 at The William Benton Museum of Art, 245 Glenbrook Road. Visitors to the exhibition can save $5 on a ticket for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series by using the offer code “BENTON” when ordering a regular price ticket. For more information, visit www.crt.uconn.edu. For more information on the Benton, go to: www.thebenton.org/