By Jane Weber Brubaker (Freelance Writer)
With California Chrome dominating the sports news as the latest contender for the Triple Crown, another legendary horse comes to mind when contemplating the history of Playhouse on Park, celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. The story of Seabiscuit depicts three people whose lives and aspirations intertwine and converge in their pursuit of a shared dream. The three founders of Playhouse on Park had a big dream of their own five years ago: to found a professional regional theater in Connecticut.
Five years is significant in the life of a new theater. “Everybody we spoke to in the early days said it takes five to seven years for a theater company to stabilize, when you know you’re going to make it,” says Tracy Flater, executive director. “As we hit five years, so much hard work is paying off,” she added, noting the increase in season ticket holders and growing interest from corporate donors.
The work began in early 2009 when Flater and co-founders/co-artistic directors Darlene Zoller and Sean Harris formed a partnership and began to shape the vision they believed would take three to four years to fully realize. An unexpected opportunity shrank the schedule from several years to a few weeks: Park Road Playhouse in West Hartford went out of business.
Zoller had been looking for a venue to stage a show that would demonstrate their vision for potential investors. When she approached Catherine Denton, the landlord of the bankrupt theater, Denton suggested that they take over the space. Despite the recessionary times, the three founders believed they could beat the odds. They agreed to lease the theater and moved in on June 1, 2009. The venue was renamed Playhouse on Park, signaling a change in identity from a community theater to a professional theater. Their goal was to provide high-quality entertainment and a diverse selection of offerings at affordable prices.
Like any startup, Playhouse on Park had to overcome countless obstacles in the early days. “The night before we moved in somebody stole many of the lights,” said Flater. “From the moment we moved in we had such amazing hurdles,” she added, recalling a benefactor who promised them a $25,000 grant and then reneged a few days later.
In spite of these and numerous other setbacks, the founders forged ahead full speed, staging an ambitious lineup of eight shows in the first year. They backed it down to a more manageable five the following year, and gradually added more shows in subsequent years as their finances and reputation grew.
The founders of Playhouse on Park: Darlene Zoller, Sean Harris, and Tracy Flater (photo credit: Rich Wagner)
In the upcoming season Playhouse on Park’s main stage will feature seven plays including Angels in America, Altar Boyz, Proof, The Dining Room, The Importance of Being Earnest and Hair. “All the plays we chose for next year have great roles for every actor,” said Harris. “They are all immersive pieces.” The stop/time dance theater rounds out the season with its annual dance musical revue. Playhouse on Park is the only professional regional theater in Connecticut with its own resident dance company.
The theater seats 160 in a “three-quarter thrust” u-shaped arrangement. The last row is just four rows back, giving every audience member a birds-eye view of the stage and the performers. The layout creates a heightened sense of intimacy for both actors and audience. “The three-quarter thrust lends itself to an amazing theater experience because no one can hide,” said Zoller. “The actors can’t hide from the audience, the audience can’t hide from the actors, and the audience members can’t hide from each other.”
The interactive experience begins even before the play, when one enters the small but comfortable lobby, furnished with cozy leather couches and walls covered with colorful production shots. The three principals are on hand to welcome first-timers and greet season ticket holders. Performances are prefaced with friendly, engaging “curtain talks” from the founders, offering inside information about the play and the playhouse. Many performances feature a talkback with the actors after the show, giving the audience a chance to ask questions and give feedback. Playhouse on Park feels hospitable and personal. “Everything is about the community,” said Harris.
Highlighting the community aspect, Playhouse on Park casts all shows using both Equity and non-union professional actors. The hybrid model, inviting participation from professional community actors as well as union actors, is a source of pride for the founders and exemplifies their mission to embrace the community, and be embraced by it in return. This commitment extends to youth in the community, from kindergarten through college, with Theater for Young Audiences performances, educational experiences and internship opportunities that give students an immersion in theater arts.
On Tuesday May 20th, Playhouse on Park honored the ‘Founding Five,’ the five individuals who have supported the theater from the beginning, at the Governor’s residence: Ron Roy, David Wurzer, Chuck Coursey, Catherine Denton and Jeff Dornenburg and Tod Kallenbach of Dornenburg Kallenbach Advertising.
Playhouse on Park invites you to join the celebration at its 5th Anniversary party on Thursday June 5th from 6-10pm at the Pond House Café, 1555 Asylum Avenue, Hartford. Tickets are $50 (cash bar). Visit www.playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 for more information.
Jane Weber Brubaker is a freelance writer living in Wethersfield. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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