Connecticut theater gets hip to change

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A new $50 million Long Wharf Theater in a hip district of downtown New Haven is causing leaders of the 43-year-old institution, one of the oldest in the regional theater movement, to ask: “Who are we?”

With a graying — and declining — subscription base familiar to many U.S. regionals, Gordon Edelstein, a.d. of the Tony-winning theater for the past six years, sees part of the answer in the programming of provocative new plays by both emerging and established playwrights.

But Edelstein, 53, is not waiting until 2012, when the theater’s lease at its current location expires and the building of a new two-theater complex is expected to be complete.

Earlier this season, Long Wharf commissioned and co-produced with Seattle’s Intiman Theater the preem of Craig Lucas’ “Prayer for My Enemy.” This month, Anna Deavere Smith bows her first major stage work in years, “Let Me Down Easy,” a solo show exploring the resiliency of the human body. In March, Donald Margulies’ new play, “Shipwrecked,” will have its East Coast preem at Long Wharf in a production expected to sail on to Gotham.

Edelstein also has commissioned a new work and a reading by Jonathan Reynolds with the red-light title “Three Abortions.” With a new $70,000 grant from the Steinberg Foundation, the theater will develop other commissions, readings and workshops, including new scripts from Lucas, Margulies and Dael Orlandersmith.

Next season could be Long Wharf’s most high profile one in years, with new works from three seasoned playwrights: Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,” Richard Nelson’s “How Shakespeare Won the West” and Athol Fugard’s latest, “Victory.”

A steady stream of new and risky work has marked Edelstein’s tenure since he took over the theater in 2002. At the time, Long Wharf was suffering from the worst PR in its history when popular a.d. Doug Hughes ankled over personality and governance clashes with the board. (Hughes has moved on to become a sought-after Tony-winning helmer, rarely unrepresented on New York stages.)

Edelstein changed the theater’s image with an aggressive display of new and sometimes controversial work.

In his first few years, he preemed politically rooted works such as Eliam Kraiem’s “Sixteen Wounded” (which eventually landed on the Rialto) and Gil Hoppe’s “A New War,” and he championed (though it was not his booking) the 2002 U.S. preem of “Alive From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation.”

During his tenure, Edelstein has continued to be a steady cheerleader for young playwrights such as Noah Haidle (preeming “Rag & Bone”) and Julia Cho (“Durango,” “B.F.E.”), as well as Tracy Scott Wilson, Steven Drukman and Rob Handel. New works by Margulies, Orlandersmith, James Lapine and David Cale also debuted at Long Wharf.

But not all ambitious proposals were greenlit. The theater had to pass on premiering the Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening” six years ago, as well as the Tony Kushner-scripted opera “Brundibar,” due to lack of funds.

But regardless of the competition from his neighbors including Hartford Stage and Yale Repertory Theater, Edelstein has managed to carve out a prominent position among regional theaters that serve as a developmental hub for distinctive work from American playwrights. However, even after a strong track record and a proposed new home, he admits it’s not going to be easy to expand the theater’s identity, given the theater’s marketplace and audience base.

“Geography is almost destiny,” he says, pointing to the theater’s longtime location away from New Haven’s urban center. For decades, that base attracted upscale, older auds from the state’s affluent Gold Coast, who may not have been so inclined to hit the city’s then-perceived mean streets.

But with New Haven on the development upswing, Long Wharf could now benefit in its proposed location, adjacent to hip restaurants, upscale retail shops, a renovated train station, several colleges (including Yale) and desirable neighborhoods.

Clearly, with one of the oldest audience bases in the state (55% of subscribers are over age 65; only 16% of single ticketbuyers are under45), the theater had to do something. Its own internal study warns that an oversaturated market will be stretched thin if Long Wharf doesn’t present more diverse options.

Edelstein says there’s got to be a new dynamic brought to the theater — one not so associated with elitism and “one that connects to the city like it had never connected before.”

“It’s a different time from when you could just put on a Shakespeare, Moliere or Arthur Miller and call it a day,” Edelstein says. “We ignore that at our own peril.”

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