Melia Bensussen Is Hartford Stage's New Artistic Director
Melia Bensussen is the new artistic director of Hartford Stage making her the first female artistic director among Connecticut’s Tony Award-wining regional theaters.
The Obie Award-winning Bensussen, 56, will begin her role June 1, succeeding Darko Tresnjak who is leaving his position after eight years to pursue freelance directing for theater and opera.
Bensussen is the second new artistic director named in Connecticut in the last two months. Jacob Padron was named artistic director at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, following the exit of Gordon Edelstein, who was fired last January after allegations of sexual impropriety.
Bensussen joins a growing number of female artistic directors named to major theaters in the past year, a seismic shift in artistic leadership in regional theaters across America.
A graduate of Brown University, Melia is chairwoman of the Performing Arts Department at Emerson College in Boston and the chairwomanShe of the Arts Advisory Board of the Princess Grace Foundation.
She has directed extensively around the country since 1984, including productions at the Huntington Theatre, Merrimack Rep, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, La Jolla Playhouse, Baltimore Center Stage, Hartford Stage (“Diosa”) Long Wharf Theatre (“Hearts”), Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the New York Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Class Company, Primary Stages, the Long Wharf Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville (Humana Festival), People’s Light and Theatre Company (where she received a Barrymore nomination for Best Direction), Bay Street, and Playwrights Horizons.
Her off-Broadway credits include: “The Taming off the Shrew,” “Scotland Road,” “Sabina,” and Breaking Up” (all at Primary Stages); “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” “Camp Paradox,” “Man., Woman, Dinosaur,” Love Lemmings” and “The Encanto File and Other Short Plays.”
Raised in Mexico City, Bensussen is fluent in Spanish and has translated and adapted a variety of texts. Her edition of the Langston Hughes translation of Garcia Lorca’s Blood Weddingis now in its eighth printing by Theatre Communications Group.
Her work with new plays has taken her to the O’Neill Theater Center, New York Stage and Film/Powerhouse, the Midwest Playlabs/The Playwrights Center, and other new play programs.
Ongoing collaborations with playwrights include such writers as Kirsten Greenidge, Annie Baker, Mat Smart, Ken Urban, Masha Obolensky, Jeffrey Hatcher, Lee Blessing, Richard Dresser, Willy Holtzman, Edwin Sanchez, Y York, and Jose Rivera, among others.
She has directed works at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, most recently last year with Lia Romeo’s “The Forest.” Last summer she also directed “Macbeth”: at Shakespeare & Company in the Lenox, Mass. in the Berkshires,
Previous work at the Huntington includes a definite taste for the classics: “Yerma,” “A Doll’s House” and “Awake and Sing!” but also new and contemporary works such as the world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s Luck of the Irish,” as well as Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation.” and “Faithful Cheaters” at Trinity Rep in Providence. She also staged Twelfth Night” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “A Winter’s Tale” at Actors Shakespeare Project, Boston,.
Bensussen joins the theater in a period of change. Managing director Michael Stotts is exiting his position at the end of the month top be managing director at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Bensussen is expected to be involved in the search for his successor.
What’s so special about the appointment?
She’s a she: Bensussen joins a new wave of women taking over regional theaters. Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon succeeded Cary Perloff at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre in July, but this was a gender “wash.” Stephanie Ybarra, who ran special artistic projects at New York City’s Public Theater (and is a Yale School of Drama grad), took over Baltimore’s CenterStage in December from Kwei-Armah, who is black. Other moves have increased diversity: Maria Manuela at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre succeeded Howard Shalwitz, who co-founded and led the theater for 38 years. Hana S. Sharif, former associate artistic director at Hartford Stage, will take over next year at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis when Steven Woolf retires after more than 30 years. And Johanna Pfaelzer, formerly at New York Stage and Film and a graduate of Wesleyan University, succeeds Tony Taccone who has been with Berkeley Repertory Theatre for 33 years.
She’s: not young. At 56,, she is about two decades older than the last three artistic directors of Hartford Stage indicating a choice that is based on experience rather than an up and coming artist that Hartford Stage will then make a star.
Education chops:: Her work in education with Emerson College was no doubt a factor in the hiring. Expansion of the theater’s education efforts is a big part of the theaters interest both from economic point of view, community involvement and building a new and younger audience.
What to expect?: Too early to tell though one would be surprised if she doesn't;’t continue with mix of re-interpreted classics and new work. She will be choosing the final two works of the 2019-20 season which will be announced this spring. I would be surprised if she directs one of these works. Her first season with her stamp on everything will be the 2020-21 season.
Questions remaining: How will she deal with new work which attracts smaller audiences when Hartford Stage just has a single 500-seat theater. It’s a challenge that’s bedeviled the last three artistic directors. Also: Will she continue the niche the theater has with new musicals which have transferred to Broadway and returned royalties toi the theater? One more question: Will there be increased co-productions, or commercial affiliations or presentations?
One suspects a listening tour and more clarity as time goes on.
Oh, and one more thing….In November’s Connecticut Magazine I wrote a story on the openings at regional theaters for artistic directors. I wrote: “In speculative conversations with theater insiders, certain names keep coming up: Obie Award winner Melia Bensussen, who also worked at Hartford Stage and Waterford’s O’Neill Theater Center, is highly mentioned.”