Table Talk From Two New Artistic Directors At Hartford Stage, Long Wharf

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There’s a seismic shift in the artistic leadership at two of Connecticut’s Tony Award-winning theaters. Melia Bensussen is the first woman to be artistic director at Hartford Stage. Jacob G. Padrón is the new artistic director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, becoming the first LatinX person to head any major theater in the state.

I sat down for lunch with Bensussen and Padrón — who had never met before — to learn what they envisioned for the theaters, but also to find out what they had to say about their new gigs and this particular time in American theater. The following is an edited version of that talk.

Jacob G. Padrón: We exist in communities that are very racially diverse, and I want people to look at our theaters and say, “That’s where I see my stories.” I don’t know if we’ve been such great architects about building an inclusive American theater. It’s been very homogenous. It’s been very white. I think our stories have to reflect a kaleidoscope of the people.

Melia Bensussen: We have to give credit to our boards that have brought us in to lead these theaters and [their] educational programs, community outreach and the diversifications of all aspects of the institution: what our staff looks like, what’s on our stages, who’s welcoming you in the door — and the board itself. It’s a transformational moment. We’re changing the focus of the in the history of these theaters.

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JP: For me, [the appointment] is incredibly meaningful. I feel I’ve come to the table because other people have made space for me. And I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants, starting with Luiz Valdez [playwright, actor, writer and film director, and the father of the American Chicano theater movement]. That is why I have a life in the theater. He taught me early on that art and activism can live side by side. I think about Bill Rauch who hired me out of [Yale] grad school for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Martha Levy who made space for me at Steppenwolf, and certainly Oskar Eustis at The Public — and so many other mentors along the way. But it’s also about how do I make space for the LatinX community and people of color? I’m not sure this is a watershed moment. It’s an important moment. By we can’t say all of a sudden people of color have a bigger piece of the pie…