A conversation with Hartford Stage’s artistic director Melia Bensussen
March 2, 2021
“We need theatre and our artists more than ever to help us make sense of this challenging time, and to help us envision the future.” In this statement to American Theatre back in July, Hartford Stage’s new artistic director Melia Bensussen summed up what many of us who work in theatre are thinking right now. With its attention to community engagement and its impressive history as a regional theatre cornerstone, Connecticut’s Hartford Stage seems well-positioned to fill that role of interpreter and envisioner for its community. In a phone interview with Melia I was eager to hear more about her vision for the future of Hartford Stage, as well as her journey to where she is now in her career — an OBIE award-winning director, and leader of a Tony award-winning theatre.
Rachel: To start off, can you talk a little about your journey from freelance director to artistic director? Was that something you always thought you wanted to do, or did the idea come to you gradually?
Melia: I freelanced for years in New York, and at some point I wound up on a list where people started contacting me for artistic director positions. I was offered a different artistic director position years ago, actually, and had to turn it down. I had a two-year-old and the timing just wasn’t right. Choosing a job like this is like choosing a significant other--it has to be not only the right organization, but also the right time in your personal and professional life.
Rachel: So how did you build your career up to that point?
Melia: I discovered directing in college and didn’t know any women directors. I didn’t know how to build a directing career! But I quickly discovered: everything has to do with relationships. Be reliable, show up, and build strong relationships. Relationships with playwrights, designers, and actors were consistently really important for me. And being in the right place helps you make those connections. Being based in New York gave me a wide range of opportunities. I was directing off-off Broadway, then also booking regional jobs out of New York. You can’t really make a career out of freelancing without working regionally.
Rachel: The freelance life sounds pretty exciting! How did you know you were ready to settle down, as it were, in this artistic director position?
Melia: You need to know yourself and be honest with yourself about if you’re ready for that. When you’re a freelancer you aren’t connected to what happens after the show opens necessarily, but now in Hartford I’m responsible for this community and this company in new ways. It’s a huge privilege as well as a responsibility. A bit like parenting!
Rachel: That’s a good segue, because I wanted to ask you about being a parent and a theatremaker. I know you’ve done some work with the Parent Artist Advocacy League, and that this work is close to your heart.
Melia: When I was getting started in my career it seemed like nobody else had kids and worked in the theatre. I was lucky to have a great agent, and also a great husband. It feels important not to say that in an overly-congratulatory way — fathers are just as responsible for kids as mothers! — but having a supportive partner was important nonetheless. It’s funny things that hamper you, things you might not think about — like housing. Temporary artist housing is not always family-friendly. Still, you make it work. I’ve hired sitters all over the country. There are any number of things itinerant artist folk need to take care of — kids, plants, pets — and that lifestyle is a challenge no matter how you slice it.
As anyone who is a parent knows, caring for kids got challenging in new ways this past year. My conversation with Melia turned towards how she is caring for her theatre-kid (Hartford Stage) since the pandemic began.
Rachel: Can you share what those first few weeks of the pandemic were like at Hartford Stage? What were the conversations you were having, and how did you approach those tough decisions that had to happen?
Melia: Everything was coming in waves during those first few weeks--we all thought this would be over soon at that point. We had to focus on making one decision at a time. The hardest was the week we had to lay off 70% of the staff. These were people I had just met. It was pretty awful. Now we’re a bit more settled, and in a way we’re used to the “new normal.” But those early days were a real exercise in how to identify priorities. We had to make sure the institution would survive. In extremis, I guess this is the difference between being an artistic director versus a freelancer — making choices that prioritize the company above and beyond the individual shows.
Rachel: And has your vision for Hartford Stage changed or adapted in the wake of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other conversations that have come to the forefront this past year?
Melia: The answer to that is, I’m still learning! There are so many important conversations happening about how the theatre industry can be better — the demands of We See You White American Theatre, for example — but I think we fall into a trap when we try to focus on the national conversation and fail to see how it applies on a local level. I’m thinking a lot about how to make these conversations Hartford-specific.
Right now I’m asking a lot of questions around: how does a theatre work as a civic center? How do we develop new empathies and sensibilities? In terms of new work, right now I think we need new work that is deeply reflective of intersectional identities in our culture. I want to see plays that reflect and zero in on the idiosyncrasies and the soulfulness of American lives in their intricacies, and that explore how we can all coexist together. I’m very lucky to have a strong, engaged board here at Hartford Stage, and a community that is supportive of exploring these questions.
Rachel: I couldn’t agree more with your visions of a theatre for the future. What about right now? I know that last summer Hartford Stage made the difficult choice to cancel all onstage programming in the 2020/21 season. What questions do you have about making theatre right now?
Melia: I think a lot of the magic of theatre involves being in a room together and breathing the same air. When it’s literally toxic to breathe the same air together...that’s hard. I’ve seen some great virtual theatre, and also some not-so-great. We need to figure out how to film things respectfully and professionally and make them look good on a limited budget. Making a filmed production look like “Hamilton” is an expensive endeavor! Hartford Stage is doing Scene and Heard Live [weekly virtual conversations on theatre, hosted by Melia], and we have a virtual New Works Festival coming up. Adapting our Scene and Heard series to a virtual platform has been a really good way of continuing to engage the community and center this discussion of theatre as essential to our collective well-being.
In a society that needs civic discourse and a sense of connection now more than ever, theatre is an essential tool for creatively envisioning our future. Keeping our arts and cultural institutions alive during this time is of the utmost importance, so that our artists can continue their important work of inspiring and uplifting.
As was true at the beginning of Melia’s career, I’m considering how building and maintaining relationships during this time is key. I also appreciate Melia’s reminder to “show up” in whatever ways we can during this time — it can be tempting to feel defeated because we are unable to produce shows in the ways we are used to, but embracing the imperfection of artmaking in a pandemic and showing up anyways is a good skill to practice.
Finally, I am struck by Melia’s envisioning of the theatre as a civic center. In the midst of “essential worker” categorizations, theatremakers are wrestling with what an essential theatre of the future looks like. I’m inspired to think about ways that theatres can move beyond mere entertainment into spaces that help society wrestle constructively with its demons.
One thing is for certain — our industry needs tenacious leaders like Melia to continue moving us towards the uncertain future ahead.
Catch Hartford Stage’s next Scene and Heard Live on March 24, and stay tuned for more info about their upcoming Virtual New Works Fest by visiting www.hartfordstage.org.
Melia Bensussen is an award-winning director and artistic leader who has directed extensively at leading theatres throughout the country since 1984, including productions at the Huntington Theatre Company, Sleeping Weazel, Shakespeare & Company, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, La Jolla Playhouse, Baltimore Center Stage, Hartford Stage, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the New York Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Class Company, Primary Stages, Long Wharf Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, People’s Light and Theatre Company, Bay Street Theatre and Playwrights Horizons, among others.
Raised in Mexico City, Bensussen is fluent in Spanish and has translated and adapted a variety of texts, including her edition of the Langston Hughes translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. She is currently working on commissions and productions at the Huntington Theatre Company and ArtsEmerson in Boston.
Her acclaimed work with new plays has taken her to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, New York Stage and Film, PlayPenn, The Playwrights’ Center, Sundance, and other new play programs across the United States. Ongoing collaborations with playwrights include such distinguished writers as Kirsten Greenidge, Melinda Lopez, Jeffrey Hatcher, Masha Obolensky, Charlotte Meehan, and Kate Snodgrass. She has been lucky to have the opportunity to collaborate with a range of American playwrights, including Annie Baker, Mat Smart, Edwin Sanchez, Nick Gandiello, Eduardo Machado, Jose Rivera, Lee Blessing, Richard Dresser, and Willy Holtzman.
A graduate of Brown University, Bensussen currently serves as the Chair of the Arts Advisory Board for the Princess Grace Foundation and for the past eleven years has chaired the Performing Arts Department at Emerson College. She also serves on the executive board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC). (bio from www.hartfordstage.org)
Rachel Nunn is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.