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After 60 years in CT, Long Wharf Theatre continues to innovate

Long Wharf Theater Artistic Director Jacob Padron in New Haven, Conn.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Long Wharf Theater Artistic Director Jacob Padron in New Haven, Conn.

Long Wharf Theatre, with its innovative production model, transitioned last year from its longtime home on Sargent Drive in New Haven, Connecticut, to staging shows in various venues around the city.

Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Jacob Padrón talked with Connecticut Public Radio's Morning Edition about his vision for the organization's upcoming 60th anniversary season.

Selecting shows and venues

The decision to leave Sargent Drive and stage productions in the community has been freeing, Padrón said.

"I think that our new producing model really allows us to think in big and imaginative ways," Padrón said. "We don't have to be confined to just one space."

Instead of telling an artist to work within the set space, the artist can decide what venue fits the story best, he said.

"What's the right space? What's the right container for the story and the experience you want to give audiences?" he asked.

Artists can think about the show first and then the venue second.

"The word that I really want to focus in on is experience. What's the experience we want to give audiences?" he said.

The last two shows, "The Year of Magical Thinking" with Kathleen Chalfant, and "A View from the Bridge," by Arthur Miller were staged in different spaces all around the city.

"I think it created a really rich, innovative experience. In the case of 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' we performed that show in different homes — and gathering spaces — all across the city."

"A View from the Bridge" was performed at the historic Canal Dock Boathouse right on Long Island Sound.

"The fact that audiences could see the water right there as they were experiencing this story, I think, created a really magical and a memorable experience," Padrón said.

Lessons learned since transitioning to staging shows in different venues around New Haven

"I think it hasn't been all roses, there have been some thorns," Padrón said.

Among them, theatergoers said easy parking access has been important.

"That's one of the things that they loved, I think, a lot about our old space at Sargent Drive, the ample parking," he said.

"There are some really dynamic spaces in and around the city that we feel are perfect venues for the stories that we want to tell," he said, but "I think maybe we overestimated the number of [parking] spaces that would be available."

Production time has also presented challenges.

Finding a space that is available for six-to-eight weeks to rehearse, load in the set,lights and the costumes, and then use to stage a performance is a different kind of arrangement than a one-weekend show.

"Fortunately, though, we have built some really wonderful partners," Padrón said.

Charting a future for Long Wharf

"We are naming this historic moment in the life of Long Wharf Theater, our 60th year, 'Building Our Future Together.' This is a big moment, that for any American regional theater to reach 60 years is such a milestone," Padrón said.

The way to build a world-class theater is with people and relationships, he said.

"That's the legacy that we're building on for Long Wharf," he said.

Padrón hopes over the next 60 years, when people think of Long Wharf, they say to themselves, "that's my theater company. That's where I see my stories."

"I want that to be the case for everyone, not just for a select few. But for everyone who calls this city and this region, their home."

Plans for the 60th anniversary

Padrón said the theater has several dynamic productions coming up.

"The first will be a reimagined Golden Age musical 'She Loves Me' that I'm going to direct. This is a project that I've wanted to do for many, many years. I think this is a story about working-class people who are trying to find connection and love," he said.

Then comes a play called "El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom."

"It's a superhero play by Matt Barbot, a Puerto Rican playwright, and it's about a young man who wants to care for his community, his Puerto Rican community, by becoming a superhero. And I think that the piece really speaks to our Latine community of our city," he said.

"She Loves Me" will kick off in November and then "El Coquí" will happen in the spring of 2025.

Then Long Wharf will move on to a world premiere play by local artist, Terrence Riggins, called "Unbecoming Tragedy," which will be directed by another local artist, Cheyenne Barboza.

Looking to the fall, Padrón said they're going to do a continuation of "Black Trans Women at the Center." It's a virtual new play festival. It's going to be the fifth year of that festival of short plays staged in November that are written by Black trans women and incorporate their experiences.

The artists are also considering that it's an election year, and plan to hold an Artistic Congress on Oct. 25-27.

"We feel like theater is essential to a thriving democracy. So what Long Wharf wants to do is we're going to hold a convening, where we're going to bring together scholars and artists and community folks to have a conversation about what is theaters’ responsibility to protecting our democracy," Padrón said.

The event will talk about theaters’ role in democracy, he said, "how art and activism must live side by side."

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.