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Artistic Director Is Ready for His Next Big Act

October 12, 2002|FRANK RIZZO | HARTFORD COURANT

Like an underdog prizefighter who has scrapped to the top on chutzpah, street smarts and skill, Gordon Edelstein just may be what New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre needs in an artistic director.

After a less-than-championship season following the resignation of Doug Hughes, Edelstein is bringing new energy, credibility and hope to the 38-year-old theater as it faces a seismic shift in leadership, a half-million-dollar debt and in-flux plans for a new complex.

Insiders are giving Edelstein good odds, considering how well he knows the players, having been associate artistic director under longtime leader Arvin Brown in the early 1990s and runner-up five years ago when the job went to Hughes.

A big bear of a man (teddy to some, grizzly to others), Edelstein, 47, is a difficult man to cubbyhole, considering his tastes run from a Philip Glass opera to Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," both of which he produced in Seattle.

"One newspaper said that I was giving our audiences artistic whiplash," Edelstein said. "Honestly, I love them both. So call me crazy."

Misha Berson, theater writer for the Seattle Times, calls Edelstein "a mensch.... He's gregarious, warm and enthusiastic."

Edelstein grew up on the south shore of Long Island. After public school, he went to Grinnell College in Iowa, where he double-majored in history and religious studies.

After college, Edelstein still didn't know what he wanted to do, so he spent a year traveling around Europe.

When he returned to New York in the late 1970s, he did odd jobs and started producing his own work off-off-Broadway. He eventually became an apprentice at the American Place.

His first real break came when he was hired as associate director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, running the second stage, from the mid- to late-1980s.

Then things looked even brighter. In 1990, he was hired by Long Wharf, one of the early and enduring stages in the regional theater movement, as associate artistic director under Brown and was charged with bringing in new work. Then the economy downsized, and so did Edelstein's position.

In 1997, Edelstein received a tempting offer from A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. It meant a five-year shuttle among three time zones. But Seattle was his big chance to prove himself.

ACT had just moved into a magnificent old building, with multiple performance spaces and a lot of debt. "They were looking for an artistic director to raise money, but you can't raise money without an idea."

And Edelstein had plenty of ideas. Primarily, he wanted to model the theater after the Public Theater in New York and himself after theater impresario Joe Papp.

"He was my hero," Edelstein says.

"In a sense, I was living out my childhood fantasy. I used to go to the Public Theater all the time as a kid, and his work meant a tremendous deal to me: the vitality, the passion, a theater with a sense of its own value. I wanted to create the kind of three-ring circus of activity like Joe did. I wasn't sure we could succeed, because downtown Seattle hadn't fully turned over [economically], and I wasn't sure the city, which had so much theater already, could support it. And I wasn't sure I was right. You're never sure. I just wasn't sure I was good enough to make it happen. After all, I had never done it before."

But he did, putting on many memorable and eclectic productions with "a showman's instincts," Berson said. When he returned to New Haven this year with a three-year contract, it was as a different man, and to a different theater. The institution was wounded from the year following Hughes' resignation.

Edelstein has a clear idea of what Long Wharf is and is not. "Long Wharf is here to produce classics or forgotten classics or near classics and to generate exciting new work."

Frank Rizzo is a staff writer at the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.

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