Unlike most directors who helm plays at Hartford Stage, the up-and-coming Oliver Butler, who is amassing positive notices both in New York and regionally, probably knows more about the nooks and crannies of the place than any other director except for the theater’s current and past artistic directors.
But Butler is feeling right at home at Hartford Stage, where he is now directing the world premiere of Christopher Shinn’s latest play, “An Opening in Time,” which officially opens on Friday, September 25 and runs through October 11. It’s a reunion of sorts on several levels, for not only is Butler directing for the first time at a theater he got to know well during his youth, but it also represents a major step for playwright Shinn, who has set this play in his hometown of Wethersfield, Conn. This is the first time also that Butler has directed a play by Shinn, although the two have been off-stage friends for nearly six years. Before the play’s press opening on September 23, he spent a few minutes to discuss his background and what brought him to this point in his career.
Butler, who grew up in East Lyme, Conn., spent a lot of time in his youth at both Hartford Stage and New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, where he would often accompany his mother who appeared frequently in productions at Hartford Stage. Seasoned theatergoers will readily recall the memorable performances of the esteemed actress Pamela Payton-Wright who has enjoyed a long career on and off-Broadway, in theaters across the country and on television (including a recurring role on the soap “One Life To Live” in which she helped elevate the quality of acting.)
As a result, Butler discovered and got firsthand experience learning about what goes on backstage, and as he grew older and eventually went to school at the University of Connecticut, he would frequently pick up work helping to build sets and perform other offstage functions, gaining skills that have made him a quite accomplished professional carpenter as well. Although he started as a political science major at UConn, he spent the summer of 1998 as an apprentice at that famous teaching ground for many future theatrical professionals, the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where he stage managed, acted in the Festival’s Free Theatre under the direction of future Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, and savored that summer’s many theatrical offerings including a production of Douglas Wright’s “Quills,” that made a strong impression on the young student.
“I left that summer knowing that I wanted to direct,” Butler relates. Back at UConn that fall, he threw himself into the theater program, doing a lot of directing at UConn’s Black Box Theatre, including his own production of “Quills,” among other shows, and was mentored by many members of the distinguished program’s faculty, including Eric Hill, who is also a resident director at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. There Butler co-directed that theatre’s world premiere production of “The Einstein Project” and a revival of “This Is Our Youth.”
Moving to New York, the aspiring director started a theater company called The Debate Society, with friends and colleagues Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, who were two actor/playwrights who had achieved a lot of positive notice for their creative work at Vassar College. Now in its eleventh year, The Debate Society, based in Brooklyn, has earned a well-deserved reputation for its original cutting edge productions that challenge and thrill audiences. Their most recent production was last season’s highly-praised and popular production of “Jacuzzi” which was developed by the company and starred Bos and Thureen, along with Peter Friedman and Chris Lowell, under the direction of Butler. Last spring, Butler returned to yet another of the theaters from his youth, the Long Wharf, where directed one of the first regional theater productions of Dan Harmon’s “Bad Jews” which became the most successful production in that theater’s history.
Butler describes himself as excited to be directing the world premiere of “An Opening in Time.” “I have always wanted to work with Chris,” he says ever since he first met the playwright socially around five years ago. But they never had the opportunity to work together until now. “I always thought from knowing him that we would get along creatively. I was sent the play this past spring and read it on a flight to Australia. I found it to be so delicate, quiet in places, brooding in others. It’s about first chances, second chances and ultimately last chances—about what it takes to love and especially how to give yourself permission to love.”
The two main characters, Ann and Ron, had a fateful night together years ago, he explains, when they professed love while being married to others. Thirty years later as Ann returns to her home town, they run into each other and try to unravel the mystery of why they didn’t commit before. Another character is a 17-year old foster kid who is also trying to figure out who he is, a discovery that will could have ramifications on the rest of his life.
Ultimately, Butler feels that this is “a play about regret, both for what you have done in your life, and for what you did not do—which I find to be the more powerful form of regret.”
“An Opening in Time” marks the first time that playwright Shinn has set a play in his home town, although an earlier work, “Four” was set in Hartford over a Fourth of July weekend. Shinn’s decision to set this work in Wethersfield was, according to published interviews with the playwright, partly motivated by the diagnosis of a debilitating, potentially fatal illness for which he underwent a lengthy, but successful treatment. Hartford Stage has previously produced another play by Shinn, “Dying City,” while cross-town neighbor TheatreWorks mounted a production of “Four” several years ago.
Although “An Opening in Time” is inspired by Wethersfield, Butler reports that the cast and the production team have tried to make the elements of the play feel universal. “I hope that people will recognize the specific location as Connecticut,” he stresses, “but will also be able to identify it as their own home town. We are hoping that the production feels very American.”
In addition to the positive reviews the director received for “Bad Jews” at Long Wharf, Butler was also lauded by the New York critics for his direction of Will Eno’s “The Open House” at the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street. Eno is yet another up and coming contemporary playwright whose growing body of work reveals a quirky, innovative plotting and gift for language that, like Shinn and Harmon, seems naturally matched for Butler’s particular interests.
Following the run of “An Opening in Time,” Butler will rejoin his colleagues in The Debate Society to continue development of their newest work, “The Light Years,” based on the life of real-life theater impresario Steele MacKaye. Well known during his time for his elaborate spectacles but mostly forgotten today, MacKaye intended to build the largest theater in the world for the Chicago World Exposition in 1893, which he named “The Spectatorium” and which would seat over 12,000 people. The financial panic of 1893 crushed that dream and while the theater was never completed, a scale model does remain. He also patented over 100 theatrical inventions, including the fold-down theater seat, flame proof curtains, and “the nebulator,” which could produce clouds on stage. The work premiered this summer at New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater at Vassar.
“An Opening in Time” runs through October 11. For information and tickets, call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit the theater’s website at www.hartfordstage.org.