April 9, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:00 pm
THE ARTFUL STRATEGIST

Leave Stratford theater to dust bin of history

While the boys and girls at the Connecticut General Assembly find it difficult to say "no" to almost anything or anyone, they should rouse themselves to shout "no way" to the pretty-please request to cough up a million bucks to resuscitate the corpse of the old Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

It will hardly be a "small government" revolution among the tax-and-spenders, but just think how invigorated they will feel about saying "no" to something, to anything — especially something as warm and fuzzy as a theatrical tourist attraction, albeit, a dead one.

The $1 million theft from the rest of us to support the dreams of a handful of artsy types and Stratford enthusiasts wouldn't, of course, even begin to reinvent the distinguished days of years past. No, the money would be gobbled up by various consultants and fundraisers and earnest planners who could then go begging for millions more from private foundations and assorted rich folks.

But, we've been through all this already. While Stratford sits uneasily in affluent Fairfield County and the New York metro colossus, it became clear that in modern times, Romeo and Juliet and other enticements just weren't enough to bring folks into town.

There would be no guarantee, of course, that Shakespeare would be the order of the day, in the new-and-improved whatever it might be. I'd vote for a miniature golf course, but, in truth, why do anything at all, unless the market exists for it?

On the theater scene, the Westport Country Playhouse is a happy, attractive place for the Fairfield County crowd — and down the road a bit, New Haven is loaded up with Long Wharf (undergoing its own renovation) and the Schubert and Yale Rep. In Hartford, Hartford Stage has a good regional/national reputation and TheaterWorks, given its financial woes of the moment, offers up interesting, funky stuff.

Hartford and Waterbury in particular are home to traditional concert-hall fun palaces; the casinos in the southeastern part of the state bring national entertainment home. Stratford? The Shakespeare theater? It had its day, but long before it comes begging for its million bucks, it needs to present a sexy business plan that separates it from the herd.

It might well make more sense, if there is a spare million dollars laying around, to spend it on marketing the existing travel-and-tourism attractions in Connecticut — something Connecticut has been stinting on for a while now and was rarely very good at, even when it spent the money.

There is a practical, if not sufficient, argument to be made for government to support existing cultural venues that bring home the bacon. The concern, of course, is that starving artists are starving for good reason.

But for government to "invest" in something as fuzzy and unnecessary as a restored Stratford venue suggests that the bureaucrats are adept at picking winners, in a travel-and-leisure marketplace that loves to fleece stupid people with big egos.

Strategic planning has not been a strong suit for the Connecticut powers-that-be, when it comes to art and culture and travel and tourism. A dangerous, ill-conceived plan to move Long Wharf to downtown New Haven fell victim to economics.

One of the strengths of Long Wharf, besides its quality, is its location on a dumpy site about 10 seconds off of I-91, where suburbanites can come and go, without the bother of downtown.

Goodspeed and state busy-bodies dabbled with the notion of moving from its cute East Haddam site to downtown Middletown — another terrible idea that eventually went away.

Alas, poor Stratford, I knew it well. Its time has come and gone.

Laurence D. Cohen is a freelance writer.

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