The director of Cattywompus had no firsthand experience with Gersmann.
It's always difficult, Callen Harty says. When a leader steps down, a void is created. Finding a replacement who makes a good fit for that empty space presents a challenge.
Since submitting his resignation to Broom Street Theater's board of directors in late April, however, Harty has come to recognize the opportunities presented by his decision to step down as artistic director - prospects that counterbalance the uncertainty introduced by his departure. Chief among these, he suggests, is "the opportunity for the next generation to take the lead" and make Broom Street Theater its own.
Harty, 53, has devoted almost half his life to the experimental company at 1119 Williamson St. known for producing quirky, satirical, locally written plays since 1969. Establishing himself as one of the theater's leading playwrights during Joel Gersmann's borderline-biblical tenure, Harty rose to artistic director after Gersmann's death in June 2005. His own dramatic 2008 heart attack led Harty to take stock. Now compelled to nurture his own creative impulse, he plans to step down effective July 31.
Financially, he notes, "we're in great shape. We've been in the black five years straight." If the margins are sometimes thin, he allows, "we're not out to make millions of dollars."
But five years after Gersmann's passing, Broom Street is still in the legendary dramatist's shadow. Indeed, Harty's predecessor was so attentive to small details that his death ignited some conjecture Broom Street Theater would not survive.
And for all his prolific brilliance as the theater's impresario, Gersmann fledged an audience that may be stuck with an outdated notion of a Broom Street style of theater - "coasting on their impressions of Broom Street from decades past," in the words of Scott Feiner, Broom Street's interim development director. If that's true, Feiner suggests, it's time for theatergoers to take a fresh look at its contemporary incarnation and work. "I think as that happens, our standing will improve."
Even as he steps down, Harty is not abandoning his interest in Broom Street Theater. He is keen for whoever succeeds him to know the theater's history and significance.
It is the rare local theater company that produces mainly original plays. The material may be raw or provocative but also comedic. The Broom Street stage is a milieu devoid of lavish sets and costumes, where a box may represent a chair or house or Jeep, and the success of a performance hinges on the ability of the cast to engage the audience's imagination.
"The whole thing is an experiment," Harty says, "so letting some of the younger folks take over and see where it goes, I think, is going to be fascinating." He wants to "see them keep challenging and growing, creating works that challenge the audience and themselves, and not to stay static."
Broom Street technical director John Sable notes that the artistic director's role was among the considerations revisited when Gersmann died. Widely perceived as the top overall position at other theater companies (as it was during Gersmann's long reign), it was reimagined after his death as part of a triumvirate including the company's technical and development directors.
Harty's resignation as artistic director will leave an "emotional hole," Sable says. Even if this is mitigated by Harty's plans to continue writing and directing, "there's always that little bit of apprehension" associated with change.
In this regard, Sable says, the theater regains a significant counterbalance to Harty's resignation as artistic director: a quintessential Broom Street playwright with more time to write. Sable views Harty as exemplary for his "commitment to writing what's true to him," he explains.
When the board next meets, says Sable, it will consider modifications to the artistic director's job description. The ultimate selection of a new artistic director will fall to the six elected board members, he notes.
During a transitional period like this, "the very nature of artistic director is put into question," says Feiner. The board is pondering the notion of a term limit for the position, Feiner adds. "Do we want to find somebody who's going to do this for decades and decades," he asks, "or are we going to think about, maybe, this is a position that will rotate more often?"
Other intriguing alternatives are under consideration, Sable notes. Among the more radical: "The board may decide we, as a committee of six, want to take over the artistic vision of the theater."
The board is scheduled to meet on July 10, says Feiner. He expects things to move fast from there, with an announcement of the opening within the theater in the next six weeks, and a decision regarding whether to broaden the search for Harty's successor to include the community or some larger region. Feiner anticipates that when the board convenes again in August, it may have a strong sense of who the leading candidates might be. Emphasis, he adds, on the may and the might.
Their qualifications, he hopes, will include an understanding of Broom Street's overall history, but also of the Gersmann era, the theater's last five years and where they might like to aim its trajectory.
Gersmann's legacy is a looming consideration - a cornerstone, but also a perverse burden. He imprinted himself on Broom Street to such an extent that he and the theater remain all but inextricable.
"Sometimes I would describe him as having anti-people skills," says Feiner, who attended his first Broom Street performance in 1996. He started videotaping shows the following year, acting the year after that and directed his first Broom Street show in 2002. "It almost seemed like he would go out of his way to get under somebody's skin. I think that's a great way to go about theater. It's not the greatest way to go about being part of the community."
Perceptions of a Broom Street Theater style are often rooted in its reputation for mounting erratic productions that run too long. The usual run is six weeks.
In 2009, Isthmus critic Amelia Cook observed that the Broom Street play Tales from the Dork Side "abounds in funny antics" carried by "enthusiastic and convincing performances" - but at three hours "would benefit from another thorough edit." Another 2009 play, Minglewood Blues, had "quite a few strong performances and several well-written, sharply effective and evocative scenes," wrote Isthmus' Katie Reiser, but was nonetheless "a wild hodgepodge...indulgently long-winded and distractingly disjointed." Those reviews were not atypical.
Local producer/director/actor Marcy Weiland, who was associated with Broom Street from 1975 to 1993 before helping to launch Mercury Players Theatre, notes that such pitfalls are not particular to Broom Street. Broom Street may be more susceptible to them, because it carries "the onus of having to be out there and more shocking," and because its playwrights often direct their own work. "The problem with directing your own plays," she says, "is you understand what you mean," but can lose perspective.
As for those six-week runs, Sable sees the possibility of introducing shorter runs to Broom Street's season. "We sometimes limit ourselves to who can participate in the theater," he explains, noting he has heard feedback from people who can't take six weekends of rehearsals and six more performance weekends away from family or other obligations. He envisions a solution that is not either/or but either/and: Keep the existing six-week template, and figure out a way to add in runs of two to four weekends.
But there is no denying Broom Street's success from one standpoint: sheer longevity. Now in its 40th year, this theater - where the gratification of a playwright, director and cast is measured not in box-office revenues or modest stipends but the number of people who came to watch a production during its run - has managed to outlast its most august contemporary, Madison Repertory Theatre, which collapsed last year amid the economic crisis.
Says Harty, "When it comes to the finances for the theater, we watch our pennies."
There are hallmarks of Harty's artistic leadership that Feiner would like to see carried forward. Near the top of this wish list is the mentoring program Harty introduced for new directors.
"Callen brought an openness," Feiner says, that has helped push Broom Street beyond its reputation for mounting productions of "a certain style" developed during Gersmann's decades at the helm.
"I think a lot of what happened before," he elaborates, "would be individual directors' reactions to Joel, in the past, and now I think over the last five years it's been more finding out what our own styles are."
The advent of new Broom Street directors and playwrights has fed this trend, he continues, citing Christina Beller (who mounted this season's first show, Cattywompus) and Amanda Jones (writer and director of the current production, Television: The Play!). Neither worked with Gersmann, Feiner notes: "For me, it's very unusual to see directors at the theater who don't have firsthand experience with Joel, and that's been happening, of course, a lot more during Callen's tenure. I like how he supported that, how he's brought more people in, and I definitely want to see that continue."
Something else likely to endure: that signature - and cramped - space on Williamson Street. Harty is unenthusiastic about the possibility of making changes or additions to the building, or moving to a new home, to accommodate a growing audience. "I know there has been talk," he says, but he is not convinced its merits outweigh the risk that Broom Street Theater could find itself having to do things to satisfy an audience in order to pay its bills.
"That's one of the nice things about our situation now," Harty continues. "We own the building. We can do what work we want to do and really not worry about it. We don't have a lot of bills. We have a very small budget. If we try something and it fails, it's not going to kill us."
Though it remains fiercely experimental, independent and committed to original work, Broom Street Theater has grown more inclusive and democratic since Gersmann's death, as Feiner notes. But some of the Gersmann legacy is worth retaining. It might, says Harty, be fatal to stray too far from Broom Street's commitment to stage works that are challenging, original and "meaningful to us."