Joe Russo: His Story, His Side, His Comeback

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief
  • @CMPeterson81

On December 7th, 2015, things were going very well for Joe Russo. A rising star on CT's theatre scene, his latest play Bell, Book & Candle had just opened with a response that would have been another notch on this young director's successful belt. There is no better feeling than a successful opening weekend and things were looking up for Joe Russo and this production. 

But by December 8th, everything changed and within a couple days, it would all be gone. 

"I asked for a typewriter for my 7th birthday..."

While most children are introduced to the world of theatre by attending performances, Joe Russo discovered it through reading and writing. 

"I think the first thing that sparked my interest in theater was my father, a produced, part-time playwright, working on his typewriter as I grew up," he said. "So much so that I asked for a typewriter for my 7th birthday. Writing and reading plays became a central focus growing up."

After having his parents take him to shows and watching performances on PBS, Russo became involved with a theatre that would become a second home, Theatreworks New Milford in New Milford, CT.

"My parents had heard that TheatreWorks New Milford was creating a summer theatre program for kids and since it was local and affordable, they agreed to sign me up for the summer.  And there I'd be every summer after that until I aged out and became a counselor in the program."

With theatre being non-existent at his high school, Russo only increased his inolvement helping out with various Theatreworks productions. So much that by 2006, he was elected to their board of directors, almost unheard of for someone his age. 

From there, Russo would go onto direct not only full scale productions but also staged readings as well. Just last year he introduced the "Play in Progress" program, designed for Connecticut playwrights to submit completed but unproduced scripts to be workshopped and read in front of an audience for initial feedback.

This much involvement was an easy choice for Russo. He explained, 

"Being part of a world where literature could leave the page and enter into the almost real world was tremendously exciting. And this was a world shared by people of every age and description. On-stage and backstage became a playground and the actors, designers, technicians worked together as a team. And yes, it's cliché, but it quickly turned from a beautiful friendship to a true passion."

So by December 7th, 2015, life in theatre was very good for Joe Russo. But the next day, one comment in one review would bring it all down. 

"Deja vu....."

These were the first words written by our critic in the review we posted on December 8th. The reason being because, according to critic Amanda Christine, Joe Russo's production of Bell, Book & Candle, closely resembled a production of the show that was done by Hartford Stage/Long Wharf Theatre in 2012. So close in fact, that everything from the scenic to the costume design matched the previous production. 

From that one comment in a review, a firestorm had been ignited. The review caught the eye of enough people that it led to a column by Howard Sherman, Director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama. Then it caught the eye of Hartford Stage Darko Tresnjak, who had not only directed Bell, Book & Candle but also had won the Tony for Best Director for his musical hit A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder. 

Within just a couple of days, national theatre attention was focused on a small community theatre in CT for all the wrong reasons. 

It should be noted that while design infringement is a problem, it's a constant occurrence in non-professional theatre. Even worse, more than not, it's an unenforceable problem. 

And while Theatreworks New Milford was far from the only one to do this, they were caught. What became even more shocking was discovering this was a common practice at the theatre

Within the next couple of days, it was announced that not only had Joe Russo resigned as director but as a board member as well. The production was re-deigned and relaunched a week later. 

While Theatreworks New Milford had put steps in place to right the ship, due to the institutional failure, that could have been catastrophic for the group, I called for a complete regime change. Starting with President Glenn Couture who had proven that he either knowingly allowed design infringement to occur under his watch or had no clue what design infringement actually was, I can't decide which is worse for the head of a theatre. 

But while Theatreworks put out a bunch of statements stating how they were unaware of design infringement, I never got Russo's side of the story. Seeing as how it was my site that started this whole mess, I wouldn't have been surprised if Russo didn't want to talk. 

But to my surprise, weeks ago, he responded to my email and I began asking him some questions about what happened, his side of the story, but more importantly, how he's doing now. 

CP: Tell me what happened regarding "Bell Book & Candle's" design. Obviously you were inspired by the Long Wharf production but were you aware of infringement of scenic design? 

JR: "For my part, Bell, Book and Candle's set design was, I have to admit, the result of ignorance regarding the intricacies of intellectual design copyright. As an audience member, my experience may have some external depth and breadth, but as a Director/Designer, a lot of my experience came from the in-house example set by those, possibly and unfortunately, as ignorant of the facts as I was. I certainly would not have knowingly put either the theater or myself in jeopardy.  In fact, on multiple occasions over the years, I both sought and fought to dissuade TheatreWorks from behaviors that impacted negatively on authors' copyright protections.

My initial interest in Bell, Book and Candle began with the script, then the film version with its updated pre-"Mad Men" mid-Century modern sensibilities. I produced a staged reading of it at TheatreWorks about four years ago, and began envisioning its possible staging. Having never seen the play staged, I was thrilled at the announcement of the Hartford/Long Wharf production. What I got to see was, for me, a perfect realization of the show with a mid-Century design. In it, I found an iconic look that I attempted to emulate in many aspects, albeit in a re-scaled and adapted design with various original inclusions and exclusions."

CP: Was anyone at TheatreWorks aware that this was a copy of the Long Wharf design? 

JR: "The entire Artistic Committee, including Glenn Couture, was present for my proposal of design and show concepts of Bell, Book and Candle, including the look that I wanted to capture as demonstrated by online photos of Mr. Tresnjak's production, among other design concepts.  Those same photos were used as reference points by the compensated production team - although I was present at some of the set builds, I did not build the set as the letter released by the theater stated.  The Board, prior to the show's opening, saw the set, as the 2016 season announcement was presented to the subscribers on that set."

CP: When the story broke, how were things communicated with you? Were you kept in the loop of what was going to happen? 

Along with the rest of the Board, I received a rush of emails that came in from various parties. Clearly, everything was moving quite fast. Yet I was struck by the Theatre's delay in communicating with Mr. Tresnjak and Mr. Dodge. I was kept in the loop up until the time the rest of the Board met to discuss what actions should be taken going forward. 

CP: TheatreWorks claimed you resigned from the Board. Is this true? or were your forced to resign? 

JR: "As far as my resignation is concerned, I will say this: the Board met in private to discuss what should be done in regards to my involvement with the organization.  I was not privy to what was specifically discussed at this meeting, despite still being an active Board member.  After they had met, I was called into the room and was informed by the Board that my resignation was requested and that I had two options: to resign or be voted off the Board.  Those options came after Glenn had demanded my resignation in an earlier email to the Board before any questions had been asked.  I had apologized sincerely to those who had been personally affected outside of TheatreWorks by what had happened, however, after nineteen years at TheatreWorks, I would not have voluntarily resigned for simply following a longstanding and common practice at the theater, one not only accepted and acknowledged, but applauded.  Especially if no one else felt the need or was expected to resign. In fact, as it turns out, the only specific request made by Mr.Tresnjak was that I re-stage and re-set the production so that it did not directly resemble his production. Any other demands were entirely those of Glenn Couture and the TheatreWorks Board."

CP: This is also not the first time TheatreWorks has been caught copying sets, they've had a history of doing it. Have they been doing this knowing it was wrong or were their oblivious to it? 

JR: "Well, that is one part of the issue - it was the first time anyone had leveled it as an accusation. The history of this practice is easily and recently demonstrated by the set designs for Avenue Q, as you pointed out, as well as other Board-affiliates' designs as recently as last season.  As I referenced above, I was ignorant regarding the intricacies of intellectual design copyright, and I imagine that was also the case for those who had habitually done this with other shows at TheatreWorks.  Even after researching and reading about it as much as I could since December, it actually remains a complex subject.  However, what I don't understand is why TheatreWorks has not admitted their ignorance at this point and has instead chosen to ignore the visually supported claims of this practice?  I have had discussions with friends, lawyers, and theater professionals and each has had difficulty understanding the Board's ostensibly hypocritical actions."

CP: What was your communication like with Glenn Couture throughout this. Is he a responsible leader for TheatreWorks? 

JR: "As regards my communication with Glenn Couture, throughout this incident it was almost non-existent.  He and I did not meet or discuss anything one-on-one.  The only contact we really had was through his email to the Board stating, "I expect a letter of resignation and an apology from Joe which will be part of the response. The board will discuss further action," and then a request for me to come to the Board meeting after they had discussed said further action. The request for my resignation and apology came before any questions had been asked by Glenn Couture or the Board.  I did speak by phone with the Vice President, who acted as a go-between.  As to the final count, "yea" or "nay," to my dismissal, I will never know the numbers or how many on the Board simply bowed and followed where their President led.

As to the Theatre's control of the narrative and the letter which they disseminated via email to their full subscriber and mailing lists, posted on their Facebook page, on their website and, it appears, may also have shared broadly with the media, I received a quick verbal overview of what was referenced as a draft statement while I was at work and was told I would receive an emailed draft prior to any public release. That draft was never forthcoming, and when I asked about it, was told that I had already been sent a copy of a (differently-worded) letter forwarded to Mr. Tresnjak's and Mr. Dodge's representation.  The public statement was disseminated far and wide the following day and contained specious and misleading statements. It was especially unpleasant to receive a call from my literary agent regarding a nationally released article on that included a republishing of TheatreWorks' public statement.

To answer your question about whether Glenn Couture is a responsible leader, I feel that is a question better posed to the Board. I can only reference what I consider a number of irresponsible actions, including: (1) condemning and scapegoating an individual for actions he himself, the President, and others repeatedly committed without ever accepting responsibility, (2) seemingly denying what he knew to be true for what appeared to be the purpose of distracting attention from his own ill-advised actions, and (3) refusing, when challenged, to admit any weakness or personal responsibility and instead putting the Theater's reputation at risk.  These are some that come immediately to mind."

CP: What type of communication have you had with TheatreWorks since all of this happened? Will they allow you to come back? 

JR: "After nineteen years, it has been difficult for me to stand helplessly by and watch the dissolution of my relationship with TheatreWorks.  My first major theater experience was through their Kids program when I was nine, and over time, TheatreWorks ended up being, with no exaggeration, my second home.  I can't even begin to calculate the number of hours that were spent volunteering there over the course of those years.  I have tried to show continued support for the Theatre since December by attending performances, and interactions with Board members and long-standing patrons have ranged from coolly cordial to my being completely avoided and ignored.  I would have hoped that by now, nearly four months later, everyone might have wanted to move on, but more recent interactions have suggested otherwise.  

Before a recent performance at the theater, which I attended in support of cast members, I had to listen to myself and my work being further denigrated by an Executive Board member in a conversation with a patron, neither of whom realized that I was sitting five feet away.  It is difficult to feel welcome when you have to listen to yourself be publicly referred to as a "thief" in a representative of an organization's conversation.

Additionally, if that's the public conversation, one has to be alarmed as to what the Theatre discusses behind closed doors with other patrons, theaters, theater personnel and local media."

While Russo is trying to concentrate on the positive, having your name spread all over the internet is a tough thing to recover from 

"I had been asked to do some design work at a local theater but was recently told that I was no longer a "good fit" and that they had to "consider the community," he said. 

But things are looking up for him and he's well aware of the challenges. 

"I have been trying to focus on the positive.  In addition to doing the set and costumes for The Chalk Garden at the Sherman Playhouse this Fall, I will also be working on the wigs for their production of Tartuffe, and have been writing two new plays, one of which is set to receive a premiere staged reading at Sherman later this Fall."

He added, 

"Rebuilding a reputation is clearly going to be a long, slow process... at this point, I feel my best moments in theatre are ahead of me and not behind me."

Photo: Ghostlight Photography