Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Commentary: Caldwell's Michael Hall steps down

Michael Hall, left, and Clive Cholerton at the 2006 dedication
of the Count de Hoernle Theatre in Boca Raton.

By Hap Erstein

It is the topic that most founding artistic directors have to eventually grapple with -- finding a successor for themselves. It must be particularly hard for Michael Hall, who has devoted most of his adult life to running Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre, the 34-year-old professional company which has reflected his personal taste in plays over that time, for good and for ill.

On Tuesday, the 68-year-old Hall announced he would retire as of May 31, tapping board chairman Clive Cholerton to replace him.

Cholerton has been increasingly visible since the Caldwell moved into its new digs in the Count de Hoernle Theatre a year and a half ago. In addition to overseeing its construction and deftly arm-twisting prospective donors, he has handled many of the nightly welcome speeches, run the Monday night new-play reading series and directed the theater’s current production, the world premiere of Michael McKeever’s Dangerous.

I first met Clive when he returned to acting three years ago, playing Nick in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, more than holding his own onstage with such wily veterans as Gordon McConnell, Lisa Morgan and Cholerton’s wife, Margery Lowe. The play is not for novices and, in fact, Cholerton has an armful of acting credits from a former life in his native Canada.

He put the greasepaint on hold for many years for a more stable and lucrative career in financial planning and investment counseling, which he probably does not regret giving up now that the stock market has become so treacherous.

I remember calling him up, asking to do a feature on him while he was in Virginia Woolf and being both puzzled and impressed that he declined -- What actor turns down publicity? -- because he said he did not want his clients to think he was diverting attention from their portfolios. If he could have gotten critics to leave his name out of their reviews, I think he would have.

The thought of Cholerton doing an occasional role onstage and directing some of the Caldwell’s mainstage season, as well as putting his stamp on play selection suggests the sort of actor-managers who led companies centuries ago. It is probably a few too many hats for him to wear, but he seems to have the talent and energy for it.

As to Hall, he claims to have decided to retire last May, “to write a book, travel the world and become a better photographer,” but held off making his intentions known until he had a successor chosen and anointed by his board of trustees.

Michael launched the Caldwell in 1975, when there was virtually no other professional theater in Palm Beach County and local tastes were a lot less sophisticated than they have become. Told that audiences here craved fluff, he opened with Neil Simon’s lame comedy The Star-Spangled Girl, but quickly switched to Shaw, Ibsen and Steinbeck.

Ten years later, he was sticking out his neck producing Martin Sherman’s Bent -- with male nudity -- which proved a turning point for the company in its artistic reputation.

In 1996, when he went back to naked men onstage in Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, Hall almost sank the Caldwell when Broadway director Joe Mantello accused him of directorial plagiarism, slapping the theater with a sizeable lawsuit. If originality is not Hall’s strong suit, he does have good taste in plays, tending towards American classics and recent New York hits.

His other strength is gathering and showcasing good actors, with frequent local appearances of such Caldwell favorites as Pat Nesbit, Jacqueline Knapp, Cary Anne Spear and Angie Radosh. Cholerton should make a point of making a copy of Hall’s Rolodex and inviting some of these performers back often.

Of course, Cholerton will put his own stamp on the Caldwell, as he should. Artistically, the Caldwell could use a fresh eye. Hall was known for becoming irrationally enamored of some new comedies that were pretty painful to sit through.

But for the most part, Cholerton will have a hard act to follow.

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