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Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater: Spotlight on Mainstage Productions by M.R. Smith

What started 27 years ago as a kind of “getting it together in the country” program for budding New York City playwrights has since become one of the pre-eminent workshops for live theatre in the entire country. Powerhouse Theater—a collaboration between New York Stage and Film and Vassar College—annually presents an intensive eight-week summer residency on that college campus, blending emerging and established theatre artists, writers, and directors, with the 40-student Apprenticeship program. Theatre-goers are invited to witness up to 20 works-in-progress in a range of development, from table readings and performed readings, to the fully staged Mainstage performances and Martel Musicals, plus free performances of classics by the Apprentice Company. This is where playwrights like John Patrick Shanley, Eve Ensler, Jon Robin Baitz, Beth Henley, Eric Bogosian, and Steve Martin (to name but a few) workshopped some of their famous works, where successful Broadway musicals Spring Awakening and American Idiot were premiered, If you’re a lover of live theatre, this is an audience you definitely want to be in.

Take it from artistic director of New York Stage and Film Johanna Pfaelzer. “One of the things that I love about being here is that our audience members are so deeply engaged in the work that is being made, and they have such a direct impact on the work itself. The artists who work with us comment all the time on the very specific ways that this audience has changed the way they see their own work.”

Talking with Johanna—working closely with Powerhouse producing director, Ed Cheetham—one can’t help but feel her infectious enthusiasm about the upcoming season, particularly the two Mainstage productions: Patricia Wettig’s, F2M, and Rob Handel’s, A Maze.

Probably best known for her three-time Emmy Award-winning turn in the popular series thirtysomething (along with husband Ken Olin), Patricia Wettig has had a solid acting career, primarily in television, appearing in Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere, and more recently in Alias, Prison Break, and Brothers and Sisters. But she has also pursued her playwriting muse, graduating in 2001 with a MFA in playwriting from Smith College, and has participated in the Powerhouse process as actor and writer. Last year, F2M had a reading there, using the same director—Maria Mileaf—and much of this year’s cast. “There are incredible actors coming in…three of whom participated in the reading through last year. Deirdre O’Connell, has been a Powerhouse favorite for years. Keira Keeley, who’s playing the young person making the transition, has tremendous skill and bravery. And Ken Olin, who is probably best known for his role in ‘thirtysomething’ has, for the last few years, been a very successful producer/director in LA, and it’s really fun to get him back onstage.”

“What’s amazing about Patty as an actor is that her performances are always very truthful; she has a great compassion for every character she’s ever portrayed. And I think that we’re seeing that in her writing as well. It’s a really beautiful play about a family undergoing very specific challenges, about a young person who is exploring the transition from female to male, and the impact of that choice on himself and his relationships. In this case, most specifically, his family.” (Please see our accompanying interview with the actor/playwright.)

Then there’s the other Mainstage piece: A Maze, by Rob Handel. “This is a wild one! This is a play where there are really three intersecting stories. There’s the story of a graphic novelist who is struggling to complete a 15,000 graphic novel in ten volumes. There’s the story of a rock band on the precipice of their comeback. And it’s a story of a child who has been held captive for eight years, and what it’s like for her to re-emerge safely into the world.” And do the stories intersect? “Do they ever! But I don’t want to give away too much.”

This isn’t playwright/educator/Poughkeepsie-raised Rob Handel’s first time at Powerhouse. He had been a playwright apprentice in 1987, just after his freshman year at Williams College. “Even though it was close to home, it was a professional environment. I learned a lot there, from a weekly class with Jon Robin Baitz, who was himself pretty young (at the time),” as well as from workshops with writers like John Patrick Shanley—also early in his career— plus the invaluable resource of professional actors and directors. Being around professional people who take you seriously is always really great, and I’m always impressed by the generosity of the professionals towards students.” After getting his first production (“a really bad play called Whatever”) in a New York new play festival, Rob realized the collaborative nature of his chosen vocation. He moved to the City, and, with like-minded souls, formed the playwright collective 13P (“P” for playwrights) in 2004. Its basic mission was to help each other get their works performed, with the collective resources being used for one production at a time, until each playwright had at least one apiece.

“The reason we started in the first place is that the playwright is always the guest in somebody else’s house, and it’s often an awkward way to work in a collaborative art form. Starting our own company gave us the opportunity to try to fulfill our own dreams. We raised the money ourselves to produce these shows, and then we said ‘what theatre or space in New York would we like to rent for putting this play on? What director would we most like to hire? We helped the playwright fulfill his dream.” One of the first productions was Rob’s critically acclaimed Aphrodisiac, which caught the eye of the artistic director of the Longwharf Theatre in New Haven CT, who then staged a production the following season. One thing has led to another, and, since 2009, he has been the head of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s a perfect place to teach. It’s an MFA program, so my students are graduate students. The (CMU School of Drama) is actually the oldest acting school in the U.S. It’s a very prestigious, exciting atmosphere.”

A Maze has been in the works for the last four years, and, by his own admission, is Rob’s most intensive work yet, having been already work-shopped in several festivals. It’s in the final round now, so to speak, with Tony Award nominee (for Sunday in the Park with George) Sam Buntrock directing, but it’s not over yet. When Rob first met with his Powerhouse director, they table read it twice through, and the director announced: I need a new scene right here. Rob agreed, and a new scene was created for the spot. And the rewrites haven’t abated; Rob expects there will be adjustments even in the rehearsal period.

Johanna has high praise for the work. “Rob has constructed this beautiful play, with surprises at every turn. And the other thing that’s good is he’s created this wildly theatrical world that these people inhabit, and it bounces back and forth in time from ten years ago to now…to the fantasy world. And it has incredible characters—this is one that I fell in love with on the first reading. And I think for a writer like Rob to embrace the theatricality that can only be realized in this kind of environment is so thrilling. Audiences are in for a real treat, and a wild ride.”

Though Powerhouse has always been strong in musical theatre development, this year they’ve upped the ante from three to four productions (plus one reading). Powerhouse alumni Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) return with The Nightingale (7/8-10), a contemporary musical rendering of the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a young emperor who finds his heart in the song of a small grey bird—and in the soul of a common servant girl—far beyond the walls of the Forbidden City. “This is a piece that I’ve been tracking for a number of years, and it’s evolved hugely since the first time that they brought it to me. I’m really proud to be able to support their work.”

The February House (7/14-16) is an amazing piece, based on a true story of intrigue, about this sort of boarding house in Brooklyn Heights in 1940. A man has brought together an incredible group of artists in this very ad hoc collision of personalities. It’s an extraordinary work. Imagine being the proprietor of a boarding house that had W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten. I think it’s about what it meant to be an artist in the face of an impending war.”

“The music is all over the place. I think this guy Gabe Kahane (music and lyrics, book by Seth Bockley) is going to be major. I think this is one of those moments where our audiences who experience his work now are going to be saying in five years, ‘we were part of the development of this career.’”

Piece of My Heart (7/29-31, book by Daniel Goldfarb, Brett Berns, and Cassandra Berns) is almost like a mystery story. I had never heard of Bert Berns before. Of course I had heard all the seminal tunes— “Twist and Shout,” “Piece Of My Heart,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Cry To Me,” “Cry Baby”—but I had no idea they were by the same person. He wrote these songs in an eight year period. He was born with a heart murmur, had rheumatic fever as a child. He had been told from a very young age he wouldn’t live past 30. He lives with that ticking clock, gets to 30, realizes he’s not dead, embarks on this huge rush of creation. And then…..dies.” Singer-songwriter Dar Williams presents her all-ages musical The Island Musical (7/17), a new musical tale of a faraway island whose inhabitants must confront the forces which threaten their magical home, and who come together to protect their beloved island.

A key component to the Powerhouse concept is the Apprentice Program, 40 or so students from around the country, focusing on acting, playwriting, or directing. The apprentices work up performances of classics (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 7/8-11; Cymbeline 7/15-18, 6 PM), presented free to the public, while generating their own new work. “For them to be engaged in that practice alongside professionals—they also serve as rehearsal assistants—it’s amazing. I think that because theatre is a form that’s truly handed down from one working theatre artist to the next, the only way to really both fall in love with it and then hone the practice of your own craft, is to do it in the company of people who are perhaps one step farther along in their career, or ten steps. And I think what you see here is that the professionals who are in residence with us, take on that task as well.” Those interested in the raw form of the script can check out the Readings Festival (7/29-31), to hear readings of new works by Ed Hime, Mona Mansour, Jennifer Robbins, Michael Biello, Dan Martin, and—surprise, surprise, John Patrick Shanley.

Despite the preponderance of computerized entertainment in this day and age, Johanna pronounces the health of contemporary live theatre is in excellent condition, noting the increase even recently in the number of Broadway attendees. “One of the things that scare me is that we sometimes see theatre heading toward a style of story-telling that’s more akin to television or to film. And I think that this season sits in glorious opposition to that. We are working on highly theatrical stories, being told in a specifically theatrical way.”
All photos by Buck Lewis

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