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A Quarter Century of...
POWERHOUSE THEATRE by Jay Blotcher

While it’s tempting to think that great theatre springs fully formed from the mind of the playwright onto the printed page as a script, it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. Writing a script may indeed be the first, most necessary step—but it’s the first of many leading to an eventual successful production. Once “written,” plays must be subjected to group readings, the language tested and analyzed by dramaturges, whose mysterious function is to work in tandem with the writer or writers, making adjustments to characters and storylines. Directors are employed to test-stage the work with actors (and singers and musicians, in the case of musicals); set, lighting, and costume designers to help visualize necessary components. It’s said that “it takes a village to raise a child”—similarly, it takes a full theatre to raise a great play or musical.

Powerhouse Theater has been fulfilling that very mission with an astonishing success rate for twenty-five years…and counting. It’s been a fruitful collaboration between Vassar College, on whose Poughkeepsie campus Powerhouse resides every summer, and New York Stage and Film: a New York City-based group dedicated to the development of new works for theatre and film. Founded in 1985 by producing directors Mark Linn-Baker, Max Meyer, and Leslie Urdang, NYS&F is presently guided by artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer who, with along with Powerhouse producing director Ed Cheetham, has kept the quality of playwrights, directors, and actors at a high level, with many resulting productions going on to international acclaim.

The reputation of Powerhouse has grown apace, with hundreds of scripts being considered each season, and no shortage of quality assistance. Johanna: “I think the program is known for creating an environment that is both protected and rigorous in its approach to the work. It’s an amazing privilege to be part of the development of a new play, to get to impact the way the work is developed. To truly collaborate with the writer as they explore a new piece; I think the artists who come here appreciate and embrace that.”

Powerhouse Theater has served over 200,000 delighted audience members since, with its perennial program bringing together around 200 emerging and established artists and some 40 apprentices for an eight-week residency devoted solely to the creation of new works.

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And those audiences get a rare glimpse at works still in their incubation process, in varying degrees of completion. The free-admission Reading Festivals—two events bracketing the season’s beginning and end—feature actor readings of brand new scripts, no staging. The “Inside Look” series presents two plays with partial production values—this year features One Slight Hitch by best-selling author and Daily Show contributor Lewis Black and Shoe Story, an “urban fairy tale” by Ben Snyder.

The Powerhouse Apprentice Company has a parallel performance schedule in the outdoor amphitheater, presenting free performances of classics this year: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, and Euripides’ The Trojan Women, as well as a special presentation of the musical comedy Hello! My Baby, by Emmy and Golden Globe-winning writer Cheri Steinkellner, with new music and arrangements by Jeff Rizzo. PAC also will present a unique “soundpainted ballet,” Dances at an Exhibition, inspired by art on display at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

But if you’re into the theater for the great parties, you shouldn’t miss the gala benefit on June 27: “Summer Under the Stars: A Silver Anniversary Celebration,” with a concert featuring songs and selections from 25 years of Powerhouse, performed by some of the great artists who have passed through over the years, followed by a light supper, dessert and drinks, and a nice outdoor opportunity for theatergoers to mingle with the theatre-makers.

The “Mainstage”—where works that are close to final production get a full staging—has three offerings this year: Joanna Murray-Smith’s “provocative reflection on marriage” Ninety, and Vera Laughed, Keith Bunin’s “romantic, Chekhovian take on relationship triangles.” This year, there is an emphasis on musical theatre, with a full production of The Burnt Part Boys, and concert readings/performances of Whisper House and Tina Girlstar at the Martel Theatre, all with full band orchestrations and accompaniments. All three works have taken a definitive turn away from the classic “burst into song” elements of the genre, utilizing a variety of styles from bluegrass to techno to tell their stories.


POWERHOUSE WRITERS

Of all the Powerhouse participants, no playwright has gotten more out of the process than John Patrick Shanley, whose Savage in Limbo was work-shopped in the first season, and who has premiered seven works at Powerhouse since, including the multi-award-winning Doubt. Other Tony Award winners have been Jay Presson Allen’s Tru and Warren Leight’s Side Man. Other writers include Jon Robin Baitz; Beth Henley; David Marshall Grant; Richard Greenberg; Lee Blessing; Eve Ensler; Paul Weitz; Tanya Barfield; Stephen Belber; Eric Bogosian; Russell Davis; Tom Donaghy; Christopher Durang; Henry Kreiger; Steve Martin; Deal Orlandersmith; Eric Overmyer; Theresa Rebeck; Nicky Silver; Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.


POWERHOUSE DIRECTORS

Jo Bonney; Mark Brokaw; Barry Edelstein; Michael Greif; Joe Mantello; Michael Mayer; Lisa Peterson; Roger Rees; Leight Silverman; Liz Swados; David Warren, and Michael Wilson.


POWERHOUSE ACTORS

Chris Cooper; Dana Delany; Olympia Dukakis; Edie Falco; Mia Farrow; Marcia Gay Harden; Peter Gallagher; Joel Grey; Ethan Hawke; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Timothy Hutton; Kirsten Johnson; Lucy Liu; Julianna Margulies; Rob Morrow; Mary McDonnell; Frances McDormand; Josh Radnor; Ruben Santiago-Hudson; Kyra Sedgwick; Fisher Stevens; David Strathairn; Meryl Streep; Jon Tenney; Stanley Tucci; Jennifer Westfeldt, and Patricia Wettig . . . among many others.

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BURNT PART BOYS

As one of the more developed musical works at Powerhouse this year, Burnt Part Boys started out as the thesis project of two NYU graduates in 2000. Nathan Tysen (lyrics) and Chris Miller (music) were both enrolled in the two-year musical theatre program, where ten lyricists were paired with ten composers. The two realized collaboration was possible when Chris visited Nathan at his dorm, looked around, and announced: “Uh, I own every CD that you do.”

Burnt Part Boys is set in West Virginia, 1962: ten years after a tragic coal mining accident took the lives of several miners. When some of the children of the miners find out that the mine will be re-opened, one of them vows to visit and pay tribute to where their fathers died and then destroy the site, keeping it closed forever, while his brother—who is in favor of re-opening the “burnt part” of the mine—attempts to stop him. The action moves along cinematically, as the teenagers make their way up the mountain and into the mine; the music is a blend of Appalachian bluegrass, folk, and even pop musical styles.

But the thesis, according to Nathan “was a mess,” and post-graduation the duo moved on to collaborate on two more works: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (with book by Joe Cacarlco), and Fugitive Songs, which was produced Off-Broadway in 2003. But when NYU teacher/mentor William Finn had success with his popular musical The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee, he offered to produce Burnt Part Boys —if they tweaked it a bit.

Nathan and Chris got some help from fellow NYU grad Mariana Elder, who came in and rewrote the book, getting rid of the adults and putting the focus on the relationships between the teenagers. The resulting new work has been going through a lab production at The Vineyard Theatre (NYC) since May, and the Vineyard has made the unprecedented move to share co-production with Playwrights Horizons, the recent recipients of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for the “development of new musicals in partnership with a regional theatre, wholly within the non-profit system from start to finish.”

With the music expanded from Chris playing guitar and piano to a five-piece string band (orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin), the musical is not without its challenges—not the least of which is that the characters range in age from 18 down to 14, requiring either highly talented youngsters or youthful looking pros. Director Erica Schmidt, whose credits include an acclaimed premiere of Humor Abuse at Manhattan Theatre Club and the Tokyo production of Rent, will have her work cut out for her, as the chase up the mountain requires constant motion and scene-shifting, as the teenagers move towards the inevitable conflict—with surprising results.

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WHISPER HOUSE

New York City-based musician/playwright Kyle Jarrow has some brass cojones. There are numerous reasons not to poke the notoriously touchy litigation-happy Church of Scientology, and not a single one stopped him from writing his Obie award-winning musical A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. The fully lawyer-vetted show has flourished despite threats from COS—possibly somewhat because of them as well.

Kyle shrugs it off as showbiz. With several plays and musicals (Armless; Love Kills; Rip Me Open; President Harding is a Rock Star, to name a few), two bands (The Fabulous Entourage, Super Mirage), and a stake in indie publishing company Awkward Press, Kyle has stayed plenty busy since graduating from Yale in 2001. But one day, while hanging and talking with good friend actor/director/writer Keith Powell—Toofer on NBC’s 30 Rock—Keith suggested writing “a ghost story set in a lighthouse.” Keith also mentioned that he was a fan of a friend of Kyle’s—Duncan Sheik—and wanted very much to meet him.

Even if you’ve never heard of Duncan Sheik, you’ve certainly heard his music: his 1996 hit single “Barely Breathing” sat on the Billboard Hot 100 record chart for an unprecedented 55 weeks, earning him a gold album for his eponymous debut and a Grammy nomination for the single. After four more critically acclaimed releases, Duncan shifted gears into film scores (Dare; Little Spirit in New York; Capers; The Cake Eaters) and incidental music for a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night, while also working on an eight-year project with collaborator Steven Sater that became Spring Awakening. Developed at Powerhouse in 2005, the show went on to win a Tony for Best Musical, and the original cast album scored a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

Having grown up on the South Carolina coast, Duncan could relate to the lighthouse image Kyle and Keith were summoning, and he committed to the project—called Whisper House—with Kyle writing the book, Duncan the music, both writing the lyrics, and Keith to direct. Kyle: “What is it about ghosts and lighthouses? An element of loneliness, remoteness . . . danger.” Set in 1942, the concept coalesced around the story of an eleven year-old boy who, after losing his father in the war, was sent to live with an eccentric aunt who lived in a lighthouse, which is apparently haunted by ghosts only the child can see or hear.

Kyle admits, “I’m still not comfortable with having characters—for no apparent reason—spontaneously breaking into song.” So Kyle and Duncan hit upon an elegant solution: to not require the main actors to sing at all, and have the two ghosts—male and female—played and sung by “rock” singers, as opposed to singing actors. The Whisper House songs, as sung by the ghosts (for the Powerhouse performances, David Poe and Holly Brooke), provide context not unlike a Greek chorus, while also fulfilling essential character roles.

And wisely, the team has utilized the continued popular success of Duncan, who submitted the Whisper House song cycle as his contracted next album to Sony, and had it accepted. With the January release, he’s been touring the record during the early part of this year, exposing audiences to the work—and the best part is that the same band who’s been touring with him will be performing in both the Powerhouse production and the premiere, presently scheduled to occur at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in January 2010.

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TINA GIRLSTAR

Poor Britney/Christina/Rihanna/Whoever. Even to those who count themselves fans, pop divas are pretty interchangeable these days. The success of American Idol proves that there is a substantial audience that wants to see them ascend, and the success of tabloids proves they like just as much to see the descent.

But playwright /director Anton Dudley saw something deeper. Realizing that these pop stars were often blank canvasses on which others projected their expectations and dreams, he wanted to explore “the power dynamic that occurs when someone who doesn’t know who they are becomes someone others want them to be.” The idea for Tina Girlstar grew from that idea, evolving further into what Anton calls “a contemporary fairy tale about a girl finding her own voice.” And let’s face it, he adds, “writing about pop singers . . . is a great way to do that.”

The basic premise of Tina Girlstar is this: an aging female record producer—the Svengali of four pop princesses, only to have them all die at the peaks of their careers—decides to “create” the ultimate “girlstar,” one with the best qualities of the four others. With elements of Pygmalion and Frankenstein, Tina Girlstar uses the singing element of musical theatre in a natural way, via performances within the performance.

Despite an impressively prolific playwrighting and directing career (Substitution, Slag Heap, Honor and the River, Circumvention) since graduating with an MFA from NYU in 2001, and two previous musicals, this is Anton’s first musical he’s collaborated with others on as a writer. With Tina Girlstar, he knew he would need a composer who could get a great contemporary pop sound, and Brian Feinstein—recipient of the Anna Sosenko Trust Award for his Mimi le Duck—was a “clear choice.” Lyricist Charlie Sohne—a previous student of Anton’s—shared such a similar sense of humor and sensibility that they were able do the hard part: make the book and lyrics “sound like one person’s voice.” The workshop process has been pressure-free; the show has already been optioned by Olympus Theatrical, and without a scheduled (at present) premiere looming, they’re free to tinker at Powerhouse this year.

With a cast of eight—only one of them male—and a full five-piece band, Tina Girlstar relies on the ability to find cast members capable of convincingly singing modern pop. “It’s really important that the characters are defined by their singing voices,” as most portray singers. Fortunately, as the genre of musical theatre evolves away from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Anton says, “there’s a real mixture of different styles of voices, [singing actors] are becoming more versatile.” With Tina Girlstar, the audience can expect a cinematically expansive experience “with roots in a classic fairy tale. Funny, but also a little bit frightening.” —R


For complete schedule and further information visit
powerhouse.vassar.edu



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