New York Theater’s Industrial Incubator
Vassar’s Powerhouse Festival kicks off its 29th edition
by Philip Ehrensaft
|Chloe Sevigny in Abigail/1702. © Vassar & NYSF / Buck Lewis.|
Industrial incubators are key organizations for local economic development. They offer low-cost space, communications facilities, and expert advice to young enterprises that will hopefully grow up into pillars of the regional economy. The Powerhouse Theater Festival, a partnership between the nonprofit organization New York Stage and Film and Vassar College, is a parallel incubator for the Big Apple’s theater scene. Its mission is to provide a setting and resources where playwrights, directors, actors and staging specialists can develop new works, free from the usual commercial and daily living pressures. The development stages range from first readings of scripts in progress, all the way through fully staged productions of dramas and musicals.
Powerhouse began as a modest festival in 1985, presenting three staged plays and three script readings. The name of the festival comes from the conversion of Vassar’s old electric generation plant into one fine theater. Now Powerhouse involves 200+ New York City theater professionals, plus 49 students following an intensive apprenticeship program. They live and work at Vassar College during June and July, and kick off a performance calendar running from June 21through July 28.
As one actress put it during a post-play discussion between audience members and performers, interchanges are one of the most attractive parts of the Powerhouse experience: Vassar College and New York Stage and Film have created a wonderful summer camp for the New York City theater world—a camp where actors can actively collaborate with writers and directors in shaping new works, as opposed to receiving a finished script and learning one’s part. For authors, this brings us nicely back to Shakespeare’s time, when such mutuality was the norm.
Powerhouse is spearheaded by two people: the producing director, Vassar’s Ed Cheetham, and New York Stage and Film’s artistic director, Johanna Pfaelzer. Cheetham is a local boy from Wappingers Falls who went on to study theater at Niagara University. He considers himself very fortunate, given the precarious theater employment market, to have landed this plum but very demanding job—and back home in the Hudson Valley to boot. It took long, hard work to get there: after graduating with a drama degree from Niagara University in 1987, Cheetham was hired as an assistant to Powerhouse’s producing director in 1988, returned in 1991 as an apprentice director, then returned in various roles every summer from 1999 onward, and was named producing director in 2006.
Cheetham actually has two demanding jobs in the Powerhouse Festival. First, as producing director, he has to make the whole ball of wax work: the physical and administrative infrastructure, and the logistics of everything from housing artists to opening nights. If the theater world is anything like the opera world that I know, that can often be the equivalent of trying to herd cats.
Second, Cheetham also directs Powerhouse’s intensive internship training program. Performances of three different plays are the public face of this program. This year, the 49 carefully selected interns will perform an ancient classic, Agamemnon by Aeschylus; Shakespeare’s As You Like It; and a modern classic, Frederico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Behind the scenes, the interns are getting classes in all the dimensions of the theater world: writing, directing, stage design, the theater business and on. If they want to spend their life in theater, they see the full range of possibilities. The most important part of their training, however, is likely informal occasions like BBQ dinners where they can interact with the top professional writers, directors or actors taking part in the festival.
To my eyes and ears, intern performances were highlight events in the 2012 Powerhouse Festival, and that’s saying a great deal, given the high caliber of the professional productions. These talented, hard-working student artists, directed by professionals who love to teach, bring exceptional energy to the stage. The internship performances are free to the public, all the more incentive to take them in.
Powerhouse interns are also trained in Soundpainting, Woodstock-based composer Walter Thompson’s invention of a gestural vocabulary for directing on-the-spot composition of music, intertwined with visual arts, dancing and literature. Late Thursday evening Soundpainting performances start on July 4 at Vassar’s Lehman-Loeb Art Center. We’ll get a chance to see why this Hudson Valley invention sparked an international Soundpainting movement.
As Powerhouse’s artistic director, Johanna Pfaelzer must read through a plethora of scripts and proposals before making hard choices about what gets on the festival calendar. That calendar includes two Mainstageproductions that are in the final stages of development, and ready after the 2013 Festival performances to shop themselves as candidates for runs on Broadway, or Broadway’s Off and Off-Off variants.
Downtown Race Riot by two Broadway veterans, writer Seth Zvi Rosenfeld and director Scott Elliot, looks at the hard choices that an 18-year-old must make in the face of a Washington Square race riot compounded by tribal loyalties and petty beefs. When the Lights Went Out centers around six interwoven stories about experiences during the Northeast electric blackout of 2003. This is a debut for the Iraqi-American playwright Mozhan Marno; One of the six stories focuses on an Iraqi immigrant making her way across the Brooklyn Bridge, chasing memories of her lost son and homeland.
Bright Star, the first of two fully staged musicals for 2013, features bluegrass-tinged music co-composed by star actor Steve Martin, who also wrote the book. You best buy tickets early on for this musical set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A Musical Inspired by the Brooklyn Hero Supply Company is based on characters created by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. A superhero’s daughter does not want the cape passed on, and is ready and willing to exchange roles with an idealistic young Brooklynite who longs for super-herodom. Who else but Chabon would dream up something like that?
The Inside Looks series features two semi-staged workshops. Found is a musical loosely inspired by the life of Found magazine editor Davy Rothbart, who must choose between his cherished, wild road life of discovery, and settling down with the love of his life, a school teacher. Mother of Invention unfolds as an aging Dottie Rupp is moved into assisted living by her children. Mom’s memory is failing, a mysterious stranger shows up, and the offspring start wondering whether the mom they thought they knew might have a very different history.
Powerhouse 2013 begins and ends with a weekend of readings of plays in first drafts. The Readings Festival has no admission charge, but the venue is small, so it’s best to reserve a place in advance. This intimacy offers maximum opportunities to interact with authors, learn different approaches to making drama work, and offer feedback that improves their work.
If you are looking for a good at-home vacation in Stubborn Recession times, devoting your free time to the nationally prominent Powerhouse Theater Festival is a fine option. The same goes for anyone who loves theater or wants to discover theater. We have a national resource in our own backyard.