Today, the Powerhouse Theater's towering brick chimney rises above Vassar College as a beacon to playwrights and performing artists seeking a creative safe haven, but during the first half of the 20th century, it did little more than puff out clouds of steam. Yes, Powerhouse Theater used to be a literal powerhouse, built in 1912 to ease the college's transition from gas to electric fuel. But while its boiler has long since been replaced by lighting grids and fly systems, the facility's function, one could argue, has changed little over the course of its lifetime. What used to convert raw materials into electricity now converts roughshod scripts into electrifying productions that have been fueling the Hudson Valley's theater scene for decades.
This summer, from June 20 through July 27, Vassar College and New York Stage & Film present their 30th Powerhouse Season: five weeks of new plays, musicals, theatrical readings, and apprentice performances. Powerhouse offers an array of fledgling pieces by Broadway-caliber writers for a fraction of the price in exchange for a theater full of people who, as former executive producer Beth Fargis-Lancaster puts it, "are there because of the work." "As soon as you take people even 90 miles away from the critical pressure, the commercial pressure of the New York theater," explains Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer. "It frees them to think and work as deeply as they can." By restricting media exposure, bringing novices into contact with professionals, and reaching out to theatergoers more interested in passion than pomp, Powerhouse actualizes its raison d'être of creating brave new theater.
On this season's itinerary are three fully-developed mainstage productions, four workshops, 10 public readings of original plays, and several classic pieces performed by apprentices on outdoor stages. The mainstage program boasts new works from playwrights Richard Greenberg ("Take Me Out") and John Patrick Shanley ("Doubt") as well as a new series of dance vignettes by director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli ("Silence! The Musical"). The workshops, unlike the mainstage pieces, will reach audiences during earlier stages of development and run for one weekend instead of two. Workshop musicals will include "SeaWife"—a nautical adventure filled with romance, tragedy, and sea monsters—and "A Walk on the Moon," an adaptation of the 1999 film starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen set in a Catskill bungalow in 1969. One workshop play, "The Light Years," began as a Powerhouse reading in 2012 and returns this summer to put its script into motion. "The Light Years" tells the story of a terrible event that happens around the time of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and how those events resurface when the Fair returns four decades later. The final workshop play, "Laugh," follows a girl through tragic loss and an insidious romance that later blossoms into something else entirely. Among those conducting readings will be David Rabe ("Sticks and Bones") and David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier") with "Gilgamesh," "The Prince and Ripcord," respectively. Details regarding the student renditions of classic plays are forthcoming.
One of the things that distinguishes Powerhouse from other summer theater companies of its kind is that it eschews selecting its programming based on a theme or content rubric. "It's one of the real luxuries we have in programming this way," says Pfaelzer. "If you went to a typical theater that had a big subscriber base, you would need to do one classic or one comedy and one drama and one musical, and we simply don't do that. We look at the work as its being written and see where we can apply our resources most effectively." But unlike other new play development companies, Powerhouse also views public audiences as essential to a nascent work's maturation process. Over the past three decades, Powerhouse has cultivated a following of well-educated theatergoers who welcome experimental storytelling, and there's no end to what a playwright can learn from an audience like that. Mainstage productions often end with "talkbacks," a sort of post-show discussion in which the artists and viewers can ask questions of each other. During workshops and readings, writers and directors monitor their audiences reactions and make note of what scenes need tweaking.
As Powerhouse moves into its fourth decade, Pfaelzer says she wants "to look at the kinds of artists who have come through our doors over the last 30 years and ensure that we continue to attract and create opportunities for people who are at the top of their game as well as people who are just entering the profession."
Celebrated artists Richard Greenberg, Christopher Gattelli, and John Patrick Shanley discuss their upcoming Mainstage productions: