Powerhouse Theater’s 30th Season at Vassar College | Theater | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Powerhouse Theater’s 30th Season at Vassar College 

Generating Creative Current

The set of the 2013 production of “Downtown Race Riot.” - © VASSAR & NEW YORK STAGE AND FILM / BUCK LEWIS
  • © Vassar & New York Stage and Film / Buck Lewis
  • The set of the 2013 production of “Downtown Race Riot.”

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 But while its boiler has long since been replaced by lighting grids and fly systems, the facility's function, one could argue, has changed little over the course of its lifetime.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:

Powerhouse.vassar.edu; Newyorkstageandfilm.org

Nick Blaemire, Katrina Dideriksen, and Daniel Franzese in the 2013 production of “Found” - © VASSAR & NEW YORK STAGE AND FILM / BUCK LEWIS
  • © Vassar & New York Stage and Film / Buck Lewis
  • Nick Blaemire, Katrina Dideriksen, and Daniel Franzese in the 2013 production of “Found”
The 2013 production of “Brooklynite” - © VASSAR & NEW YORK STAGE AND FILM / BUCK LEWIS
  • © Vassar & New York Stage and Film / Buck Lewis
  • The 2013 production of “Brooklynite”

The Babylon Line

By Richard Greenberg; directed by Terry Kinney

Performances June 26–July 6

The story for "The Babylon Line" arose less from Richard Greenberg's artistic influences than from an aesthetic quandary fundamental to his identity as a storyteller: an attraction to and skepticism toward tidy narratives. "I'm very attracted to a highly formalized form of storytelling," Greenberg confesses. "I love Agatha Christie, you know, something where all the pieces fit. But I don't believe those stories. I enjoy them, but I don't believe them. I'm always trying to balance the pleasure I take in almost algebraic storytelling with my sense that what's real doesn't fit into it. So I'm always looking for a form that can be both in some way elegant and also account for the sprawl."

As if to echo these warring drives, Greenberg sets "The Babylon Line" in 1967 Levittown, where an adult education creative writing instructor from Greenwich Village learns there's more to his pupils than picket fences and penny socials. But those familiar with Greenberg's work, which includes heavy hitters "The Assembled Parties" (2013) and "Take Me Out" (2002), can expect something new in the second act. "This play admits the possibility of happiness in a way that not every play I have written does," says Greenberg, "and I'm interested to see how that plays out." The play stars Josh Radnor (of "How I Met Your Mother" fame), a former Powerhouse apprentice. Click here to listen to Chronogram editor Brian K. Mahoney's podcast conversation with Josh Radnor.

click to enlarge From the 2013 production of “Agamemnon” - © VASSAR & NEW YORK STAGE AND FILM / ROGER J. YERODN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • © Vassar & New York Stage and Film / Roger J. Yerodn Photography
  • From the 2013 production of “Agamemnon”

In Your Arms

Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Vignettes written by Douglas Carter Beane, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Carrie Fisher, David Henry Hwang, Rajiv Joseph, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, & Alfred Uhry

Performances July 5-13

"In Your Arms" was born of Christopher Gattelli and co-collaborator Jennifer Manocherian's ambition to create a dance performance unlike any other, and public anticipation surrounding the piece suggests they might have succeeded. As a dance-theater hybrid, "In Your Arms" excites the imagination and eludes classification. Ten renowned playwrights each sent Gattelli a love story, knowing full well that not a word they penned would be spoken on stage. Working from each story's setting and mood, Gattelli transformed the collection into a series of dance vignettes that showcase dance genres and traditions from around the world. Original scoring by Stephen Flaherty mirrors the vignettes' eclectic inspirations and unifies the stories with a recurring theme.

When asked why love stories, Gattelli says he just wanted to put something positive in the world: "In love there are lots of different colors, different forms, and different times. We really cover the gamut of different phases—from a couple's first kiss and first touch to an older couple in their '70s, '80s, walking down a beach." Perfect for treacle-fearing theatergoers, the piece compliments scenes of passion with ample helpings of grit. "It really covers what people go through in love, from top to bottom," says Gattelli.

The Danish Widow

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley

Performances July 16-27

Those familiar with John Patrick Shanley's corpus will agree that usually his "characters all spill their guts." "I haven't written many unavailable characters," he says, but this work's eponymous Danish widow is "just not interested in spilling her guts at all." Beginning in New York and ending in Sweden, "The Danish Widow" follows the fraught relationship between a probing insurance adjustor and her tight-lipped client as their cultures clash and a murder mystery unfolds.

Shanley says one of his primary interests in writing the play was to explore relationships between women, and so while the play functions as a mystery it also chronicles the insurance adjustor's quest for identity. "Very often I've seen women use another woman as a kind of mirror that they look into," Shanley recalls, "and they either identify with that woman, or they see a critique of themselves in the differences between them and the other woman." That in this case the "other woman" hails from Sweden adds another layer to her figurative role as a mirror. According to Shanley, "There's something about the Danish temperament that is very cool, analytical, and morally rigorous that can make an American feel sloppy." Written with the express intent to transport viewers through storytelling, "The Danish Widow" promises to thrill (and unsettle) its Powerhouse audience.

Laura Innis and Cotter Smith from the 2013 production of “When The Lights Went Out.” - © VASSAR & NEW YORK STAGE AND FILM / BUCK LEWIS
  • © Vassar & New York Stage and Film / Buck Lewis
  • Laura Innis and Cotter Smith from the 2013 production of “When The Lights Went Out.”
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