While Broadway seems fiscally robust these days, discerning theatergoers may question the creative health of the Great White Way. As stage production costs soar, show producers have their sights set squarely on the pockets of tourists. Hence, they skew their offerings to the palates of out-of-towners, wooing them by reheating old musical chestnuts and stunt casting that features prominent TV actors.
For those seeking more bracing offerings, an alternative exists here in the Valley. This summer, devotees of the American theater can again choose from a banquet of drama, comedy, and musical offerings featuring high-profile actors and a Manhattan pedigree. For the 28th year, from June 22 to July 29, Vassar College, in collaboration with New York Stage and Film, plays host to the Powerhouse Theater season, a five-week series of readings, new plays, and musicals in development.
For ticket fees far below ruinous Manhattan prices, the public can view emerging works by both seasoned and new playwrights and retain bragging rights for having seen these shows in their larval stage.
This year's schedule showcases six premieres, including new works by playwrights Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa ("Abigail/1702") and Stephen Belber ("The Power of Duff"). Fledgling musicals are "Fortress of Solitude" and "Murder Ballad." Workshop plays include "Fires are Confusing," an examination of the mechanics—and flaws—of the American justice system; "The House That Will Not Stand," about love and law in 1836 New Orleans; plus eight readings of new plays, particularly a musical adaptation of John Knowles's enduring novel A Separate Peace. Students of the classics can savor revivals of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" or "The Comedy of Errors," as well as Euripedes's "Medea."
"Powerhouse is a beautiful place to be a keeper of truths," says Johanna Pfaelzer, the artistic director of New York Stage and Film since 2007. While the annual Powerhouse roster showcases works that possess more bite than most current Broadway shows, Pfaelzer denies a agenda. "We don't set out to be provocative," she says. "[We choose] pieces that are raising big questions. If that feels provocative, then sure, guilty as charged."
Edward Cheetham, producing director for the sixth season in this high-minded summer camp for theater people, observes that Powerhouse attracts a certain caliber of artist. "There is something about what gets done every summer on every level that makes you come back for more." Cheetham says, "and it's not about, If I do this, it will make me famous or [get me] in the New York Times."
Given the vagaries of audience taste and the precarious state of arts funding, presenting at Powerhouse does not guarantee success. Many shows mounted during the past 27 years never found an audience after their Vassar debuts. A rare few, such as John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Doubt" and Warren Leight's "Side Man," leapt from Vassar premiere to Broadway hit and onward into theatrical history. Many Powerhouse tryouts are likely to thrive at prominent regional stages and go no further.
Three participants in Powerhouse 2012—two playwrights and one director—talked about the work involved in bringing their productions up the Hudson to Poughkeepsie.
Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; directed by David Esbjornson.
Performances June 27-July 8
A fan of "The Crucible," the drama about the 17th-century Salem witch trials (and a potent allegory for 1950s Communist mania), Aguirre-Sacasa caught a new staging of the Arthur Miller classic while at Steppenwolf in Chicago. The award-winning playwright "fell in love with the play all over again."
Aguirre-Sacasa became especially intrigued by Abigail Williams, whose fate after the trials is unknown. The mystery "captured my imagination and haunted me," enough to prompt the accomplished writer for stage ("The Mystery Plays," a rewrite of the plagued "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"), TV ("Glee" and "Big Love") and a stint at Marvel Comics, to write a play about the real-life Puritan villainess.
A decade after "The Crucible" sends innocent people to the gallows, Abigail Williams has relocated to Boston to restart her life. But her guilt has followed her. "It was interesting to find a way to redeem that character," Aguirre-Sacasa says. To fuel his historic revisionism, Sacasa delved into the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shares the playwright's affinity for the supernatural and morality tales.
In the role of Abigail is Chloe Sevigny, from the HBO series "Big Love," a comic-drama about Mormon polygamy. Aguirre-Sacasa was convinced that Sevigny was ideal to portray the morally embattled protagonist.
"Abigail/1702" marks a departure from the Yale School of Drama graduate's previous work, he says, but also a logical progression.
"People who know my work say this is very different: 'It's a period piece, it's more serious than your other work.' Then I've heard people say, who really know my work, strangely, 'You're writing about the same things you wrestled with throughout all of your plays: themes about forgiveness and redemption.'"