Hiking in the wooded mountains. Kayaking on the river. Apple picking with the kids. Reveling in the silence and fresh air under clear, star-filled night skies. For many, those are the scenes that first come to mind when they think of the Hudson Valley—not the anticipatory backstage bustle, emotion-packed and uproarious dialog, or expertly choreographed dance routines set to vibrant musical scores associated with the grand theaters of Broadway.
But over the last few decades, that perception has been changing—dramatically, one might say. Thanks to a growing handful of area colleges and performing arts centers with theatrical residency and incubation programs, many of today's award-winning blockbuster stage productions have gotten their start in the Hudson Valley before making their way to the Great White Way. (There's also a ton of other dance and performance residencies in the region.)
- Photo: Emily Baldwin
- The Lobbyists at the Rhinebeck WritersRetreat event "Meet the Writers" at Great Song Farm in 2014. They return this summer to work on their next musical "The Golden Spike."
But why here? Why not in the belly of the beast itself, down amid the glitter, the greasepaint, and the glow of the footlights?
"A lot of playwrights are really excited about the idea of developing new work outside the critical glare of New York," says Ed Cheetham, the producing director at Powerhouse Theater. "It gives them the chance to put [the commotion of the city] behind them, to focus and actually create a community around an idea."
Located on the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, Powerhouse is named for its home structure, a turn-of-the-century brick dynamo building. Since 1985, the college has maintained a partnership with the Manhattan-based incubator New York Stage and Film. For six weeks each summer, Powerhouse's 145-seat black-box theater (AKA the Hallie Flanagan-Davis Powerhouse Theater), 125-seat Susan Stein Shiva Theater, and 300-person-capacity Martel Theater (inside the adjacent Vogelstein Theater for Drama and Film) are taken over for workshopping musicals, readings of works in progress, and fully produced plays. And the summer-long program lives up to its name in more ways than just the literal nod to its power-plant past.
It was in 2013, in Shiva Theater—a former coal bin in the basement of Powerhouse theater—that the monumental "Hamilton" was incubated before going on to its wave-making, Tony-taking triumph on Broadway. Likewise woodshedded at Powerhouse were performer-playwright-producer Taylor Mac's marathon "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" and such successful musicals and plays as "Bright Star," "American Idiot," "The Secret Life of Bees," "Head Over Heels," "The Wolves," "Tru," "The Humans," "Side Man," and "Doubt" (the latter three all Tony winners and "Doubt," by repeat Powerhouse participant John Patrick Shanley, which also won a Pulitzer Prize.
This season includes the plays "The Bandaged Place" by Harrison David Rivers (June 27-July 7) and "Lightning (or The Unbuttoning)" (July 18-28) by Beth Henley; musical workshops "Annie Salem: An American Tale" (July 5-7), "The Elementary Spacetime Show" (July 12-14), and "Goddess" (July 26-28); and workshops of the drama "...and the Horse You Rode in On" (June 20-22) and the comedy "The Best We Could (A Family Tragedy)" (July 25-27).
- Photo: Karl Rabe
- Rachel Altemose apprentices in the Powerhouse Theater Training Program in 2017.
Powerhouse's productions are presented in their raw, embryonic forms, without much of the pomp and accoutrements that come with a big-budget Broadway incarnation, putting the emphasis squarely on the content itself. Not all of the projects or phases of projects that come to Powerhouse are open to the public during their gestations; in certain cases, the writers or directors bring their works there to be able to gauge and make adjustments to them in a real time, closed-shop environment before taking them to audiences elsewhere. But in general, Powerhouse's performances and readings are there to, at some point during their residencies, be staged before an audience, to see how they play.
"The audiences don't only come from the Hudson Valley; a lot of people come up from New York and from farther outside the area," says Johanna Pfaelzer, Powerhouse's artistic director. "And they tend to be open to what they're seeing, they realize you have to have a certain level of trust when you experience a performance or a reading of work that hasn't been done in front of an audience before and is being born right there while you watch that happen. It's a shared privilege, getting to see and be part of these plays and musicals at the very beginning." On a related note, 2014 Vassar graduate and actor Ethan Slater was nominated for a 2018 Tony for his lead role in "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical," which also starred 2012 Vassar grad Lilli Cooper.