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Staging Area: Hudson Valley Theater Residencies Pave the Path to Broadway

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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.)

The Lobbyists at the Rhinebeck Writers - Retreat event "Meet the Writers" at Great Song Farm in 2014. They return this summer to work on their next musical "The Golden Spike." - PHOTO: EMILY BALDWIN
  • 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).

Rachel Altemose apprentices in the Powerhouse Theater Training Program in 2017. - PHOTO: KARL RABE
  • 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.

Vassar's most prominent academic neighbor to the north, Bard College, has also had its brushes with Broadway and beyond. This year's Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical, a revolutionary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" was hatched in 2007 as a Bard student production by director Daniel Fish, a visiting artist and adjunct faculty member. In 2015, Fish oversaw the production's official premiere at the college's Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts as part of the annual Bard SummerScape festival. From there, it went on to a sold-out run at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse and, finally, Broadway's Circle in the Square Theater. Amber Gray, who played Laurey Williams in the 2015 SummerScape production of "Oklahoma!," is presently starring as Persephone in the 2019 Tony- and 2016 Drama Desk-winning musical "Hadestown."

Rehearsal for the Summerscape 2016 world premiere of “Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed,” futurist puppet plays by Fortunato Depero, at Resnick Studio at Bard Fisher Center. - PHOTO: TODD NORWOOD
  • Photo: Todd Norwood
  • Rehearsal for the Summerscape 2016 world premiere of “Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed,” futurist puppet plays by Fortunato Depero, at Resnick Studio at Bard Fisher Center.

This season's SummerScape finds Fish on campus once again, as director of "Acquanetta," running at the Fisher Center's Luma Theater from July 11 through July 21. Conversely, several stars have bypassed Broadway and come directly to Bard to perform plays. "Game of Thrones" icon Peter Dinklage and his wife, director Erica Schmidt, collaborated in a 2008 SummerScape production of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" and a 2012 revival of Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid."

On the Western side of the Hudson, in the southern Ulster County village of Ellenville, Shadowland Stages is a beautifully renovated 1920s Art Deco vaudeville/silent-era movie house that this year celebrates its 35th anniversary as a hub of live theater. Shadowland's mission includes the production of classics from the theatrical repertoire, but its emphasis is increasingly on the presentation of new plays and musicals on its main and black-box studio stages. The current Shadowland schedule is rich in drama and comedy: Jen Silverman's one-act "The Roommate" (June 21-July 14); Paul Portner's 56-year-old "Shear Madness" (July 19-August 18), and Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle award-winner Joe DiPietro's "Over the River and Through the Woods" (August 23-September 8). This fall at Shadowland also promises the East Coast premiere of "Flint" (September 13-29), written by Broadway and screen star Jeff Daniels, who earned a 2019 Tony nomination for his role as Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"We're interested in developing relationships with playwrights where we can work together with them to provide a place and cast and crew for productions of their new work," says Brendan Burke, Shadowland's producing artist director. "We're part of the National New Play Network, which is a group of about 100 smaller nonprofit theaters around the country that feature new plays. Some of the plays [staged through the network] have a 'rolling world premiere,' where we produce them at Shadowland and, either before or after they come here, they play at one or two other NNPN theaters." It was in this manner that Shadowland partnered with playwright John Cariani ("The Band's Visit," "Almost, Maine") to present his "Love/Sick" (2013) and "Last Gas" (2016).

Of course, long before a musical or play can make it to any stage, much less the bright lights of Broadway, it has to first be written. And it's that phase of the process that was central to the establishment of the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat in 2011. "Theater is a collaborative art form," says Kathy Evans, the operation's founding executive director. "I saw a need for writers to get together and have a sounding board for their work, away from the city—a place where they can just focus on writing and feedback."

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" dress rehearsal in the LUMA Theater at the Bard Fisher Center June 23, 2015. - PHOTO: CORY WEAVER
  • Photo: Cory Weaver
  • Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" dress rehearsal in the LUMA Theater at the Bard Fisher Center June 23, 2015.

Located at a peaceful, private home in Staatsburg, about 10 minutes outside the village of Rhinebeck, each summer the rural retreat welcomes qualifying playwrights and composers for a week's stay (meal stipend included), during which the enrollees create their works in solitude and hone them via live readings and performances with their fellow resident writers.

For 2019, the facility is welcoming 27 writers of nine new musicals to its beatific grounds. Among the notable alumni of the program is composer Joe Iconis, whose "Broadway Bounty Hunter" (starring Annie Golden), which premiered at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 2016 and officially opens at the Greenwich House Theater in the West Village on July 23, was developed at the Rhinebeck site. Another is New York's Max Vernon, who worked on "The View Upstairs" (a 2017 off-Broadway production) at the 2014 retreat and returned in 2018 to refine "The Tattooed Lady," which has been selected for its Triple R program this summer (two New York readings with an upstate residency in between for musical writers).

"As a composer, I tend to 'self-channel' when I'm writing, which I find really hard to do in the environment of New York," Vernon says. "That's why the [retreat program] has been so great for me. Last summer, in the space of the week I was there, I was able to revamp 'The Tattooed Lady' and write two new songs, which was pretty great. There's definitely something about the serenity of the Hudson Valley that's been really helpful."

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