N.Y. Stage and Film's Summer Gig
The lively company incubates new plays on the campus of Vassar College, away from critics
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — JADED vacationers looking to explore within a day's drive of New York are heading north to the Hudson Valley. In Hyde Park, after revisiting history at the FDR house, they tour the Culinary Institute of America, where many of the world's best chefs are trained, and sample the results at three restaurants. They cruise the Hudson on a riverboat, enjoy hearty Old English fare at Dickens's Pub and Tea Garden, and cozy up at the Veranda House.
And they sample new plays at the Powerhouse Theatre. This innovative project, nestled on the pastoral Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., has played host to a wide range of new works for the last 10 years, attracting playwrights Jay Presson Allen, George F. Walker, John Patrick Shanley, and Jon Robin Baitz; actors Olympia Dukakis, Mary McDonnell, David Straitharn, John Turturro, Estelle Parsons, Carol Kane, and Peter Frechette; and thousands of eager theatergoers.
This ambitious summer program is crafted by Manhattan-based New York Stage and Film and headed by producer Leslie Urdang, writer-director Max Mayer, and actor-director Mark Linn-Baker. ``The idea was always to have a company, not just to get out of New York,'' says Ms. Urdang, seated with Mr. Mayer on a large sofa in the sprawling dormitory common room at Vassar. ``To bring a group of artists together, and allow the thing that happens that you can never define or plan; that's the most rewarding aspect.''
Starting with virtually no budget in 1984, they mustered resources, contacts, and financial support from friends. ``In the tradition of the Group Theatre,'' Mayer explains, ``we went out looking for a farm and found out that farms are a lot more expensive than they were in the mid-'30s.'' (The influential Group Theatre was started in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. It had a revolutionary impact on the training of American actors.)
Then somebody suggested they look at colleges. Through a friend, Urdang and company were led to Vassar, which was already planning a summer dramatics program. Joining forces, the first season was born.
This year, to celebrate their 10th anniversary and the opening of a second performing space, they invited Mr. Shanley back to premiere ``The Fool and Her Fortune,'' starring Joel Grey and Dana Ivey, and Beth Henley to premiere ``Revelers.''
``Wasp,'' and ``Romeo and Juliet at Antioch,'' written by comedian Steve Martin, as well as David Marshall Grant's ``Snakebit'' and Mayer's ``Hand to Hand'' rounded out the bill in the two theaters. But one-acts, staged readings, free outdoor Shakespeare, and special one-night presentations bolstered the lineup, giving visitors dozens of choices.
To guarantee a fresh, provocative series of events, Urdang points out, ``we throw it all up in the air every year. The shape of the season is determined by what comes in to us. It might be three plays, or it might be 12 workshops. One year we did 15 projects,'' she adds.
The location lends itself to this free-flowing approach. ``We know we have all these spaces,'' Mayer says. They include the Powerhouse Theatre, a black box mainstage, the newly opened Coal Bin Theatre, designed for experimental work, along with lecture halls, classrooms, and lounges.
It is a place where playwrights, actors, directors, and designers can nurture new ideas away from the glare and impact of the New York critics. But the 90-minute ride makes it accessible, both to New York audiences and to artists needing to get back to Manhattan for an afternoon, if necessary.
Playwright Shanley, whose early work ``Savage in Limbo'' helped launch the first summer, says the secret of New York Stage and Film's success at Vassar comes from its managers. ``You have to have people who are committed to developing new work year after year, as opposed to cashing in and heading for the hills.''
Powerhouse invited him to premiere his newest play, which represents a departure for the writer. ``I wanted to write an unconscious play that came out of my unconscious and was filled with symbols that had great power for me, but that I did not understand,'' Shanley says. The result is ``The Fool and Her Fortune,'' which he describes as ``very nonlinear, imagistic, and collage-like.''
``It's a wonderful situation to be with so many creative people in a nonjudgmental environment,'' says award-winning actress Dana Ivey, who originated the title role in ``Driving Miss Daisy.''
Ms. Ivey appreciates how audiences here come ``to experience the play, and not with someone else having told them what it's about, and what they're supposed to think.'' She welcomes the process of helping shape a new work.
``It's a fascinating thing. You rehearse and rehearse, and figure it out, and then you get in front of an audience, and they teach you some of what the play is about. They go with it.'' Ivey notes that audience members of all ages have found something to enjoy in Shanley's play. ``Young people go with the humor, while the older people understand the morality that is at the heart of this play.''
Looking ahead, Urdang has her eye on an old Vassar College auditorium that's scheduled for renovation. It would be the perfect space for a musical, she says. And she doesn't rule out ``a big Shakespeare with established actors, who never get a chance to do it.''
And from all the indications, many of the most respected talents in theater, film, and television will continue to head north each summer to work here.
``It's always revelatory to me,'' Mayer says, ``that for some people, regardless of the level of success they may have in their careers, they still want to work on the scale that we do here.''
Urdang adds that ``for this two-month period, it's not about career or negotiations or trailers.'' Instead, she says, ``It's about people, and words, and telling a story. And that feels good to them. And to me, people are the basis of everything. And that's why I believe this place works.''