A test run for plays in rural N.Y.
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — Amy Irving sits on a bench on the Vassar College campus among Victorian buildings and an Olmsted-designed landscape of towering trees and shaded lawns. She holds a book of poetry in her hands. Clusters of students lie about, reading and talking. Someone practices violin in the distance.
Ms. Irving, an Academy Award nominee for "Yentl" and a Broadway veteran, is talking about the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, a 1934 graduate of this former women's college. The actress is on campus as part of the Powerhouse Theater, a 20-year-old collaboration between Vassar and New York Stage & Film that offers a development and performance ground for new plays.
Irving is between rehearsals for "A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop," the new play she picked up in Brazil, where the actress lives most of each year.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was known in her day as a "poet's poet" for the careful precision of her work. She was a contemporary and friend of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell (who dedicated his "Skunk Hour" to her).
The play, written by Marta Goes, follows Bishop's love affair with Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, and subsequent years of living in the mountains of Brazil and the way Bishop translated that experience into poetry.
Soon after Irving decided to produce "A Safe Harbor" - which was a success in Brazil - she came to Vassar to pore over Bishop's archives. She hopes to take the play to New York eventually.
The work also ties in with a retrospective exhibition of Bishop's papers and paintings at Vassar. Irving already knew the Powerhouse founders from film and theater work. The fit was perfect, with the summer workshops allowing for a period of complete, almost-academic concentration on the one-woman show with her longtime director and friend, Richard Jay-Alexander. Powerhouse also promised good audiences that would include a number of key New York producers - and a policy of no reviews.
"I consider this room, this entire campus, a safe harbor for our work," Mr. Jay-Alexander says during a break in the Meryl Streep rehearsal room, funded and named for the Vassar and Powerhouse alumna. "Living on campus makes everything you do feel that much more intelligent. And it allows us to really concentrate on the work we're here for."
Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Beth Henley ("Crimes of the Heart," "The Miss Firecracker Contest") says she's taken five different projects to Powerhouse over the years because the college has been consistently supportive.
"There are other places like it where one can work on a project, such as the Sundance Institute or the O'Neill. But the place's closeness to New York and all that acting talent, plus the gorgeous campus, makes the Powerhouse experience uniquely intense and fulfilling."
Ms. Henley says she has brought both early work and more developed productions to Powerhouse, from which she's been inspired to move in new directions.
"Even though you're living in a dorm with a bathroom down the hall, in a physical world that's fairly Spartan, the artistic world one inhabits there is very rich," she says.
Irving says with a laugh, "I fixed my dorm [room] up really nice." Her education included such prestigious schools as the American Conservatory Theater and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. "It's been a while since I've lived like this," she says.
There are several noted actors set to join Irving over this anniversary summer include Lucy Liu, Bill Pullman, Mia Farrow, Marcia Gay Harden, Rob Morrow, and Mark Linn-Baker, one of Powerhouse's founders.
Leslie Urdang, Mr. Linn-Baker's founding partner, recalls the genesis of Powerhouse well. The two had been looking for a place to develop new plays outside the spotlight of New York City where a professional company could live and work together without distractions.
"We drove around upstate and looked at everything from barns to college campuses," she says. "Then a friend who was a Vassar alumna, and who was teaching in the drama department, said, 'We've been hoping to start an apprentice program. Why don't you come here?' "
The program has since gained fame and played host to many celebrity actors. But it has stayed true to its mission, says Beth Fargis-Lancaster, Powerhouse's executive director.
"Maybe the big difference is that the students who apprentice with us have changed in what they want. They're now looking to make contacts, to network."
"I did Williamstown, and also Santa Fe, much earlier in my career," Irving recalls, mentioning two of the theatrical community's other well-known summer meccas. But she notes that the Vassar campus, and the college's history, lent Powerhouse something extra.
Perhaps, Jay-Alexander says, it was the fact that the drama department had first flourished in the 1930s under the leadership of Hallie Flanagan Davis, who went on to head Franklin Roosevelt's Federal Theater Project. Or maybe it was the creative energy that brought Bishop together with her schoolmates, Mary McCarthy and Muriel Rukeyser, to start their own underground literary journal, Con Spirito, after being rejected by the Vassar Review.
"You know, I brought my son here last year when he was looking at colleges," Irving says, stretching out on a bench like the coed she never quite had the chance to be. "He ended up in California but I wish he were here."
She pauses and shuts her eyes, taking in the quiet rustle of centuries-old trees.
"I can feel Elizabeth Bishop," she says. "I feel I've gotten to know her by being here. Just to have gotten this production here, to this point, has been an end in itself. This is grand."
The Powerhouse season presents fully realized productions on the mainstage; workshops with partially produced works; and developmental readings. Rounding out the season are classic plays in repertory with Broadway-caliber actors leading an apprentice company from around the country.
Visit http://powerhouse.vassar.edu or phone: (845) 437-7235.