Westchester: Off-Off-Off Broadway?
With the Great White Way looming over us to the south, a number of local venues are focusing their attentions on more emerging—and more exciting—works of theater.
Starting on March 17, you can head to the White Plains Performing Arts Center to see a production of Renovations, a poignant comedy-drama by playwright Andrew Gerle, about a father and a son who reconnect when they decide to remodel a house together. “The message is universal,” says Felicia Needleman, the WPPAC’s literary manager. “Everybody has a father or a mother, and most people can remember the time that they realized their parents don’t know as much as they thought they did.” One more thing about Renovations: there has never been a full-scale production of it before. It’s a world premiere, and it’s happening here.
This is a departure for the White Plains Performing Arts Center, which, until two years ago, had a mainstage season focused on revivals of musicals like Man of La Mancha. More and more, Westchester’s cultural venues are passing over famous works of theater in favor of producing emerging or little-known plays and playwrights. “We are only a half-hour from the city, where you can see many revivals,” Needleman says. “We’re ten minutes from the Westchester Broadway Theatre, which also does those plays very well. How many revivals can one community sustain? We put ourselves on the map by offering something different—new work at a development level.”
“To hear new voices is harder and harder,” says Frank Juliano, executive director of the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. This year, the Writers’ Center is launching a new play-reading series, featuring previously unproduced, unread work. Three plays will be selected from an open-submission process, and the winners will be chosen by a panel of judges that consists of, among others, Jane Dubin, producer of The Norman Conquests; Josh Hecht, director of Christine Jorgensen Reveals; Craig Lucas, writer of Prelude to a Kiss; and Howard Meyer, founding artistic director of the Axial Theatre. Winning playwrights, in addition to seeing their works read at the center, will also receive $1,000.
No doubt, playwrights, directors, and producers benefit from trying out their new material on an audience of regular theater-goers. “When artists do these kinds of readings in the city, industry professionals, critics, and bloggers show up,” says Anna Becker, curator and founder of the Insights & Revelations Performance Series, which has brought new works to the county since 2005. “That’s exactly the kind of pressure that you don’t want when figuring things out. In Westchester, the audience is intelligent and savvy, but they’re not as critical as industry insiders. It’s the perfect place to try something out.”
“Years ago, famous shows did four or five out-of-town tryouts before opening in New York,” Needleman says. "Now, because of finances, a lot of regional theaters have closed, and that circuit has shut down. But what makes a piece work or not work is not always on the page. Theater is meant to be performed live.” (Imagine how much better the show would be if the scandal-plagued Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark got to resolve its issues outside of the unblinking eye of the New York City blogosphere.)
Becker can recall a specific instance when Westchester’s feedback had a dramatic impact on a play. The series hosted a workshop performance of The Timekeepers—a play about the relationship between two inmates in a concentration camp, one Jewish and one gay—with playwright Dan Clancy in attendance. “At the post-performance Q&A, one person asked why the playwright chose not to show any life outside of the particular room that they were working in,” Becker recalls. “The playwright went home and he thought about it, and added a monologue where one of the inmates describes seeing a murder outside his window. That monologue became the centerpiece of the play, and it came about completely because of that conversation.”
Of course, playwrights and producers aren’t the only ones who benefit from Westchester’s welcoming of emerging works. “A lot of audience members say their theater experiences are so much deeper and richer after seeing a workshop performance, because they’re more aware of the choices that go into putting a play together,” says Becker.
Westchester’s audiences are also more likely to roll the dice with a new or unfinished work because it’s so much less expensive than Broadway shows. “It’s frustrating when you see a show on Broadway and it’s not that good, and you’ve paid a hundred fifty dollars a ticket,” Needleman says. “The most expensive ticket at the White Plains Performing Arts Center is only forty-nine dollars, and most are much lower than that.”
Renovations will run at the White Plains Performing Arts Center from March 27 to April 3 (914-328-1600; wppac.com).
The Insights & Revelations series will feature an open rehearsal, a new take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, with Shakespeare on the Sound’s unorthodox director, Joanna Settle, on May 26 a the Emelin Theatre (914-698-0098; emelin.org).
The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center will debut its play-reading series on June 5, with subsequent readings on September 25 and December 4, the last of which should coincide with ArtsWestchester’s Free Arts Day (914-332-5953; writerscenter.org).