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Reports on casting demographics, new-play programs, theatre as autism therapy, and more.

Colors of Change

NEW YORK CITY: Where are all the Asians? That was the question behind a study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), unveiled and considered in a roundtable in February at Fordham University, moderated by playwright David Henry Hwang.

The numbers from the study were gleaned from the past five seasons in New York, including 400 productions on Broadway and at the 16 largest nonprofit companies. The results showed that, despite an increase in actors of color in that time, from 14 to 22 percent, Caucasian actors still occupied 80 percent of all roles. In 2010-11, Asian-Americans played just 2 percent of roles, down from 3 percent five years ago.

“Asian Americans were the only ethnic minority to actually decline,” said AAPAC steering committee member and actor Pun Bandhu, as he led the audience through the study. Out of the companies represented, Signature Theatre had the highest percentage of non-Caucasian actors (60), while Atlantic Theater Company had the lowest (7), with the New Group boasting the highest proportion of Asian-American actors (8 percent).

The main issues addressed at the discussion were causes and what can be done. Hwang, in a disclaimer, said, “AAPAC doesn’t necessarily seek equality of outcome. What we’re talking about is equality of access.” A key statistic along these lines: Among actors of color, Asian-Americans were least likely to be cast in nonracially-specific roles.

Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said the obstacle may be preconceived notions of playwrights and directors, who still “stop cold at the idea of members of a biological family group being of different races.” Broadway producer Nelle Nugent agreed that that’s where the change needs to come, because, as she said, “The author and the director have final casting approval. It’s a very foolish producer who forces an actor on a director.” Who else might make a difference? “All of your friends [of color] who are writing big checks to boards,” Nugent said.

For more information, or to request a copy of the report, visit AAPAC’s page on Facebook.

The Not-So-Empty Space

CHICAGO: It’s easy to forget that the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Garage Theatre is ensconced in an actual parking garage. With its newly renovated lobby, complete with eclectic furniture and an art installation made entirely of stacked paper playscripts, the place has come a long way since its first production, Wolf Lullaby by Hillary Bell, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro almost 14 years ago.

“We basically had this set of four risers and a sheet of luan on the floor, and we did the first play there with just that and probably $500,” Shapiro recalls of the space’s beginnings in 1998. Now the Garage Theatre is nothing short of a theatre company inside a theatre company, elegantly combining some of the most creative programming models in the field under one roof (also newly remodeled).

In its third year there is the Garage Rep, the newest incarnation of Steppenwolf’s long tradition of presenting the work of fellow Chicago theatre companies. “There are over 400 storefront theatre companies in Chicago,” says Jacob Padrón, newly appointed associate producer of the Garage Rep. “We want to be a part of shaping that ecology.”

This year, the Rep, which runs through April 8, will present Hit the Wall by the Inconvenience, He Who by Theatre Zarko, and Oohrah! by LiveWire Chicago. The companies were selected not only for the quality of their work and their desire for the opportunity, but also for their proven ability to attract millennial audiences. Garage Rep, in fact, is funded by a grant supporting Steppenwolf’s research on the cultivation of new theatre audiences, so attracting young theatregoers is a core value of the program.

Meanwhile, First Look Repertory of New Work is presented annually at the Garage Theatre. Fall 2011 was its seventh iteration, and the lineup included three new plays by Christina Anderson, Zayd Dohrn and Carly Mensch. “The hope is that First Look acts as a springboard for the plays to go somewhere else,” says artistic producer Rebecca Rugg.

Since its first season, 11 of the 18 plays presented at First Look have had premieres at New York City theatres, including When the Messenger Is Hot by Laura Eason (at 59E59 Theaters), Butcher of Baraboo by Marisa Wegrzyn (at Second Stage Theatre) and 100 Saints You Should Know by Kate Fodor (at Playwrights Horizons). The next First Look will be held in summer 2013.

Finally, Next Up—co-sponsored by Northwestern University with Steppenwolf staff members, including Shapiro, acting as mentors—presents the work of Northwestern directing and design graduate students, who get to experience a production process inside an institution with professional actors and a professional shop as their culminating project. Next Up will run June 5-24.

“For us, having those three sets of artists, the visiting companies, the new playwrights, and the new directors and designers breathing the same air—it’s life-giving for all of us,” says Shapiro proudly of the once-empty space that now houses so much more than cars.

—Hannah Greene

Mind the Gap

PHILADELPHIA: “The conversation about plays getting developed to death is almost at the point of cliché,” says Edward Sobel, associate artistic director of Arden Theatre Company. In an effort to cut down on the fuss, Arden has launched the Writers’ Room, a new initiative that puts a playwright in residence at the theatre for a total of four months.

The program begins with the writer making preliminary visits to the Arden to get to know the theatre and its audience. “Then the playwright will have six weeks to write a draft of a play,” says Sobel, who will oversee the program. Rehearsals and two weeks of public performances culminate the residency.

Often during a play’s development, considerable time passes between a writer’s inspiration and the final product. “The Writers Room will allow for a production opportunity that’s more closely connected to the initial generative impulse of the writer, and will close the gap between the writing stage of a play and the doing stage,” says Sobel. “There’s something holistic in what we’re doing.” He adds, “The relationship between an artist and a theatre can be hard, but the Writers’ Room is designed so that the playwright gets to know the Philly talent pool and the Arden audience.”

Playwright Wendy MacLeod (The Water Children, The House of Yes) is Arden’s first Writers’ Room resident with a room of her own. Affiliated Arden artists such as playwright Michael Hollinger, actors Grace Gonglewski and Melanye Finister, and designers Thom Weaver and Jorge Cousineau will orient MacLeod to the Philly community.

MacLeod’s residency starts this month and will conclude with a showing of her work July 5–15. Go to

Hatching a New Fest

CHATTANOOGA, TENN.: Charleston, S.C., has its Spoleto Festival; now Chattanooga, the fourth-largest city in Tennessee, has the HATCH Festival, an acronym that stands for “History Arts Technology Culture Happenings.” Running April 12–22, HATCH will encompass a variety of visual art, performance art, technology, music and history events.

Coinciding with HATCH is the Biennial Festival of New Plays presented April 13–29 by the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. There will be a mainstage show, Mr. & Mrs. M, a fantasia on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as well as readings of new plays by local writers: Hunter Rodgers’s No Loitering, T.J. Carson’s Mr. Mundoo and Dakota Brown’s Following Orion. Also on tap is a workshop of The Leopold Project by storyteller Jim Pfitzer, about early environmentalist Aldo Leopold. “We’re excited about these new plays coming together alongside HATCH,” says CTC producing director George Quick.

HATCH, which has a whopping 20 (and counting) partner organizations, also coincides with the city’s 4 Bridges Arts Festival, the Mid-South Sculpture Alliance Conference and several exhibits from the Hunter Museum of American Art, and 10×10, an exhibit that spans 10 city blocks. More info at www.

A Theatre Sampler

CLINTON, MICH.: The term “golden ticket” may conjure visions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but when the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance held its META Golden Ticket contest this past autumn, the prize wasn’t edible. Rather, the Golden Ticket entitles one lucky superfan to a pair of tickets for the entire 2011–12 season at seven of Michigan’s professional theatres—or 40 shows at an estimated value of $2,800.

Clinton Township resident Patricia McElmeel, who applied online, is the fortunate first recipient of what META board chair Carla Milarch likens to a theatrical passport. “It’s the best prize I’ve ever won,” McElmeel enthuses. Though it will be hard to attend all 40 shows, she is trying her best to see productions at META members Detroit Repertory Theatre, Jewish Ensemble Theatre, Meadow Brook Theatre, Performance Network Theatre, Plowshares Theatre Company, Tipping Point Theatre and Williamston Theatre. For more, go to

Back From the Brink

SEATTLE: It was a nailbiter. The beleaguered Intiman Theatre, on the ropes since canceling its season and laying off staff in April 2011, had until early February to meet a $1-million fundraising goal toward producing a “micro-season” in July and August. The theatre met that bar and then some, empowering artistic director Andrew Russell to mount four productions with a 12-member company this summer. So far only Hedda Gabler, Romeo and Juliet, and a new play written and directed by Dan Savage had been announced at presstime. Go to

Forefathers’ Fêtes

WASHINGTON, D.C., and LANESBORO, MINN.: They’re both staples now, but in their day both O’Neill and Ibsen were on the dangerous leading edge. O’Neill was also America’s first great playwright, so it’s only fitting that the nation’s capital is playing host to a two-month, citywide Eugene O’Neill Festival, March 9–May 6. Arena Stage will mount two productions (Ah, Wilderness!, through April 8, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, through May 6), while the Shakespeare Theatre Company will stage the seldom-seen Strange Interlude, through April 29.

That’s just the tip of the Iceman: Also at the Arena, the New York Neofuturists will present their popular The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays, April 9–22; while Georgetown University will present Derek Goldman’s Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks, April 26–29. Off-site, performer Rick Foucheux directs Georgetown students in a quartet of O’Neill’s “sea plays” at the Capital Yacht Club, with Moon of the Caribbees and In the Zone offered on April 11 and Long Voyage Home and Bound East for Cardiff to be staged on April 12. Lectures and panels at Arena’s Mead Center and at STC’s Sidney Harman Hall continue throughout the festival. For more information, go to

Meanwhile, Lanesboro, Minn.’s Commonweal Theatre presents its 15th Annual Ibsen Festival April 13–15. This year’s confab highlights the premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Pillars of Society, through June 8. The festival includes discussions, exhibits and samplings of Norwegian and Norwegian-American art, food and culture, including a round of Kubb, or “Viking chess.” The keynote speaker, Ibsen scholar and translator Errol Durbach, will address “Tragic Ibsen?: The problems of staging Ibsen in the modern theatre.” For full program info, visit

Where’s There’s “Way”

WORLDWIDE: “I suppose if I were being formal, I would call it a consortium, but I prefer the word ‘scheme’—that’s what it feels like to me,” says playwright Caridad Svich of the several dozen readings of her play The Way of Water, which will transpire throughout April at theatres in the U.S., Europe and Canada.

Svich’s play, developed last fall in a Lark Play Development Center writer’s retreat, follows four characters affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which began with the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, 2010. “I was thinking, What should I do with this play? Well, what do playwrights usually do? We send things around; we wait, essentially. But I’d been feeling so outraged about the situation in the Gulf; I said, ‘I can’t keep waiting.’”

With the disaster’s two-year anniversary in mind, and with the help of dramaturgs Heather Helinsky and R. Alex Davis, Svich arranged readings at venues near the Gulf—St. Petersburg, Fla.’s American Stage Theatre Company, Houston’s Main Street Theatre—plus those with local environmental issues that resonate, like Toronto’s Pat the Dog, and those that simply want to show solidarity, like English Theatre in Berlin, Germany.

And where will the New York–based Svich be stationed? She’ll be in attendance at a Barnard College reading co-sponsored by the Earth Institute, and one at Ensemble Studio Theatre in May. She won’t be able to see all the readings, but that’s theatrical business as usual. As she puts it, “Any theatre that you make exists outside of you and travels on its own terms.” That’s a kind of spill we can fully endorse. Visit

Theatre and Therapy? The Twain Meet (Via Twain)

MALVERN, PA.: Behavioral therapy has long been the chosen treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders, but the use of theatre for the same end is gaining in popularity and proven effectiveness, thanks to a new study from the Pathway School and People’s Light & Theatre in Pennsylvania.

The program began when Samantha Bellomo, People’s Light’s resident director and Pathway School guest teaching artist, and Pete Pryor, associate artistic director of the company and a resident artist at the school, presented the idea to Drs. Suzanne Reading, director of the communication sciences and disorders program at Butler University, and James M. Reading of Communication and Reading Excellence (CARE).

So in March 2011, People’s Light began a 10-week study with 16 Pathway School students aged 16 to 20 and diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism. Eight students served as the control group, while the remaining eight met once a week to rehearse their version of People’s Light’s production of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Participating students constructed portions of the set, costume pieces and props, while learning lines and rehearsing scenes.

“In working on the scenes from Tom Sawyer with the students, we treated the project just like we would any other performance,” Bellomo explains. “The students were expected to learn their lines and to understand what they were saying in each scene and why.” Repetition, mimicry and exploration of emotions are key elements in therapy for those with Autism Spectrum Disorders, who often lack inherent social and emotional skills. Theatre—in which rehearsal provides the repetition, while mimicry and emotion are essential building blocks—would seem to be well suited to these therapeutic goals.

To monitor students’ progress, Drs. Suzanne and James Reading, both speech-language pathologists, developed a rating of 24 social behaviors, and a speech therapist ranked the students before and after the study. Participating students exhibited significant improvement in four behaviors: displaying appropriate emotions, offering help without prompting, controlling temper and acknowledging the perspective of others.

While theatre has been used as autism therapy for more than 10 years internationally, there is little empirical data to demonstrate its behavioral value. The Pathway/People’s Light study fills that gap, and would seem to support the inclusion of the arts not only in therapy-related situations but in all learning environments. As a close reading of Twain might tell you, most forms of play are just learning in disguise.

—Jenni M. Loer

Harbor Light Switch

WELLFLEET, MASS.: There’s been a changing of the guard at the idyllic 90-seat Harbor Stage on Cape Cod where, since 1985, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) has made its seasonal home. The building’s owner, Robert C. Ferris, had leased it to WHAT for $24,000 per May-to-October season, but in January declined to renew, opting instead to rent to a troupe of former WHAT actors called the Harbor Stage Company, under the leadership of Robert Kropf.

Brenda Withers—who worked since 2008 at WHAT with HSC co-founders Amanda Collins, Jonathan Fielding, Stacy Fischer and Lewis Wheeler—says the move was years in the making. “While we worked there, we got a real sense of the company that started that space with an artist-run ideal. That was the big reason we kept coming back.”

In 2007, WHAT built the Julie Harris Stage, a 220-seat second stage a few miles inland. Eventually, as Withers and others saw it, the company began to shift its producing focus to running a year-round performing arts center. Then, last year, longtime WHAT artistic director Jeff Zinn stepped down. Spurred by these developments, the Harbor Stage Company was born. Details of its inaugural three-month season are still forthcoming. In the meantime, the troupe will offer a presentation at April’s “Wellfleet Blossoms” festival to introduce itself to the community.

WHAT’s executive director Mark Hough is philosophical. “We always understood we wouldn’t be at the Harbor Stage forever.” Indeed, that’s one reason the company built a second space. Still, Hough admits, “Actors are going to miss the sunsets before they go on stage. I sat there last summer during one of those sunsets and told them, ‘This may be a funky theatre, but it’s the most beautiful theatre in the world.’” Visit the companies’ sites: and

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