POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y.: John Patrick Shanley is concerned about the heat dome. He just walked into a seminar room in Sanders Hall on Vassar’s campus, and it’s an unseasonably warm day, with temperatures hitting 98 degrees. He’s partly sweated through his button-up, but Shanley is no stranger to the scorching upstate summers: He’s been doing everything from readings to first productions of his plays as part of Vassar and New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Season since it launched in 1984.
His work first graced the stage at the developmental hub, which presents workshops, readings, open rehearsals, and full productions of new pieces by top-tier talent, with Savage in Limbo. This afternoon he’s nearing the end of his final day of rehearsal for a one-night-only reading of his latest play, The Portuguese Kid, a comedy about love and power.
“I would actually love to do full productions of my plays for one performance,” Shanley said with complete earnestness. “That’s the core of what’s exciting about theatre: Were you there that night, the night that the magic thing happened?”
At NYSAF, there are many nights of “magic,” as anywhere from 15 to 20 projects come up each year. This summer saw a full production of Lucy Thurber’s Transfers; a workshop of a Fingersmith, a new play by Alexa Junge, adapted from Sarah Waters’s novel; a reading of Santino Fontana’s adaptation of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd; and much more. Only one thing is absent: critics. All of the works, even the full productions, are considered developmental; many have had or will go on to have their world premiere elsewhere, but what they all have in common in their NYSAF iterations is that they’re being worked on or tried out, and aren’t open to reviews.
The company is riding high on a pretty stellar track record right now: The 2016 Tony Award winners for best musical and best play both did stints at NYSAF: Hamilton workshopped the show’s first act in 2013, and The Humans did a reading in 2014. But for artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer, the ultimate goal is not for the work to be taken elsewhere.
“It’s great when the work goes on from here and is seen by more people,” said Pfaelzer. “But I also think there has to be a place where somebody can try something and go, ‘Oh, that didn’t work.’ If you can’t make space for that to be a perfectly acceptable outcome, I don’t know how you say to somebody: Take a risk.”
Each year, Pfaelzer and her staff read more than 250 plays, and Pfaelzer really focuses on curating the experience to whatever the artist needs in that moment of the work’s development. There are no set requirements for how many readings or productions need to happen each summer, and the experience can be shaped according to how much time and space each artist and project needs.
For the new musical Between the Lines, that meant giving the show its first public presentation. Producer Daryl Roth brought the musical, which is based on a young adult novel by bestselling author Jodi Picoult and her daughter Samantha van Leer.
“I always believed it really sang,” said Picoult of the story, which is about a high schooler who develops a crush on a fictional storybook character, who in turn comes to life on the page. Picoult and van Leer wanted to retain the rights and stay involved, but they enlisted a full team to do the adaptation, with Timothy Allen McDonald writing book and songwriting duo Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson doing words and music. The team spent a week rehearsing, and on the Sunday morning before their reading, they were all smiles.
“My husband calls these my fishing trips because this is not my real job—I’m supposed to be doing other real things,” Picoult said. “This is work, but I’m having way too much fun.” Though she does have an “added wrinkle”: Van Leer is a Vassar student. “Going to college with your mom is every girl’s dream,” she deadpanned.
Fishing aside, the team has very practical goals after their time at NYSAF. Said Samsel, “Our next step is finding the right regional theatre.”
Sometimes a work already has its next step lined up. Taylor Mac’s much-anticipated A 24-Decade History of Popular Music will land at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the fall, and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, one of two full NYSAF productions this summer, will have its world premiere at New York City’s Playwrights Realm. The play won the first annual Relentless Award, a prize given out in memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman. While the show is not an official coproduction between NYSAF and Playwrights Realm, the cast, director, and some of the design elements will be the same.
The college campus setting has come in handy for DeLappe’s play, which is about a girl’s high school soccer team. For one, the cast has been sleeping in dorms during their stay in Poughkeepsie, and director Lila Neugebauer has taken full advantage of the nearby sports facilities and fields.
“We’ve been training these girls,” she said. “There’s been a combination of soccer-oriented fitness and work with the ball. We had to make them a team.” The close quarters also mean, she said, “They’re eating together and sleeping next to each other. So for a play that invites them to regress, this has been a great environment.”
The organization doesn’t just attract artists at the top of their game: It also helps make them. Mark Linn-Baker, Max Mayer, and Leslie Urdang founded NYSAF at a time when Vassar was looking to creating a training program, and the apprentice company has become one of the backbones of the Powerhouse summer season. Run by producing directors Ed Cheetham and Michael Sheehan, the program brings in students—from incoming high school seniors to recently graduated college students—to study in one of three disciplines: acting, writing, and directing. This summer the company had 43 students.
Cheetham and Sheehan bring in teachers for each discipline who spend the whole summer with the students. Writing and directing apprentices shadow professionals in the rehearsal room for NYSAF’s various readings and workshops, and the actors perform in their own productions. This year, many acting apprentices served as “dandy minions” for Mac’s music extravaganza, providing everything from puppetry to dancing to distributing audience props.
One former apprentice is Josh Radnor, of “How I Met Your Mother” fame. He spent the summer at NYSAF after his freshman year of college and has since come back as an actor many times, most recently in 2014 for Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line, which he will be in at New York City’s Lincoln Center in the fall.
“I remember the feeling of being 19 and wanting so badly to do this,” Radnor said of what rejuvenates him when the grind of the business is getting him down. “Stage and Film always calls me when I’m in a moment of despair and I don’t want to act anymore,” he added.
This summer he didn’t come to act but to oversee a reading of his first play, Sacred Valley. The play follows two friends as they explore the ramifications and the causes of the decisions they make in their adult life.
“I started writing it as a movie, and then I thought, I don’t know how cinematic this is,” Radnor said. “Then I was here two summers ago doing Babylon Line and Shanley was here, and we had a couple coffees together. Mostly I just wanted to talk to him about Joe Vs. The Volcano, but once I exhausted all my questions, I asked him, ‘How do you know if an idea you have is a play or a movie?’ He immediately said, ‘If the characters in your head won’t shut up, it’s a play.’ I immediately realized that this thing I had written wanted to be onstage.”
Radnor also took the time one morning to speak with the apprentices, and they asked practical questions about when to go to grad school, when to get an Equity Card. Then one student asked: What kind of work excites you the most?
After a pause, Radnor said, “I will tell you that this week has been amazing.”