Aside from all debuting in the 2015-2016 Broadway season, you wouldn’t think that The Humans, Bright Star and Hamilton have anything in common. But, turns out, these three shows emerged from a small theatre tucked away in Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theatre.
Now in its 32nd season, the theatre prides itself on the safe space, resources and intelligent audience it provides resident creatives.
On Vassar’s campus, reviewers are not permitted, and audiences are invited to view these works-in-progress with instructions not to share what they’ve seen. These upstate New York audiences take a sense of ownership over the pieces they’re able to see and shape. “We have that really sweet combination of an audience of, frankly, civilians who are looking to be very responsive to your piece,” says artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer. “You’re going to come away from that with a real sense of what’s working in your storytelling and what isn’t.
“I think to be able to have that experience, to be public with an audience, but essentially private in your process, is a really special combination.”
“We had two good ideas at New York Stage and Film,” says founder and producing director Mark Linn-Baker. “One was the idea of how to work: creating an environment where it was protected and people could work without consequences—part of that was not allowing New York reviewers in because they have too much sway—and…creating an environment where people could focus on process. The second great idea was hiring Johanna Pfaelzer.”
Hamilton’s Tony-winning director, Thomas Kail, cites the unconditional support from Pfaelzer and the program as its greatest strength. “‘What do you need for these ten days, or these five days, or these 15 days?’ [is] the only question she asked,” says Kail. “I realized this is a place where we can say something like, ‘We want to get a DJ, we really think there needs to be an underscore for this, and can we have 16 tables and two oranges?’ and she’s like, ‘Great! Here you go.’ I knew that we could go there and create whatever environment we needed to suit what the show was requiring at that moment.”
That’s why artists—directors, writers, actors-turned-writers—clamor to earn a spot at Powerhouse. “I have been up [to Powerhouse] many, many, many summers with many shows [as an actor], from Sons of the Prophet, Fortress of Solitude, Bonfire Night,” says Santino Fontana. “I was able to see the freedom and safety that writers were given to create new material. So when I started kicking around resurrecting this old show that hasn’t been done in 50 years, I felt like it was the perfect fit.” His musical adaptation of The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, directed by Tony winner Scott Ellis, will be workshopped at Powerhouse this summer.
Another Tony-winning director, Michael Mayer, will pay a visit to Powerhouse as he helms the new musical Head Over Heels by Jeff Whitty and The Go-Go’s. Mayer previously developed Sideman and American Idiot on the tucked away campus and emphasizes that sense of quiet and privacy. “Johanna is so great about speaking to the audiences and training them that in this day and age of social media, to stay off it, to respect the work, respect the process that we are aiming for up there,” says Mayer. “It’s a trust.”
But the season doesn’t only feature work from notable names in the theatre. “I love it when a season includes artists who have a lot of history with us,” says Pfaelzer, “but I also find it really important to make sure that in every season there are people who are having their first Powerhouse experience.” In that vain, Powerhouse will produce Sarah DeLappe’s play The Wolves, about the inner dynamics of a high school girls’ soccer team, and Lucy Thurber’s Transfers, which addresses issues of class, race and education in a story about two young men from the Bronx as they battle for acceptance to an elite university. Plus, actor Josh Randor takes his first stab at playwriting with Sacred Valley in the Powerhouse Reading Series.
“I think artists desperately need a place where they can do work that is outside the public eye so that they can be really bold in their attempt,” says Pfaelzer. “I always want Powerhouse to be a place where people can take those really bold steps.” So far, it’s working.
For a complete overview of Vassar & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater season visit Powerhouse.Vassar.edu.