From Friday, April 29th through Sunday, May 1st, Bay Street Theater & Sag Harbor Center for the Arts is presenting its 3rd annual New Works Festival, where audience members will experience readings of plays and musicals that were written by some of the area’s most compelling writers. The unique aspect of the weekend is that each production is still in development.
“You get to see something in its formative stages. It’s very instinctual and there’s kind of a wonderful energy and crackle to that,” explained Scott Schwartz, Bay Street’s Artistic Director, who curated the festival along with Will Pomerantz, Associate Artistic Director at Bay Street Theater. “Everyone’s making strong, big bold choices. It’s pretty unfiltered and then to know as an audience member, wow in a year or six months or even longer I’ll very likely get the chance to see this play or musical fully realized.”
Hamptons.com caught up with Schwartz about the New Works Festival, getting direct feedback from an audience, his dream actors and writers to have at Bay Street and more.
“I know it’s going to be a really invigorating weekend,” he added.
Why did Bay Street feel the need to establish the New Works Festival?
SS: This is our third year. My very first year as Artistic Director was when we started this festival, so in 2014. I worked with the team at Bay Street and we did this for a couple of reasons. The main one is that we have made a real commitment to being a theater that produces new works on our stage. In the past two years, including this upcoming season, we will have produced four world premieres in the last three years. When you think about it, given that we only do three shows a summer, that’s a third of the work we’ve done. The thing about the festival is we take works that we’re considering as potential projects for production, and artists that we admire and want to build relationships with and support them, and put these artists and their work in front of our audience. First of all, it’s a lot of fun for everyone. It’s a way for us at Bay Street to gauge what works, what artists speak to our audience.
What stood out about this year’s plays and musicals?
SS: I’ve been very, very proud of all three years of the festival, but I have to say I think that this might be the strongest slate of projects. Every single one of them I think is worthy of production. Whether or not Bay Street is ultimately the place that does, they all are worthy of it. I just think that they’re really interesting works; they run the gambit in terms of style. The voices of the writers are very distinctive. But, in some ways, they all look at our differences and our similarities as human beings, as a society and I think at this time to be doing works, which in clever fresh ways, explore how we actually are one in the same, while at the same time we are all very different. It’s kind of an important thing, given the political divisiveness in the country, given the dialogue that’s happening socially. I think it’s a great theme for the whole endeavor and to be honest, it just emerged. It was just based on the projects we liked.
I’ll also say the first show, which is called The Roomate, has had a bit of traction around the country. It’s a play about two women in their 50s who meet and radically change their lives as a result of their relationship. The next play, Community, is about a community theater troupe putting on a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, who of course has a place on the East End. But the thing that’s cool about it is it’s an exploration of race through that lens, specifically that the role of Nick in this community theater production has been cast as an African American actor and sort of how all of the people involved in the show react and relate. But it’s very funny and very surprising. We have a local artist, Walker Vreeland, doing his one man show, From Ship to Shape. We admire Walker very much and have been helping him develop this play. It’s about his experience, both trying to be a performer working on a cruise ship and about his experience with mental illness. Once again, it’s really funny, but cuts to the core of something. Finally, we have a musical, The Man in the Ceiling. The writing team is pretty unparalleled. The book is by Jules Feiffer and the music and lyrics are by Andrew Lippa. Andrew is a Tony Award nominee and is very well known in New York. He wrote the musical Big Fish, and many years ago, The Wild Party. It’s directed and produced by Jeffrey Seller, who is the lead producer of Hamilton, and was also the lead producer of Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights. Jeffery is a very dynamic producer and director, and we’re so happy to welcome him, and Andrew and Jules.
Why do you feel it’s important for playwrights to watch their production unfold in front of an audience before it’s completed?
SS: I think it’s frankly essential. The reason for that is that it is a totally different experience hearing a play out loud, seeing actual actors say the words and inhibit the characters than reading it on a page. Ultimately theater is a live form and there are many plays which don’t read very well. You’ll read a play and go ‘well you know, that didn’t really work.’ And you see it on its feet and it’s a totally different experience. Occasionally there’s the opposite experience where something reads well and you hear it out loud and for whatever reason it doesn’t work. So it’s giving authors, when a project is still being shaped and still forming, the opportunity to try it out and practice. I often say this in my pre-show curtain speeches at Bay Street, I believe in the theater the audience is the final character. Until you add the audience and their reactions and their energy, you don’t have your full cast of characters. This is a way for playwrights, with limited rehearsal and without worrying about costumes and scenery and all of that, to really focus on the words and storytelling, but still have the opportunity to relate it to an audience.
The audience has the opportunity to give direct feedback to the playwrights, which is very interesting.
SS: It’s something that’s really fun about the festival. After all four of the shows there will be a talkback with the audience. Most of the audience I found does stay because it lasts about 30 minutes and the audiences are asked to offer their opinions, and ask questions; talk about what they liked or some of the issues. I’ll tell you, our audiences on the East End, are very sophisticated and really opinionated. We’ve had very lively discussions after projects.
That must be beneficial for the writer.
SS: Incredibly beneficial. Again, the writer is getting lots of different perspectives and opinions. It’s up to the writer to sort of choose what they want to listen to and what they do not. But, the more information you have as a writer when you’re developing your work the better. Once you get into production you really have limited ability to make major changes because costumes have been purchased, and sets have been built, and staging takes time, and you have limited rehearsal hours once you get into performance. So it’s really essential that the writers have time to try stuff out and then maybe change lots of things. As you get closer and closer to production, just because of the requirements of what a production is, it gets harder and harder to change things.
After the festival, what’s the next step for the playwrights?
SS: We’ll see. Bay Street certainly is considering all four of these shows as possible shows to produce in a full production, but we’ve made no commitments to do so. Really this is our opportunity; it’s the first time I’m going to hear these shows out loud. In fairness, Walker did one other reading of his play at our theater about six months ago, but he did some rewrites since then, which is why we’re doing it again. I do think that all of the projects, as far as I know, have had interest from other theaters as well. So, I really expect that these four are winners and that they’re going to find homes and lives, whether it’s at Bay Street or somewhere else. And that’s kind of what makes it really fun for the audience.
Has Bay Street gone on to produce any of the New Works plays or musicals?
SS: Not yet. There is one from last year, Plane Play, by a wonderful writer, Julia Brownell, that is still under consideration for future production at Bay Street. We’re very eager to use this festival as a testing ground for works.
Have any of the previous plays gone on to be produced?
SS: One of the plays that we produced last year, A Delicate Ship, by Anna Ziegler went on to be done in New York by the Playwrights Realm. It was done at the Playwrights Horizon theaters. It wasn’t a Playwrights Horizon production, but it was done at those theaters. And actually, Anna Ziegler had a very big year because she had a play produced in London that starred Nicole Kidman.
What should the audience expect?
SS: I think they should expect theater at its purest and most unfiltered. I think they should expect to have a good time because all the plays and musical are fun; but also to think. All the plays are about real things and have surprises in them. I think audiences should expect to meet some really exciting artists at varying stages in their careers, but all of whom are looking for help making their works the classics of tomorrow.
If you could welcome anyone to the stage at Bay Street, who would it be?
SS: There are so many wonderful actors and playwrights out there that I just adore. We have some of them coming this very summer. I don’t know how to begin to answer that. I will say it’s a great dream of mine to have some of our local actors come and perform on our stage or come back and perform on our stage. People like Mercedes Ruehl or I would love to see Alec Baldwin come back some day. Julianne Moore. But there are such wonderful actors across the country and we have some exciting ones we’re lining up for this season, which I can’t announce yet, but we’re pretty excited about it. In terms of writers, what I’m most interested in are writers with a very strong voice and who have something to say. I’d love to have Terrence McNally back at Bay Street. Obviously he has a place out on the East End and he comes and visits us. It’d be wonderful to produce him at Bay Street again or Edward Albee. I mean we’re doing a play about Edward Albee’s play in the festival. Listen, I’d love to have Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of Hamilton, come out and do something with us. These would all be great dreams of mine.
What do you hope for the future of the festival?
I hope that it continues to grow. As the years progress, maybe it can expand more so there can be more works done. I hope over time, perhaps, maybe we could involve other organizations on the East End and make it become a whole East End festival of new works. But, right now, I’m really happy year-by-year growing it step-by-step. And, giving our community, our audience, and me as Artistic Director and our team at Bay Street the opportunity to experience these really cool works.
Admission to the readings is free and you can reserve tickets in advance online.
Bay Street Theater is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.