From Friday, April 28 through Sunday, April 30, Bay Street Theater is introducing theatergoers to four new productions as part of the Sag Harbor-based theater’s 4th Annual New Works Festival.
“All of these readings are free. The whole point of this is to make it completely accessible to our entire community,” noted Artistic Director Scott Schwartz. “There are talkbacks immediately after each reading, which the audience is welcome to stay for, but not required. So if you just wanted to come and see one, you don’t have to stay for the talkback.”
This year’s Festival will feature Molly Sweeney: A New Musical on Friday, April 28 at 7 p.m., The Impossibility of Now on Saturday, April 29 at 3 p.m., Thomas Murphy on Saturday, April 29 at 8 p.m., and The Cocktail Party Effect on Sunday, April 30 at 3 p.m.
We recently caught up with Schwartz to learn more.
What peaked your interest about this year’s productions?
SS: Each one of them, I think, has a very strong voice and has different interesting things to say. The first, which is a new musical based on Brian Friel’s wonderful play Molly Sweeney, is a musical about a woman who is blind, whose sight is restored through a medical procedure, and sort of about how complex and challenging it is once her sight is restored. I thought that was a very interesting thing to look at – the limits of science in our lives and how our identities are formed and it has just a great score. We also have a wonderful actress, Mamie Parris, who is currently starring as Grizabella in Cats who is playing Molly Sweeney.
The Impossibility of Now – which is the second reading on Saturday afternoon, is by a wonderful playwright named Y York, and Y has had a very illustrious career. She currently lives in Seattle. It’s about memory and a relationship where the husband has amnesia and how that effects this marriage which was already complicated to begin with. So again, it’s talking about the mind and relationships and the way we can change.
Thomas Murphy, which is a one man play that I’m directing, is just a beautiful, funny, lyrical play about an Irish poet nearing the end of his life, but a new relationship happens in his life. It’s by Roger Rosenblatt, who lives in Quogue so he’s an East End local and somebody we love to support. It’s based on a novel he wrote and it’s just moving and so, so lyrical and wonderfully Irish. I’m very excited about that one.
The last one, which is on Sunday at 3 p.m., is The Cocktail Party Effect by a wonderful writer named Scooter Pietsch, who is based in Los Angeles. The play is quite funny and quite brutal. It takes place on New Year’s Eve and it’s three couples who are struggling with empty nest syndrome. Their kids have just left for college and these three relationships and the friendships between these three couples change in very major ways over the course of this evening. I just thought to do something on empty nest syndrome and how that effects one personally, but also how it effects your relationships was really interesting. I guess to sum it all up, each of the plays has humor. Each of the plays has something very strong to say, and I think all four of them are really strong, original voices. And that’s what we look for in our New Works Festival.
So would you say there’s a common theme in all four?
SS: I guess it’d have to do with relationships and how external events change your relationships in very unexpected ways. I mean each play is definitely its own work and they weren’t picked because they were all about the same thing. But, I do think that sort of idea runs through all of them.
You’ve teamed up with The Flea Theater in New York City to present Thomas Murphy. How did this partnership come to be?
SS: I’m very excited about it. The Flea is a theater that I’ve admired for a very long time and the Executive Director at The Flea is a woman named Carol Ostrow and she happens to have a house in Sag Harbor, so we met a few years ago when I was first starting at Bay Street. We liked what each other’s theaters do and are trying to do. We’ve been talking for quite a long time about working on something together. Carol actually had gotten this play Thomas Murphy, and sent it to me. I fell in love with it and it felt like the perfect opportunity for us to work together. It is a work that both Bay Street and The Flea are considering for possible production in the future. So, it was a great opportunity for us to hear it out loud and see how an audience responds.
When searching for potential New Works plays, what’s your process?
SS: There are a couple of things we do. Bay Street, because we both produce and develop so much new work, we have a reputation amongst writers and writers’ agents that we’re always looking for new work. So we get many submissions all year round, from both writers and representatives of writers. We read all of those and the ones that we respond to and that we think might be projects that would fit with Bay Street, we put those into the mix usually as possible New Works Festival projects.
We sometimes solicit scripts. Actually, this year we didn’t because frankly we had so many wonderful pieces in our mix through individual submissions that we didn’t need a larger pool. In previous years we had solicited scripts from agents and literary offices in New York and throughout the country.
I read the plays, my associate artistic director Will Pomerantz reads the plays. We also sometimes have other people we work with who read the plays, and we narrow it down from there. And I will say, we do try to pick four works – well this year four works. We expanded the Festival to four works last year. So originally it was three. But I try to pick four works that have variety that in some way will complement each other, but that each, again, are very specific and individual so if a person would like to come see all four, they’ll see four really distinctive and different works.
One of the other things that we do try to focus on with our New Works Festival and frankly our New Works production, Bay Street, since I’ve come on as artistic director, we’ve been very committed to supporting women playwrights. There’s a lot of discussion around the country how it’s actually often much more challenging for women playwrights to get their works produced than male playwrights. I’m not going to get into why that is, but there was actually this really interesting discussion a couple of years ago which was published in Washington, D.C., amongst all the theaters in Washington, D.C., about this issue. I and Bay Street are very committed to supporting women’s voices in playwriting and both new and established women writers. So every year we have done at least one work by a woman playwright in our Festival, and this year is no exception. In some years we’ve done more works by women than men – at two of our Festivals we had two plays by women and one play by a man, actually. This year it happens to be one play by a woman playwright, but that’s very important to us. Of course we pick the plays that we think are going to be the most exciting for our audience and that we’re potentially considering for future production. Really focusing on giving women’s voices a place to be heard is a top priority for me.
So this will be the second year Bay Street has featured four plays in the Festival?
SS: Yes, we had been doing three and then my dear friend, the wonderful writer and performer and personality, Walker Vreeland, had brought me a one man show that he had been working on and I thought, oh let’s add a fourth. Specifically because I wanted to support Walker and really thought his play was great. And what happened was people seemed so excited that there were four works that I thought, well, let’s keep this going. One of the things that has been really gratifying to me is that every year we’ve done this Festival, the audience has grown, and last year, which was our third year of the festival, two of our shows sold out, and all four of them were quite well attended. Clearly there’s a real thirst in our community for exciting new works for the theater and I want to give our audience as much as I can.
Do you have any plans to expand the Festival further?
SS: It’s certainly possible. Each year we take it step by step. This is the biggest Festival we’ve had in terms of cast size. We’ve done a musical now – this will be our third year doing a musical. So I would love to keep expanding the Festival in future years.
Speaking of musicals, is it any different presenting a musical in the New Works Festival?
SS: The main difference is musicals just take more time to prepare because the actors need to learn all the music and that’s just more complicated. We normally rehearse basically a day for a play and musicals you have to rehearse for a week. So they’re just more complicated, there’s more personal involved – obviously there are musicians. In this musical we actually have two musicians. The score is for a piano and cello, which I think is going to be really beautiful. They are a bit more complex to put together, but Bay Street is also very committed to the development and production of new musicals. In fact, we’re producing as our first Mainstage show a new musical we did in the Festival last year. That’s something we’re very committed to.
What feedback from the playwrights have you gotten?
SS: Every year the playwrights have found it very rewarding. I think they’ve enjoyed being in Sag Harbor and they’ve talked to me about how great the audience is because the audience that comes to the Festival – it’s a very sophisticated audience. This is an audience that goes to the theater all the time so their feedback is really smart and really useful. Part of the point of the Festival is for authors to get to hear their works in front of an audience and then get feedback from the audience so they can continue to develop their play or musical. I know the authors have been very enthusiastic about the level and depth of feedback that they’ve gotten.
The Man in the Ceiling was featured in last year’s New Works Festival and it will make its World Premiere this summer at Bay Street. You must be thrilled.
SS: That’s one of the main reasons we started the Festival in the first place – to show our audience these great new works, but, also frankly to be a place where we could hear things out loud and have our audience hear out loud works that we’re potentially interested in. So this is the first piece that was in our New Works Festival that we are actually producing, though we’ve considered a few others. I’m just thrilled! I mean the reading last year of The Man in the Ceiling was so exciting. It blew the roof off. It was sold out and I literally had audience members coming up to me saying, “So you’re going to produce this next year. Right?” And I must confess, I took their advice. I thought that the show was so wonderful and the writers have continued to work on it. Jules Feiffer and Andrew Lippa, based on what they learned at our Festival last year, have continued to develop it. So the work that people will see on the Mainstage will have directed benefited from being in our New Works Festival last year.
Have any other plays gone on to be produced?
SS: Yes, actually a few of them have go on to be produced at other theaters. Specially, there was a play called The Roommate that we did last year – another work that I liked very, very much. And we did consider it for production, but for various reasons it didn’t fit into what we were going to do this year. That show is being produced at a number of theaters, but specifically at Williamstown Theatre Festival this year. There was a play called The May Queen that we did, I believe it was the first year of the Festival, and that piece was produced at the Chautauqua Festival. So, yes, a lot of our pieces go on. Walker Vreeland’s piece was accepted into the New York Fringe Festival last year – he wasn’t able to do it because of personal reasons, but I think he’s been accepted into another festival. We have a pretty good track record in terms of finding plays that do really go on to get produced, whether it be at Bay Street or elsewhere.
Tickets to all four productions are free.
Bay Street Theater is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, or to reserve tickets, call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.