BWW Interview: Alexander Fraser on Preparing the Bucks County Playhouse for the World Premiere of OTHER WORLD
The Bucks County Playhouse is one of the most historic theaters in the country. Its wooden walls practically brim over with a sense of magic, holding within them the vast legacy of performers and creatives who made their impact upon its stage. Names like Grace Kelly, Robert Redford, Neil Simon, Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury... and that's the short list. One of the people currently contributing to the Playhouse's legacy in a big way is Alexander Fraser, who came onboard the Bucks County Playhouse team as Producing Director in January of 2014.
After the Playhouse closed its doors in 2010 due to difficult times and reopened in 2012, Fraser was one of the team of Tony Award-winning producers brought in to revitalize, rebuild, and grow this beautiful theater in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Once one of the preeminent sites for new theater development - among others, the first iteration of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park was brought to life on its stage - the Bucks County Playhouse is reclaiming its spot as a leading theater for the development of new works. It is currently undergoing a major technological upgrade thanks to a foundation grant, in preparation to house the premiere of an exciting new musical entitled Other World.
In beautifully detailed and wonderfully energetic fashion, Fraser walked me through his beginnings with the Bucks County Playhouse, how the grant and the development of Other World came to be, his hopes for the Bucks County Playhouse moving into the future, and much more.
After working his way up in New York for 30 years and reaching the ultimate title of Producer, Fraser had decided he was ready for a bit of a change.
"I was in my late fifties then, and I'm never going to retire, it's not my personality, but I was thinking 'Mix it up a little.' And I had been single for about six years, and I met this wonderful man, and on the first date he goes 'You know, I live out in western New Jersey and I'll never live in New York, I'm not a New York fan, and my work wouldn't allow me so... just to say.' I said 'Well... just to say, I'll never leave New York, they're going to carry me out in a box, but that doesn't mean we can't have fun in the meantime.' And after a couple of years, it clearly was going to be serious, and so I had to start thinking about getting out of New York. I'm just going to skip to the punch which is that... I was having lunch with a friend of mine who's a lawyer, and I'm hocking her for clients... And she goes 'Why don't you run a theater again?' Because I'd run Second Stage in the late 90s. And I said 'Yeah... you know that's a lot of work, I don't know.' And she goes 'Well, I know about an opportunity that might be interesting to you.'"
Coincidentally, Peter, Fraser's now-husband, has a sister who lives in a town near the Bucks County Playhouse, and the two ended up passing the theater while paying her a visit, not long before Fraser became Producing Director.
"...So we're at lunch, and I said 'What theater?' and she said 'Bucks County Playhouse' and I said 'Yes.' Because this was an opportunity to leave New York without really leaving New York in a way, and there's something so magical about the location, and the whole story...So I came down here and I met with Jed Bernstein, who was right before me, he's the one who kind of got it all renovated and did an extraordinary job of getting support for the theater. And I realized that I didn't know anybody down here, and I'm a very gregarious person and I didn't really want to walk into a community all by myself, so I decided to get a friend to join me. I called Robyn Goodman... I said 'Why don't you just come out and see it with me? It's really fun, we'll see a show, we'll have a fun afternoon, no harm done.' Little did I know that the show at that moment was The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which Robyn had worked on at Manhattan Theatre Club and had gotten very close to Charles Busch who I had worked with in the 80s when I managed the theater where Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was playing. So that was good, that Robyn loved that show. And starring in that show were Marsha Mason and Marilu Henner, both of whom had been friends of Robyn's since the 60s. And it was a lot of fun, and we went backstage after the show and they both were like 'Oh my God, what an amazing place this is. We're having the best time.' They thought we had just come to see the show because they were in it. And we got back in the car and Robyn said 'Alright, alright, how can I say no now? What an amazing opportunity really to bring this theater back to life.' So, here we are. We started in January of '14... She started Second Stage with Carole Rothman and they founded the Underground program at Roundabout, and she's really brilliant at finding talent and putting together creative teams of shows, which is, I think, probably the most important job... there are two important jobs the producer does, they pick the show to produce and they put together the team who are going to do the show. And after that, everything else is kind of gravy. So, she's really brilliant at that, and I knew I would need help."
Despite the experience that he and Robyn brought to the table, the early stages were not without its challenges.
"'The Playhouse had lost the audience over the years, and we came down and started doing the best work we could. And it was like, a Tuesday night, and there'd be 60 people in the audience. You know what that theater looks like with 60 people in the audience? And people would walk in like 'Who died? Why are we here? Why are we here if nobody else is here?' It's demoralizing. And the poor actors coming out, they'd all say, 'We're used to it, don't worry about it'... I think the thing that makes me the happiest is I can't even remember the last time I walked in the theater and only saw 60 people sitting there."
Rebuilding the Bucks County Playhouse has been a years-in-the-making process, but the grant the Playhouse received and the taking on of Other World is a more recent development. Both the grant and the development of the show came together nearly simultaneously.
"We had started a sound upgrade. The sound equipment in the theater was not great, especially in musicals, it was really bad...So two or three years ago we bit the bullet and we replaced the center cluster that hangs right above the stage. And it's so funny because the old one was so big and cumbersome and kind of ungainly looking, and we replaced it with something that was 20% the size, very elegant, and the sound coming out of there made such a huge difference, but only for the good seats, the first 15 rows in the middle. If you sat in the back or on the sides, you were out of luck... So this is something we knew that we really needed, and the opportunity to do Other World came along, and one of the challenges is this is a big show with a lot of video projections, there's an LED wall, there are video curtains where the video actually plays on fabric and we just didn't have the capability to really house it. There's a foundation that sadly wishes to be anonymous because I would love to sing it from the rooftops because I was so happy that we found it, it does just this kind of thing, hardware upgrades for theaters that really help push production capacity. So, we got this grant, $165,000, I think. We're doubling the amount of electricity that goes into the building, so we'll have 800 amps instead of 400 amps, which makes it possible to have all that video equipment. In redoing the sound system it's amazing how much smaller... it's like iPhones, it's like anything, things are just getting smaller and smaller and smaller and it completely changes the way you use space... we're now actually doubling the space of the orchestra, so we can have twice as many people in the orchestra as we had before...The first three weeks of January we closed the theater and we've done all the work in the last three and a half weeks."
As the grant was falling into place, Fraser and Goodman went to the reading of Other World.
"...They were looking for theaters to present it. There were a lot of other theaters in the room, and I was on the other side so often, I know just what it's like to be a producer looking for a theater to launch your show. I know what you're looking for, I know what you're not looking for. We go to a lot of readings, and we've had several shows, we've done enhanced developmental productions before, but not one this big. And the grant was in the works already. We hadn't actually gotten it. It all kind of came together brilliantly, and I think having Other World was a really motivating thing, because I could go back to the foundation and say 'Look. Look what we could do. This is exactly the purpose.' It was a great fit. So, we went to the reading, and I fell in love with the show. You know it's funny, the first ten minutes- I didn't know anything about it, I just showed up- and I thought 'Oh, it's about video gaming, I know nothing about video gaming, this is not for me.' And about twenty minutes into it I suddenly realized that I was completely engaged. Completely 100% engaged because fortunately, the lead character is also not into video gaming. There are several leads, there are the real gamer types, and then there's this wonderful character, Lorraine, who is not, so if you're not a gamer, of course you latch onto her... And the minute it was over I thought 'You know what, this is really big and we may not be big enough to do it, but I'm gonna push.' I ran up to the Other World team and I really said, 'I'm dying to do this.' Fortunately, I know a lot of people, so I knew the general management team for the show for many years... And I said 'Please.' And we met with them and I said 'I know what you're thinking. You know this is a big technical show, and we can't really do the full production that you need. But I think that very fact, the fact that you're going to be limited in the toys and whistles that you can throw at this thing, is going to make you focus on the writing, and the book, and the music and the lyrics, which is the whole point of developmental production. You know, there's always time to add in all of the fancy stuff later. But if the book and the music and the lyrics aren't as good as they can possibly be before you start laying all that stuff on, you're not going to learn what you need to learn by going out of town for your first production. And so that argument, I think, won the day. And it's something I really believe in...It's fun being now on the other side, being a theater and really thinking about... you know every show is different. There's no cookie cutter 'Oh, this is how you develop a show' because every show is completely different. How people write, how people create, how directors work. Nobody does it the same way. So, you can't just say 'This is best for this show', you've really got to think about 'What is this show? Who is the team? What do they need? How can we provide what they need?'"
Among the great songs and smart writing, it was an unexpected personal connection to the story of Other World that made Fraser especially passionate about taking on this show.
"... I think what really got me, it always goes back to the same thing. Something in your life that you see onstage, it illuminates something for you, and the fact that the boy in the play, Sri is his name, he lost his mother when he was young, and I lost my mother when I was young. And right there, you've got a boy who has not been able to deal with that, because what kid can? And he is searching for his mother. And the girl Lorraine, who is the non-gamer, she also lost her father when she was young. These two, the father and the mother who were work colleagues had invented this game. And that's how these two team up together. And in a way they're doing it to honor the legacy of their parents, and I found that to be really satisfying."
The book for Other World is written by Tony and Drama Desk nominee and Obie winner, Hunter Bell ([title of show]), with music and lyrics by Obie winner Jeff Bowen ([title of show]) and composer/lyricist Ann McNamee. Adrienne Campbell-Holt (Founding Artistic Director of Brooklyn's Colt Coeur and the recipient of the 2018 Lucille Lortel Visionary Director Award, and associate director for Broadway's Dear Evan Hansen) directs Other World with choreography by Karla Puno Garcia (Broadway's Hamilton and The Cher Show). Fraser filled me in on what he enjoys most about working with this talented team.
"They're really smart and they're charming, they're delightful. They're on the young side. They laugh when I say that and I say, 'Well, compared to me, you're young.' Adrienne Campbell-Holt is an extremely talented director who I didn't know, and I love her, she's incredibly collaborative, and yet she knows what she knows and she's been really terrific to work with. The whole team, all of the designers are extraordinary... There's just so much talent coming at you. That's what I love about this business, working with talented people, it's awe-inspiring. And this team has been terrific. Either you fall in love or you don't, but you usually fall in love. I was gonna say, and then the reviews come out and it's like a bad marriage [laughs] but I'm teasing. You fall in love with your team. A friend of mine many years ago, one of my first friends to leave New York got a job being the artistic director at a theater in the south, and he came to me and said 'You know, what if I don't like the shows that I produce? What if I can't produce the quality of shows I'm used to doing here?' and I said 'I kind of think it's like a mother. Everybody loves their babies, and nobody thinks they had an ugly baby. And so, I don't think you're going to ever think that.' And it's interesting now running a theater outside of New York, I think that's pretty much true."
When I asked Fraser if, now with the updated technology in the theater, his goal was to make the Bucks County Playhouse a premiere spot in the country for new show development, he left me with this thought:
"I would love that. That would make me very happy. It's in the DNA out here...this area was always someplace where artists came to create work, and they came to the Bucks County Playhouse to create work. And I want to get that back. And I'm so pleased that we've got it back and I hope that we can do it a lot more, because it's exciting for us, it's exciting for the audience, and I'm sure it's exciting to the theater. I think there's a personality in that theater and I'd like to think it's happy."
I'd like to think so too.
Previews for Other World begin Friday, March 13, 2020 at the Bucks County Playhouse, with the official opening performance on Saturday, March 28. Other World will run through April 11, 2020.