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BWW Interview: Johanna Pfaelzer, Artistic Director of The Powerhouse Theater

Vassar & New York Stage and Film have announced a few of the projects tapped for the upcoming 32nd Powerhouse Season, the annual summer season which stages full productions of new plays, workshop presentations of new plays and musicals, and readings of other works in progress, among other developmental programming.

The Powerhouse Season is a hotbed for the development of many of the hottest recent theater productions on record including three current Broadway hits: Lin-Manuel Miranda's much-ballyhooed opus Hamilton, Stephen Karam's haunting domestic drama The Humans, and the just-opened Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical Bright Star, all of which had early development presentations at Powerhouse.

Running June 24 to July 31 at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, the upcoming 32nd Powerhouse Season will be headlined by two fully-staged productions of new plays written and directed by women: Transfers (June 30 - July 10) written by Lucy Thurber and directed byJackson Gay, and The Wolves (July 21 - July 31) written by Sarah DeLappe and directed by Lila Neugebauer.

The musical workshop presentations will include Taylor Mac's first-ever 12-hour marathon performance of material from A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, co-directed by Mac andNiegel Smith, for one day only, July 30, noon to midnight. In this wildly ambitious, multi-year project, Mac charts the history of popular music in America from the nation's founding in 1776 to the present day.

Another major feature of the musical workshops at Powerhouse will be a new adaptation ofLeslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley's The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd bySantino Fontana, best known on Broadway for his Tony nominated work in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella as well as acclaimed work in Act One, among many others. Fontana has been commissioned by Roundabout Theatre Company to adapt this classic work. He will also star in the workshop.

Artists with extensive stage and screen backgrounds will also be featured this summer, including Emmy-nominated star of "Mad Men" John Slattery who will direct a reading of Lorien Haynes' new play Good Grief; and "How I Met Your Mother" star Josh Radnor, a Powerhouse regular who will bring his first-ever play, Sacred Valley, to the Reading Series.

Additionally, the Powerhouse Season will provide an artistic residency for the new musical Head Over Heels, with a book by Jeff Whitty and music by The Go-Go's, directed by Michael Mayerwith musical supervision by Tom Kitt. Mayer and Kitt did a similar collaboration during the development of the Green Day musical American Idiot at Powerhouse. This residency will not be presented to the public.

Members of the noted Powerhouse Theater Training Program will present Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, adapted and directed by Mark Lindberg while Andrew Willis-Woodward will direct a reimagining of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Young actors, playwrights, and directors from around the country and internationally, along with an exceptional faculty of artists, comprise this important component of the Powerhouse artistic community.

The Powerhouse Season is a vital incubator for artists and their work, and can count over twenty projects which recently had or will soon have major productions, including: The Fortress of Solitude, by Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses (Public Theater & Dallas Theater Center);Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson's Rain, The Last Match, by Anna Ziegler, and In Your Arms (The Old Globe); Found, by Hunter Bell, Eli Bolin & Lee Overtree (Atlantic Theater Company, Philadelphia Theater Co.); Ayad Akhtar's Junk (La Jolla Playhouse) and The Invisible Hand (New York Theatre Workshop); Hadestown, by Anais Mitchell (NYTW); Dry Land, byRuby Rae Spiegel (Colt Coeur at HERE); The House That Will Not Stand by Marcus Gardley(Berkeley Rep, Yale Rep); Big Sky by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros (The Geffen); and Ripcord, by David Lindsay-Abaire (Manhattan Theatre Club).

Casting and additional projects will be announced at a later date. Subscriptions will be available online May 12, and single tickets will go on sale online May 17.

Now in its 32nd year, Powerhouse Theater is a collaboration between New York Stage and Film and Vassar College dedicated to both emerging and established artists in the development and production of new works for theater and film. The Powerhouse program consists of an eight-week residency on the Vassar campus during which more than 250 professional artists and 40 participants in the Powerhouse Training Program live and work together to create new theater works. Recent highlights at Powerhouse include Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton; Bright Star, an original musical from Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; The Fortress of Solitude, Itamar Moses, Michael Friedman and Daniel Aukin's musical adaptation of the best-selling novel byJonathan Lethem, and Richard Greenberg's The Babylon Line. Many additional shows from past seasons have found their way to Broadway, Off-Broadway, and theaters nationwide, including Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet and The Humans (Roundabout Theater); The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar (NYTW), Found by Hunter Bell, Lee Overtree and Eli Bolin(Atlantic Theater Co), Michael Mayer and Peter Lerman's Brooklynite (Vineyard Theater), Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash's Murder Ballad (Manhattan Theater Club); and Pulitzer finalistNathan Englander's The Twenty-Seventh Man (The Public Theater; Old Globe Theater);. Other projects developed at the Powerhouse include the Tony Award-winning Side Man and Tru; the multi-award-winning Doubt by John Patrick Shanley; the groundbreaking Broadway musical American Idiot, and A Steady Rain, produced on Broadway in 2009 with Hugh Jackman andDaniel Craig.

New York Stage and Film (Johanna Pfaelzer, Artistic Director; Thomas Pearson, Executive Director; Mark Linn-Baker, Max Mayer, Leslie Urdang, Producing Directors) is a not-for-profit company dedicated to both emerging and established artists in the development of new works for theater and film. Since 1985 New York Stage and Film has played a significant role in the development of new plays, provided a home for a diverse group of artists free from critical and commercial pressures, and established itself as a vital cultural institution for residents of the Hudson Valley and the New York metropolitan region

Vassar College (Ed Cheetham, Michael Sheehan, Producing Directors) is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college founded in 1861. Consistently ranked as one of the country's best liberal arts colleges, Vassar is renowned for its long history of curricular innovation, and for the natural and architectural beauty of its campus. More than 50 academic departments and degree programs - from Anthropology to Cognitive Sciences to Urban Studies - encompass the arts, foreign languages, natural sciences, and social sciences, and combine to offer a curriculum of more than 1,000 courses. Vassar College is sited in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley in Poughkeepsie, NY.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Johanna Pfaelzer, Artistic Director of the Powerhouse Theater and she gave me a wonderful overview of the upcoming season!

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about the upcoming season. It looks very exciting. The Powerhouse Theater has always been on my radar just because of the American Idiot Workshop. Also, I just knew of Vassar and how prestigious the college is. From what I'm reading in the First Looks and the press releases, the productions look very exciting!

Aw, thanks. There's a group of artists we're really excited to have with us this summer.

Yes, and you also now have this amazing Pulitzer connection. Two of your past workshops (Hamilton and The Humans) are winners and finalists!

I know. Isn't that fantastic? I'm so thrilled for both of them. They are both so extraordinarily deserving.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Karam
Photo by Vasser Media Relations

Oh, yes. How did the shows actually workshop with you? Were they performed?

Hamilton was 2013. I knew Lin-Manuel Miranda a little bit. Thomas Kail, who's the director of Hamilton had worked on another project or two with us and was a good pal. Truly from the moment that I saw that first clip of Lin's performance at the White House and knew that they were developing a show based on it, I must have called Tommy every year and said, "Don't you want to come work on this project? Don't you want to come work on this project? Don't you want to bring it here?" For years the answer was, "No," or, "It's not time," or, "It doesn't exist." Almost entirely on act one during the time that they were with us, and it was really the first time they had had a chance with a group of actors to really dig into the material, and they ended up presenting act one, and a few snippets from act two. In our smallest theater, in the Shiva theater, is part of our reading series. It was a completely never-to-be-forgotten moment for me.

I'm sure. When Lin-Manuel gets up there, he just commands the stage, even just from hello, so I can just imagine.

Absolutely. He's an unbelievably charismatic performer, but also we, the audience in that room on that day, recognized collectively that we were in the presence of something that was game-changing.

Yes, truly! It's amazing that it's culminated from the Powerhouse Theater to the Public Theater and then all the way to the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Now you can't get a ticket even if you tried.

It's true, not for love or money. Well, maybe for a lot of love and quite a bit of money.

Ha ha, yes. Plus, The Humans is a Pulitzer Finalist as well!

Stephen Karam, who we had the pleasure of working with on his play Sons of the Prophet several years ago, which I continue to think is a gorgeous piece of writing. We'll have to fact check this, but I think he may have been a Pulitzer finalist for that, as well. It made sense. The Humans, was a commission from the Roundabout Theatre. When it wanted and needed some development, it made sense for him to come back to us for that. Again, they spent a week really digging into it. Some of the same cast members, some different. I think he's an exquisite truth-telling writer.

Do you get to have a sort of connection with it while it is presented at the Roundabout Theatre?

I don't know for sure. I'd have to double check. It's harder on things that have only participated in our reading series. Things that have been with us for longer periods of time, the rules are a little bit clearer. Stephen Karam's been very generous, as Lin-Manuel has, in talking about his time with us. Stephen just came recently and spoke to a group of our board members and supporters and spent an hour talking to them about his process with the play, the time with us, everything that had happened since then. Then a big group of the board members went a couple of weeks later and saw the play when it was in previews.

Oh, great.

They had a really different window into the play, itself, having had the privilege of hearing directly from him, what his intentions were about, and what his process with it had been.

Is it usually the goal to have these workshops transfer to Broadway, or is it just to foster a safe place for them to try things out?

Yes, I don't think Broadway can ever be the goal. To some extent it's not always the right home for a project. There are things that are fantastic works of art that just aren't ever going to play properly or in their fullest, truest iteration in that environment. I don't think that's the goal. I think for us, the goal is to create an environment where artists can both safely, with a lot of muscle, dig deeply and further it along. What that means is going to be different for all the different projects. The first time a writer hears something is very different than when they've been living with something for a year or so and are ready to see it on its feet and fully designed. No more or less important, just different. I think one of the things that we try to do is to make sure that our structures stay flexible so that as those artists have the opportunity to articulate those questions, we can design a process that's going to best support them and best further those goals.

Do the artists feel like they can be themselves, like they're not going to be hounded by paparazzi or press people waiting to sneak up on it and get the buzz or anything like that?

Yes, I think it's ... people have been very respectful about making sure it is a place where there isn't any sneaking up on. I think both our audience, and the press, and the artists themselves have realized that you only get to have that kind of environment if everybody commits to creating it and supporting it. We all collectively see the benefit that we collectively get when they are given those opportunities. I think it requires a certain amount of trust and faith and a lot of work. I think for the artists it's not just about this safe environment, but it's also a place where there are expectations. There are the expectations of an audience. There are always the expectations when you know that your colleagues and your peers are working down the hall from you on their work, and you want to deliver. I think there's an inherent desire to deliver to the best of your ability. That's a key piece of it, as well.

Are the theatregoers' subscribers or can they just purchase tickets through your box office?

We have a core group of subscribers who will see everything in the course of a summer, which could be between 15 and 20 different pieces in development. Then we have people who want to come in and want to buy a ticket to a particular show, or they love the musicals but not the plays, or vice versa. We have people who only come see the work that our training company does. There are opportunities for people to encounter the work in a lot of different ways.

I see that you are having your first ever 12-hour marathon musical event?

Isn't that the craziest thing? We're so excited. This thing that Taylor Mac is developing is ... I would say extraordinary, but I don't even know what that means in this context. The scale of his ambition for this, the kind of story-telling that he's doing, the demands that he's placing on himself as an artist are amazing. I think it's so thrilling that our audience is going to have an experience that nobody yet has had. This is a piece that eventually, and once only, will be a 24-hour cycle, that as he's been building it over the last couple of years, really all over the country, he first built single decade chunks. Each decade occupies an hour ultimately. Then he was grouping them into three decade chunks. He's done six decades a couple of times. This will be ... It's highly uncharted territory for both him as a performer and as an audience to meet together in this very particular moment.

Is this going to be cast of actors, or just a one-man show?

It's largely Taylor. He is the core artist. There will be a band. There may be some special

Taylor Mac
Photo by Kevin Yatarola

guests or a backup singer and a dancer or two along the way, depending on the specific needs of each decade, you know, because they're different styles of music that he's exploring depending on the time. As you know, obviously the music of the 1920's is really different from the 1830's.

So, there is a chance that he might actually rap or do some beat-boxing?

I'd say with Taylor you never know, but I will say that he is ... his research has been vast and his own sense of himself as a performer is deep. It's really about the meeting of those two things.

That sounds very exciting!

I think it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity for our audience. There's only 320 people who get to have that experience on that one day.

Will this show be taken into another venue?

Ultimately, as I said, there will be this one 24-hour performance. Then I think there will be pieces of it that he'll be touring all over the world. He could do the 20th century at some point. He could do the 1950's. There will be different modules of it that he'll have the opportunity to share with different audiences, but our audience is getting 1836 to 1956.

You are also presenting a festival featuring women directors and playwrights.

Yes, not intentionally a festival of them, but certainly this year the way it shook out is that both of main stage productions have female playwrights and female directors, which I think is fantastic.

That keeps the whole Waitress, Fun Home theme going. I think women are really coming into their own in the theatre world and are being whole-heartedly embraced!

Yes, and these are two beautiful plays, really different points of view. One is a writer who I've been tracking for quite a while, Lucy Thurber, the other, Sarah DeLappe is really new to the game. I'm so proud to be giving them these world premiere productions.

There's that, and then, of course, you've got the TV recognition of John Slattery and Josh Radnor. They are definitely household names.

Josh Radnor and John Slattery both had relationships to this theater in general and to us as artists long before there was ever a How I Met Your Mother or a Mad Men. I'm really both pleased and proud that this is a place that they continue to return to as their own careers take different twists and turns. Josh has been part of our extended family for almost 20 years now, starting when he was an apprentice. He was an undergraduate in college and came and trained with us, and he's been back with us a number of times performing on our main stage. The fact that this is where he wants to come develop his first play is really meaningful to me.

It seems the musical with Santino Fontana is a recent addition.

Santino Fontana

We're still in the process of pinning down the last bits of programming events.

Yes and for me personally, I'm a huge fan of musicals, so when I saw that I was very excited!

Oh, yes. It should be really fun. Actually, last night I got to hear him sing one of the songs from it, and that voice is to die for.

I'll bet!

It's also really exciting to me that while he's this artist who obviously we've known for years as an actor, and as a very dramaturgically minded actor, again, that this feel like enough of a creative home to him that when he's taking this risk of actually serving as the book writer of what's essentially a new musical ... though it's really a reconstruction or revision of a classic piece ... that this is where he feels like he can do that.

Yes. It seems like now there are a lot more performers wearing different hats and taking new chances!

Absolutely. John Slattery being a great example of that, Jennifer Westfeldt being another, Josh Radnor being another, and I think artists who are ambitious as story tellers want to tell stories in a number of different ways. Whether that's performing in theater and film and television, or whether it's serving as an actor and a director, a writer and a director, an actor and a writer, what's important to me to recognize is their own passion for conveying stories to an audience and giving them as many possible ways to do that as we can.

Yes, definitely. I think they also, like I said before, they probably would like a safe place to try this stuff out where they don't feel like they're being hounded.

Yeah, it's scary. It's scary to take on new tasks, and to know that they can do that in a place where they know that their efforts will both be respected and challenged ...

Are the actors and creative integrating with the acting students? Is it a kind of Williamstown Theatre Festival vibe where everybody's just working together?

Very much so, yes. Everybody's living on campus. They're all rehearsing in the same building. If you've spent any time in Poughkeepsie, you know that there's a couple of restaurants that are within walking distance, and everybody tends to end up there. It's very much a community of artists. That includes the participants in our training program, as well. One of the things that I think is a real hallmark of the Powerhouse Theater experience is this notion of artists at all different stages of their careers, from the members of our training company to the John Patrick Shanleys of the world, as well as project that are in all different stages of development. I think we're looking at these artistic trajectories and artistic evolution through a couple of different lenses that way.

Now, of course, I have to ask about Head Over Heels because I'm a huge Go-Go's fan from back in the day.

You and me both.

I'm just wondering, is this something that the Go-Go's are going to be part of, or is this going to be more like a "Jukebox" musical?

It's not a story of the Go-Go's. It's not biographical at all. It's integrating their music into a story created by Jeff Whitty, who also wrote Avenue Q. It's not a story of the Go-Go's.

So it will have a tongue-in-cheek thing? Is it going to have a sardonic wit about it?

There is going to be wit. There will be sex. There will be a really playful, intelligent sense of story.

Yes. Michael Mayer, of course, seems to be very active in the Powerhouse Theater, including American Idiot.

Michael started working with us back in ... I think it was 1996, when he directed the world premiere of Side Man, Warren Leight's play, which then went on, of course, to New York. It won a Tony for best play that year, or a year later. He has a really long relationship to the company. Then, oh, gosh, in the last few years he did American Idiot with us. He did On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Brooklynite. He's very dear to us.

How about Hedwig and the Angry Itch?

No, sadly, no.

That would have been unbelievable! Will Head Over Heels be open to the public?

No, this is one where they're in rather early stages of development. What they need actually is a place to allow that creative team to really go back to the bones of the piece. They're not going to be ready for visitors yet, but you never know what next year will bring.

Okay, that's something to keep an eye on for the future.

They're tucked away.

Do the works get reviewed?

No, and I think that's actually really important. None of our work is open for review. It's been ... It's just recognizing that these are all projects that are still gestating. These are things that are still in formation. None of them are considered finished. If you were doing a play here, the moment would come when you would, quote/unquote, freeze the play. That's when you invite press in to review it. We don't freeze the plays because essentially everything is like a preview process for us.

That makes it less scary to take risks!

Right, and I think that does give them the ability to say ... Even with our full productions, they could look at something in one performance and realize that there's a significant change that they want to make, for example, in act two. Because the projects don't need to be considered locked and aren't being evaluated in that way, they have the ability of ... you know, I've watched writer Eric Bogosian come in with a whole new scene in his third performance, and we sent the actors on stage holding the pages. It was a fantastic experience because he got the information that he needed from that, but we could also say to the actors, "Be free to serve him in this way because you will not be judged for that."

That is probably very healthy and for them not to feel like they have to be "Off-Book" and completely blocked.

There's just a reality to it, also. If you want to a writer, "Sure, try something new," you have to say to both your actors and your designers and, frankly, to your audience, who I think we always want to make sure they understand where they encounter a particular piece of work, "This is where we are. This is what the task is. This is what the question is, and this is how we're attempting to answer it."

I assume audience that attends the shows know that these are all a work-in-progress.

They do, and they're incredibly both respectful of that but I think really engaged by it because the reality of it is their presence, their feedback, their experience of it transforms the work. Our writers are sitting there listening to that audience listen to their play. Based on what that audience's experience of it is, changes are going to be made. Steve Martin sat in the back row of the house every performance of Bright Star taking notes both on what he was seeing on stage, but also in response to his perception of how the audience was experiencing it. Our audience has a really direct impact on the transformation of the work.

That must make them feel like that they're a part of something.

I hope it makes them feel good. It should. It's true.

I know I certainly would be telling people, "Wow, I was there at that first reading of Hamilton. By the way, do you have confidentially agreements with the audience, or are there things that should know when they do come in, that they shouldn't talk about it or blog about?

I think to the extent that we can ask them to be as respectful of the artistic process and the vulnerability inherent of that as possible, that's fantastic. This company was founded before there was the internet, essentially, and certainly before there were bloggers. I think it's really hard to say to people, "You can talk about this, and you can't talk about that." I think to the extent that we can make sure people understand where a project is and what the impact of their experience of it can be on the project transformation, we hope that they accept both that responsibility and that great privilege of being a part of that.

Yes, absolutely. I feel like I've gotten a lot of information! I wish you a successful season! Thank you so much!

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From This Author Kathryn Kitt