Way, way off Broadway, stars work without reviews

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) — Even with stars like Steve Martin and Greg Kinnear showing up each summer, the Powerhouse Theater season is more un-Broadway than off-Broadway.

The program at Vassar College attracts writers, directors and actors eager to develop new works in a collegial, cloistered setting 70 miles north of Manhattan. No big-city distractions, no theater reviewers. And paparazzi don’t come to Poughkeepsie too often.

“It’s very much like theater camp for grown-ups,” actress and writer Jennifer Westfeldt, a Powerhouse regular, said with a laugh. “But it’s also very much kept to the original vision they had for it, which was to provide a safe haven for artists, and writers in particular, to develop their work.”

The 29th season of Powerhouse Theater wraps ups this weekend after eight weeks of rewrites, rehearsals, readings and productions. As in past years, the program has drawn a mix of established names and lesser-known artists. All stay in student housing on campus and all share the goal of developing new material.

With its walled campus and tree-lined walkways, Vassar provides a sort of quiet, close-knit incubator for the largely New York City-based crowd. A few evenings ago, actress Mozhan Marno was able to take a short stroll to that night’s showing of the play she wrote. Nearby, the young cast of a superhero musical took a break from a stage reading to lounge in the setting sun and swat at a whiffle ball. Far from critics and everyday distractions, people here compare Powerhouse to working in a bubble.

And they like it that way.

“Especially with the advent of the Internet age, widespread critical commentary can be damaging to something when it’s still cooking,” said Powerhouse artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer. “What we provide here is the feedback from an artistic community and from an audience.”

Pfaelzer works for the not-for-profit New York Stage and Film, which started Powerhouse in 1985 in collaboration with Vassar to serve artists developing new plays. Part of her job is reading about 300 scripts a year and winnowing it down to the 15 to 20 that will be presented in a full production or a reading.

The judgment-free atmosphere here annually attracts a good number of big names. Playwright John Patrick Shanley had a play on the main stage in 1985 early in his career and has since brought about a dozen plays here, including the first public reading of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner “Doubt.”

Martin came here this summer for “Bright Star,” a musical he worked on with singer/songwriter Edie Brickell. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote “In the Heights,” brought his “The Hamilton Mixtape,” a hip-hop retelling of the life and death of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

Other Powerhouse acting alumni include Ethan Hawke, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, who graduated Vassar in 1971.

Westfeldt has acted in shows here over the years and did a staged reading of her movie “Friends With Kids.” This summer, she rushed from a performance of her current Manhattan gig “The Explorers Club” at New York City Center to catch “Bright Star” at Vassar.

“It’s become my creative home away from home,” she said.

Powerhouse also selects dozens of apprentices each summer for an intensive program of classes and performances. Most are college students. They put on plays that require little tweaking — “Agamemnon” and “As You Like It” were two this year — but still get to cross paths with the professionals. Acting apprentice Lizzy Lincoln, 21, of Round Rock, Texas, recalled the inspiration of staying in the same building as the young cast of professionals there for a musical.

“We came home from the close of ‘Agamemnon’ and there were people in the parlor just singing with beautiful, beautiful Broadway-trained voices, improvising music,” she said.

The bucolic setting has led some to conclude Powerhouse is a place where artists escape the city in the summer for a few weeks of coddling — a notion participants scoff at. Patrica Wettig, who has acted on TV and film for decades, said she worked as hard at Powerhouse as anywhere.

“It’s not just ‘Oh, lets come here and slap everybody on the back because aren’t we great for doing creative projects.’ The attention is very, very much on the work and trying to get it to be the best that is can be,” said Wettig, who will have her play “Yellow Kingdom” read on Sunday.

Marno, whose film credits include “Charlie Wilson’s War,” said that as her play “When the Lights Went Out” was being readied for the main Powerhouse stage, she would start her day with a couple hours of rewrite, head to rehearsals for six hours, and then end the day with a discussion of the developing work with director Kate Whoriskey.

Ultimately, Marno hopes to get the play from here to New York City, following the trajectory of other works like “Doubt.” For now, she’s happy to have a place to nurture her play.

“There are so many beautiful trees and you can get lost. You turn the corner, and you’re in a firefly-ridden meadow,” she said “It’s very poetic and very atmospheric and I was not at all distracted.”

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Online: http://powerhouse.vassar.edu

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Follow Michael Hill on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MichaelTHill

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