New Works Initiative at Studio Playhouse
By GWEN OREL
In June, during the run of “Boys in the Band” at Studio Playhouse, celebrating 50 years of pride, director E. Dale Smith-Gallo had an epiphany.
“The people who make up our older audience are not the generation that gave us ‘Sound of Music.’ They're the generation that gave us ‘Hair.’ And that being the case we need to now readjust our thinking.”
The idea that community theater means coddling an older audience with a very safe show might not be true at all, he realized.
The work that generation created was edgy, and those audiences might enjoy seeing slightly edgier plays at Studio Playhouse, too.
This season, Studio Players rolled out its first New Works Initiative. The program consists of giving either original work or recent, lesser-known work full productions at Studio Playhouse for four days.
“It's exciting to get new voices,” Smith-Gallo said. “We're starting to realize people are open to things they haven't seen. And we kind of want to be that theater.”
Smith-Gallo, creative producer at Studio Players, has been involved with the company for four years.
While he spoke, the cast of Mark Liebert’s new play “Complete Game” was getting into costume downstairs, in Studio’s dressing room. Saturday’s performance would be followed by a talk-back, and inside every program was a survey gauging audience interest and response to the play. It's the second production in the New Works Initiative, and the first original work.
New York playwright Adam Bock’s “The Receptionist” ran at Studio Playhouse two weekends earlier. It had had a run in New York in 2007, starring Jayne Houdyshell.
The two mini-slots replace a fourth children’s show, Smith-Gallo explained. “The Receptionist” has a small cast — which is a no-no for community theater (and the opposite of professional theater, where playwrights are routinely encouraged to think like producers and write one-set, small cast shows). “Primarily people come to shows to see someone they know,” Smith-Gallo added.
So producing a small-cast play that people did not know was a risk — and it worked, Smith-Gallo said. “Mark Liebert has been part of the company for 25 years, and it was a natural to start with an original play from someone so well-known, Smith-Gallo said.
Though the runs are short, they are fully supported by Studio Players, with rehearsal space and time, and help with design and casting. Interested directors and playwrights can submit online.
“There are lots of 10-minute play festivals, and one-act play festivals, but there aren’t nearly as many opportunities for a playwright to see a full play go up, even in a smaller way,” Smith-Gallo said.
COMMUNITY AND AUDIENCE
Liebert has directed for Studio Players before, and had several plays, including children’s plays, produced. He’s enthusiastic about the New Works Initiative for the same reason Smith-Gallo is: it’s a way to connect to changing audiences.
“We are learning to meet the needs of our community, as well as the needs of the community of theater people,” he said. He is now managing producer of Studio Players, keeping the separate plays on track, working on the nuts and bolts of schedules.
“I was not on the board last year, so I had nothing to do with [choosing the play],” he said with a laugh. He directed his play.
“Complete Game,” a series of interlocking scenes about baseball that gradually brings all the characters together, began as Liebert’s attempt to write one-act plays.
A self-described “baseball nut,” Liebert was inspired by Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s 1888 poem, “Casey at the Bat.”
There’s a flaw in the poem: since the bases are not loaded, why doesn’t the pitcher just walk Casey?
“The wheels started rolling,” he said. In the play, we meet Casey and the pitcher that struck him out. It’s 50 years after the 1920 strike-out, beginning a publicity tour. Casey’s irascible; Stash, the pitcher, humble and friendly.
Liebert had many baseball stories, and just kept going. After readings and feedback, he finalized the play.
It has a company of 11, and voiceovers: that big cast thing mentioned by Smith-Gallo.
In a world where playwrights are encouraged to create new works that have “one set, six actors,” the potential afforded by a producing entity that prefers a large cast is very unusual.
And as Smith-Gallo had said, clearly many people in the largely full house Saturday night were there to see friends. Some had brought flowers.
But when the play began with a recording of the national anthem, starring the Jackson 5, opening the 1970 World Series, one member of the audience stood.
Other people began singing under their breath, sheepish, then amused, then proud.
When the play ended, the cast asked the audience to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
People sang. Then they stayed for the discussion.
It’s a good way to begin a new series.