New Works, New Hope for Playwrights at Bay Street

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On stage at last year's New Works Festival at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

On stage at last year’s New Works Festival at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

By Dawn Watson

After surviving 25 years of ups and downs, many cultural organizations would embrace the opportunity to settle back, relax a bit and become establishment material. Not so for Sag Harbor’s own Bay Street Theater. Celebrating its two-and-a-half decade milestone year, our little local arts institution that could is kicking off its quarter-century season with its third annual New Works Festival.

This year’s lineup will include three days of free readings, beginning Friday, April 29, and ending on Sunday, May 1. The opening night reading will be “The Roommate” by Jen Silverman. On Saturday, “Community” by Stephen Kaplan and “From Ship to Shape” by local WBAZ radio host and playwright Walker Vreeland will stage. Closing the festival will be “The Man in the Ceiling,” a new musical by East Hampton-based Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist (and Academy Award winning screenwriter, double Obie-winning playwright, Writers Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award winner, etc.) Jules Feiffer.

Literally shining the spotlight on fresh faces and original ideas, the theater, which has world-premiered nearly as many plays as it has operating years, continues to break new ground by bringing as yet unproven theater to its stage. It’s this new vision that will continue to propel the theater, sustaining it for the future, says Artistic Director Scott Schwartz.

“I think it is fitting that we will launch our 25th anniversary season at Bay Street with the third year of this exciting festival of new works,” says Mr. Schwartz, who along with Associate Director Will Pomerantz has curated this year’s festival. “The development and production of new plays and musicals is a central part of the mission of this theater … as we look to the future, we are excited to help give life to the classics of tomorrow.”

The New Works Festival doesn’t just provide the Bay Street audience the chance to view full-length readings of brand-new plays and musicals that are still in development and haven’t yet been fully produced. It also gives the creators of these plays and musicals the opportunity to gauge what works and what doesn’t before the show is, hopefully, staged in full.

Mr. Vreeland, whose “Ship to Shape” has already benefitted from readings at Bay Street this past September, as well as at Guild Hall in East Hampton in 2014, says that the workshops have been inestimably helpful and empowering for him, not just as a writer but also as a person trying to focus awareness on mental illness. Without the reading process, the story he tells in his one-man play might never have come to this level of success or acceptance.

“I’m so grateful to Bay Street, and Scott Schwartz in particular, for their huge support of me and of this piece,” he says of his autobiographical play, which was recently accepted in the New York International Fringe Festival. “Not only is he an incredible dramaturgical consultant with a great understanding of this kind of work, the feedback I’ve received from literally every reading from people in the audience has helped the story and given me the confidence to tell it.”

Mr. Kaplan, whose “Community” is a comic shocker about race and community theater, says that he’s looking forward to putting on what will be his third reading of the play when it comes to Bay Street. The New Jersey-based writer has already benefited quite a bit from the process, he reports. It was during a reading at Luna Stage in New Jersey that Broadway musical composing legend Stephen Schwartz — the multiple Grammy-, Academy Award- and Tony winner has written the hit musicals “Wicked,” “Godspell” and “Pippin” and is the father of Bay Street’s artistic director — saw the play and liked it so much that he recommended it to his son.

“It’s nice to have Stephen Schwartz on your team,” says Mr. Kaplan. “And I’m beyond thrilled that Scott Schwartz liked the play enough to include it in this wonderful festival.”

Especially for comedy, the playwright acknowledges, the audience reaction is everything.

“I’ll be watching the people watching the stage to see how they react to the twists and turns,” he says. “I need to see where I’ve lost them, where it’s dragging, and hopefully where they are leaning forward and enjoying it; seeing that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”

Also through his participation in the festival, the playwright has been able to connect with Rob Urbinati, who will be directing the reading at Bay Street. As Director of New Play Development at Queens Theatre in the Park, the stage veteran knows well enough how important readings can be to the eventual success of a piece of theater.

“It’s really an integral opportunity to serve the writer,” he says. “This is the time when it’s my job to make sure that the play is heard and seen to its best advantage.”

Mr. Vreeland agrees wholeheartedly. Feedback from his readings has allowed him to strengthen his storytelling, which in turn has enabled him to cast his net wider than he ever imagined.

“This is not something that people usually talk about. It’s a relief to be able to get the message out there in front of the public so others can open up and talk about their struggles, without shame or stigma,” he says. “It has allowed me to tell my story and help chip away at the shame. It’s not just a piece of theater. There are much bigger intentions at play here; a much broader goal.”

No matter what happens as a result of the readings — bringing more attention to the subject matter, providing feedback for revisions, eventual theater pickup, or even the hoped-for Broadway staging — the experiences that the playwrights have in Sag Harbor will help them to shape their work into art, says Mr. Kaplan. And the future of these theatrical offerings is really in the viewers’ hands.

“Theater cannot happen without the audience,” he says. “They are important. What they have to say and their reactions are importing for us as artists. And if how they react to my words helps them to see the world differently, then I’ve done my job.”

The third annual New Works Festival will be held at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor from Friday, April 29, through Sunday, May 1. The free readings, which will be followed by talkbacks with the playwrights, will include: “The Roommate” at 7 p.m. on Friday; “Community” at 3 p.m. on Saturday; “From Ship to Shape” at 8 p.m. on Saturday; and “The Man in the Ceiling” at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Reserve seats online at www.baystreet.org or by calling the Bay Street Theater Box Office at (631) 725-9500.

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