Paradise North: New York Stage and Film Creates a Community at Vassar
Coen, Stephanie, American Theatre
In the early 1930s, the Group Theatre began a summer residency program at Green Mansions, a self-described adult camp for "moderns" in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. In exchange for providing entertainment at the camp four nights a week, members of the Group were provided with a place to live and rehearse, away from the pressures of their daily lives.
Some 50 years later, the legacy of Green Mansions was refashioned in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when director Max Mayer - whose mother had worked with Clifford Odets, and so was brought up on Group Theatre folklore - set off with two colleagues, actor Mark Linn-Baker and producer Leslie Urdang, to find their own theatrical utopia. The 1984 collective, however, settled not in a summer camp (or on those other time-honored theatrical retreats, a farm or a barn), but landed instead on the campus of Vassar College. Vassar, which has its own fairly mythic performance traditions - including an experimental theatre program run by Hallie Flanagan in the early '30s - was interested in starting a summer program for students...and the rest, as they say, is history.
Twelve years on, the New York Stage and Film Company has become a haven for artists that begs comparisons not only to the Group, but also to the heady early days of Joseph Papp's Public Theater and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival under Robert Woodruff. Mayer, Linn-Baker and Urdang set out to create a protected environment for the creation of new work by both new and established writers. And, in what is clearly a huge company joke, they achieved it while coaxing those writers (and actors, directors and designers), many of them accustomed to star treatment, to stay in the Vassar dorms - in dark, hot, tiny rooms, the kind people move off-campus to get away from.
"Unique and special - those adjectives are so overused, but this company earns it," says Michael Wilson, who directed both a mainstage production and reading during Stage and Film's 1996 season. "That's why people go back time and time again, because it's certainly not the money. It's the work. You feel appreciated there."
"People feel like they can work and fail," says producer Peter Manning. "I know it sounds so boring, because everyone says that, but it's true." Manning was brought on as the company's day-to-day producer three years ago when the founders, who had been running Stage and Film while maintaining independent careers - Mayer as a director and writer, Urdang as a producer, and Linn-Baker as a steadily employed actor (TV's Perfect Strangers, the current Broadway revival of Forum) - decided it was time to expand the company beyond their own capabilities.
"It's a place where artists can just do what they want to do," says Urdang, who has produced such authors as John Patrick Shanley (six full productions or readings, including such early works as Savage in Limbo and the dreamer examines his pillow), Jon Robin Baitz (five full productions or readings, including A Fair Country and the play's earlier incarnation as Dutch Landscape), Beth Henley (three full productions), Jay Presson Allen (the premiere of Tru with Robert Morse), several plays by Canadian writer George F. Walker, and a host of others. "There's no bureaucracy, really; it's just a place with enormous resources and people."
"We have to reestablish that every year, because the natural order is to create a bureaucracy, and what Vassar thrives on is controlled chaos," Mayer offers. "Leslie would call it flexibility. I'm happier with chaos." As Manning puts it, "It's about keeping an infrastructure that is really lean and mean, and figuring out how to do that with as much grace and panache as possible."
Stage and Film's partnership with Vassar, which involves both shared resources and a joint deficit, encompasses the theatre's annual summer residency on campus and its more intermittently run film component. …