N.Y. Stage and Film's Summer Gig the Lively Company Incubates New Plays on the Campus of Vassar College, Away from Critics

By Tony Vellela, | The Christian Science Monitor, August 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

N.Y. Stage and Film's Summer Gig the Lively Company Incubates New Plays on the Campus of Vassar College, Away from Critics


Tony Vellela,, The Christian Science Monitor


JADED vacationers looking to explore within a day's drive of New York are heading north to the Hudson Valley. In Hyde Park, after revisiting history at the FDR house, they tour the Culinary Institute of America, where many of the world's best chefs are trained, and sample the results at three restaurants. They cruise the Hudson on a riverboat, enjoy hearty Old English fare at Dickens's Pub and Tea Garden, and cozy up at the Veranda House.

And they sample new plays at the Powerhouse Theatre. This innovative project, nestled on the pastoral Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., has played host to a wide range of new works for the last 10 years, attracting playwrights Jay Presson Allen, George F. Walker, John Patrick Shanley, and Jon Robin Baitz; actors Olympia Dukakis, Mary McDonnell, David Straitharn, John Turturro, Estelle Parsons, Carol Kane, and Peter Frechette; and thousands of eager theatergoers.

This ambitious summer program is crafted by Manhattan-based New York Stage and Film and headed by producer Leslie Urdang, writer-director Max Mayer, and actor-director Mark Linn-Baker. "The idea was always to have a company, not just to get out of New York," says Ms. Urdang, seated with Mr. Mayer on a large sofa in the sprawling dormitory common room at Vassar. "To bring a group of artists together, and allow the thing that happens that you can never define or plan; that's the most rewarding aspect."

Starting with virtually no budget in 1984, they mustered resources, contacts, and financial support from friends. "In the tradition of the Group Theatre," Mayer explains, "we went out looking for a farm and found out that farms are a lot more expensive than they were in the mid-'30s." (The influential Group Theatre was started in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. It had a revolutionary impact on the training of American actors.)

Then somebody suggested they look at colleges. Through a friend, Urdang and company were led to Vassar, which was already planning a summer dramatics program. Joining forces, the first season was born.

This year, to celebrate their 10th anniversary and the opening of a second performing space, they invited Mr. Shanley back to premiere "The Fool and Her Fortune," starring Joel Grey and Dana Ivey, and Beth Henley to premiere "Revelers."

"Wasp," and "Romeo and Juliet at Antioch," written by comedian Steve Martin, as well as David Marshall Grant's "Snakebit" and Mayer's "Hand to Hand" rounded out the bill in the two theaters. But one-acts, staged readings, free outdoor Shakespeare, and special one-night presentations bolstered the lineup, giving visitors dozens of choices.

To guarantee a fresh, provocative series of events, Urdang points out, "we throw it all up in the air every year. The shape of the season is determined by what comes in to us. It might be three plays, or it might be 12 workshops. One year we did 15 projects," she adds.

The location lends itself to this free-flowing approach. …

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