Playwrights Lab maps course

Friday June 8, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON - Berkshire Playwrights Lab intends to lift the curtain on fully mounted productions of new plays within the next five years. And by next season, founder and co-artistic director Jim Frangione said, the Lab will stage a workshop production of at least one play.

"That was kind of our fiveyear plan," said Frangione. "To develop the Lab and brand and develop the organization develop our audience and constituents and funders so we can get to the point we can start workshopping productions."

For its fifth season, which begins Saturday evening at 7:30 with a multimedia fundraising gala at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, the Lab will present four staged readings at the Mahaiwe on July 11 and 23, and Aug. 8 and 22.

In addition, the Lab is continuing its collaboration with the New York University Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program's Berkshire Musical Theatre Lab which taps NYU Tisch School for the Arts alumni to work on songs for musicals- in- development. Participants in this year's Berkshire Musical Theatre Lab will present their work to the public June 24 at 2 p.m. at the Bard College at Simon's Rock Daniel Arts Center.

Three songs will be part of Saturday evening's program.

The gala will also include five new short plays including one by David Mamet, whose new work has been a part of several BPL seasons.

The evening's readings will feature actors Elizabeth Franz, Treat Williams and Jay Thomas among others.

Also on the bill is the premiere of a short film, "Food For Thought," written and directed by BPL co- artistic director Joe Cacaci and starring Minnie Driver, Tony Shalhoub and Berkshire County- based actress Meeghan Holoway.

" We wanted to offer our audience something different to grab a hold of this season," said Frangione of this year's multi-media theme.

BPL was founded in 2007 by Frangione, and fellow actor/ directors Bob Jaffee, Matthew Penn and Joe Cacaci. It is the only theater in the Berkshires entirely dedicated to the development of new plays by both established and emerging writers.

Kate Wenner's first play, " Make Sure It's Me," was read during the Lab's 2010 season.

" The huge difference between BPL and other opportunities for new plays is that by 'reading' they mean something so fully imagined and staged and cast with such superior actors that you get the extraordinary opportunity to see what your play can do - and what it needs," she said.

Wenner said she learned her play needed more dramatic tension, which meant an extensive re- write following its initial reading at the lab. But she said it was hard work that paid off.

"Make Sure It's Me," a play set in a university brain trauma clinic for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, was read at the " Made in the Berkshires" festival last fall, then it was selected for Chicago's Stage Left Theatre new play festival. In September it will be given its first full production at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

"None of this would have happened without BPL's very unusual process of getting a new play up on its feet," she said.

Over the past five summers, the Lab has presented as many as six staged readings at the Mahaiwe during its season, free of charge to the public. Frangione estimated each of those new play readings costs the Lab approximately $10,000.

This year, there will be only four readings.

"We are scaling back a little bit but only because we are just trying to focus on how to move the organization forward," Frangione explained.

"And we are trying to use the money the best way we possibly can."

To help facilitate its plans for growth and cut costs, Frangione said the Lab is negotiating use of a smaller venue in Great Barrington to host its readings and the Musical Theater Lab performances.

The Lab now has a yearround presence in Great Barrington, an office for its paid staff of three people - a general manager, publicist, and production stage manager - as well as a team of interns.

The Lab's four co- artistic directors do not draw a salary. The organization is funded primarily through its board of directors and some individual donations. In addition to that, the Lab will be appealing to institutional and federal funding sources, Frangione said.

Frangione also said the Lab is working hard to keep the reading series free to the public and it will remain as such this season. However, there will be a $10 suggested donation at the door.

"There are a lot of debates going on in the Lab about how to move it forward," said Frangione. "When the readings cost us $10,000 each to produce, charging no admission is hard. So we are trying to figure it out as we go along."

This is the second year that the Playwright's Lab will be working with the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Sarah Schlesinger, chair of the graduate program, says this collaboration is an important bridge.

"I think unless more theaters that are primarily straight play theaters become interested in doing musicals it will be very difficult for musicals to find ... access through the pipe line," she said.

Schlesinger explained the Musical Theatre Lab taps NYU alumni and affords them an opportunity to get their new songs in front of an audience.

Schlesinger, who has a home in Egremont, began bringing some NYU musical theater alumni to the Berkshires for informal residencies three years ago.

Both she and Frangione said they hope to present readings of complete musicals, not just individual songs, to Berkshire Playwright Lab audiences in coming years.

" We think the Berkshires audiences so far really (have) enjoyed seeing this part of the process of new work," Frangione said.

What: Berkshire Playwrights Lab Multimedia Gala Benefit

When: Saturday 7:30 p.m.

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Tickets: $27-$52 (performance only); $202 (performance and post-show reception with artists)

How: (413) 528-0100


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