Whether Tis Nobler to Do Stand Up or Improv?

 
By Alison Rooney

Cross-pollination amongst local nonprofits can be a delicate balance.  Most operate within their own orbits, occasionally overlapping, but generally trying to carve out their own loyalties in a community saturated with a larger than usual number of them per capita. However, sometimes linking up can broaden the audiences for both, and now this is literally true for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) and the Philipstown Depot Theatre, as they join together as guest and host, respectively, for the new “In Process” series, conceived by HVSF and performed at the Depot.
       This series of evenings, which take place largely on Friday nights during August, is the brainchild of HVSF Artistic Director Terry O’Brien.  He felt that there was a whole other trove of talents yet unseen amongst the stable of actors who perform the works of Shakespeare year after year under the tent at Boscobel.  Series Curator Valeri Mudek, the Assistant Director of “Troilus and Cressida” and 2007 season HVSF apprentice, feels “this is a way of bringing the local audience closer to these company members.”  By “creating a conversation” between the loyal coterie of regulars and the individuals in the company, the programs will “draw the audience in closer, and the experience of each performer will be deepened.” 
       The evenings will draw upon some of the skill-building for actors which goes on behind the scenes at the HVSF-affiliated New World Shakespeare Lab, which meets on Mondays in the city throughout the year, and which uses things like improv to free up the Bard’s language. “Part of the HVSF aesthetic is to crack open the language and make it real, alive and compelling,” notes Mudek. Also tapped into will be some of the classes taken by the HVSF apprentices each season.
       When O’Brien and Mudek first threw ideas for the series around, “We didn’t quite know what we would do, since this is the first performance series of its kind,” according to Mudek.  “I mentioned to Terry that I had a lot of friends in the city who had scripts—I thought it would be great to do some readings of contemporary work.  There’s such a wealth of talent amongst the actors that we thought it would be nice for audiences to see them in a different light. We thought about what people had to offer.”
       Nancy Swann, the Artistic Director of the Depot Theatre, is excited about working with colleagues from HVSF. “We are very pleased to be collaborating with HVSF this summer with their “In Process” series. I am excited about helping them expand their programming and their community outreach using the Depot Theatre. I had the chance to watch the apprentice production of “Winter’s Tale” last season and thought, ‘What a shame more people didn’t see these talented kids.’ Now the apprentices have a chance to use the Depot to perform their own pieces they have been working on during the season with the company. There are also a lot of versatile actors in the HVSF company that don’t get to show off their other special skills on the main stage. It will be fun to see the regulars sing and act in comic material. I hope this series will attract people who don’t usually come to our little theatre, discover our little jewel of a space and then return to see some of our productions.”
       “In Process” takes flight at 7:15 tonight (Tuesday August 3), with a staged reading of “Last Gas,” a new play by John Cariani, an actor/playwright who got his start with HVSF, went on to work on and off Broadway, and received a Tony nomination.  He maintains close ties with the company and vice versa.  His recent play, “Almost Maine,” was produced off-Broadway a few years ago and has since been performed at regional theaters around the world. This new work will be premiering soon at Maine’s Portland Stages. Being able to get the work up on its stage legs and actually hear it read by actors, is of great help to the writer in seeing how the play ‘plays’ and an equally wonderful opportunity for the actors to dig into a new piece,  playwright alongside, and have their interpretations shade the development of the play.
       This Friday night, August 6 at 8:15 sees a change of pace with “Theater Sports,” a fun evening in which eight members of the company will break up into two teams to do improv games.  These games reflect a lot of the work done at the Shakespeare Lab, and the challenge is to take what is lab-based and therefore not performance-based, and to flip that equation around.  Mudek explains, “In the studio, the work is an exploration for the artist.  Now, on stage, there is a partnership with the audience; the audience is an element.”
       Next up after Theater Sports is Cabaret Night, on August 13 at 8:15.  The first half of this packed evening will feature stand-up comedy routines (part of apprentice training; Mudek says it teaches “guts and comedic timing”), while the second half will consist of songs, spoken word performance and a “sound/theater presentation.” Skits will bridge the halves.
       August 21 brings another reading of a script with the lengthy and gripping title “William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead, a True and Accurate Account of the 1599 Zombie Plague.”  Terry O’Brien received this script, by John Heimbuch, and gave it to Festival regular Jason O’Connell to read, with an enthusiastic response.  The script incorporates a lot of historical information about Shakespeare in history and places these details into a new genre”¦a zombie play.  It takes place on the opening night of “Henry V,” and Shakespeare himself is the lead character, along with, for example, the “guy who plays Falstaff, and a temperamental costume designer called Kate.”  Suggestions are proffered on how Shakespeare might have come up with some of his great lines. The Globe Theatre is now a fortress, and characters who perhaps served as inspiration, or”¦perhaps not, appear in what is, according to Mudek, “a great mix of the zany and clever with a lot of actual history.”
       The series concludes on August 27 with a talk given by Terry O’Brien on what’s important to him in presenting Shakespeare to contemporary audiences.  Members of the company will demonstrate approach, described by Mudek as “visceral, relatable, and enjoyable.” Technical support for the series is shared, with Mudek serving as Stage Manager, and the Depot’s Xena Petkanas running the light booth.  The Rob Bissinger-designed set from the Depot’s just-ended “Thoroughly Modern Millie” will stay in place for these performances.  Mudek praised everyone at the Depot as being “so helpful to the program.”
       Mudek says that they hope to draw audiences from both the HVSF constituency and from the Depot Theatre’s, noting that of course there is much overlap.  A donation of $20 for adults, $10 for seniors or students is requested, and reservations can be made for all shows at 424-3900 or via membership@philipstowndepottheatre.org.  All of the shows are suitable for children of approximately ten and up, with the cabaret night perhaps best for teens and up.


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