hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts and Culture June 2015


At Dorset festival, the (new) play’s the thing


Contributing writer


Photo courtesy Dorset Theatre Festival

Several thousand years ago in southern Greece, the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus became known for its fine acoustics – a place where a whisper on stage could be heard from the top row of the proscenium.

Today, tour guides to Epidaurus are to known scatter their charges throughout the theater and demonstrate the acoustics by striking matches from the stage, a sound audible to all.

In this same vein, there is a light being struck today at Dorset Theatre Festival, and the festival’s artistic and executive director, Dina Janis, wants it to be heard ‘round the theater world. The flame in this case is the local festival’s commitment to development of new plays.
“While the classics are enduring, the art of theater, really of any creative endeavor, is in its new blood,” Janis explained. “In creating an incubator for new work from fresh faces, we feel like we’re nurturing an act of love to its birth on stage.”

The result is invigorating for the artists and also helps to grow audiences over the long term, she added.

The Dorset festival’s focus on new works appears to be drawing attention and financial support. In an industry where every dollar, particularly in smaller regional theaters, is hotly contested, the festival recently was awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts specifically to enhance its new play development program.

Janis said the festival has been working closely over the past year with development consultant Katherine Jaeger-Thomas to find funding to allow it to increase its capacity, and the additional money will help with staffing specifically to support the development of new plays.
“This important work with Katherine has allowed us, for the first time, to approach important national funding sources,” Janis said. “Being a small, rural, regional theater makes it difficult sometimes, so this is a crucial accomplishment.”

Multi-pronged commitment
Dorset Theatre Festival’s new play development program has several elements. One is premiering new plays, such as the company’s staging in recent years of “The Novelist,” by Pulitzer winner Theresa Rebeck, “The Whore and Mr. Moore,” by Pulitzer winner Michael Cristofer, and “Out of the City,” by the writer and actor Leslie Ayvazian.

Another element is the festival’s new play-reading series, which Janis said is held three times a year.

“These are top national writers, and we bring them to our farmhouse retreat,” Janis said. “They remain in residence -- the director, actors and our in-house dramaturgical staff. It all comes together for them at the playhouse in a public reading.”

Then there’s the Jean E. Miller Young Playwrights Competition and Residency Program. It’s overseen by playwright Sherry Kramer and run on a day-to-day basis by Ashley Connell, the festival’s artistic associate and new play coordinator.

“We’re in residence in 10 or more regional middle schools and high schools,” Connell said. “Students submit original short plays. They’re then judged by a panel of professional playwrights. Winners earn a cash award, and their plays are presented with Bennington College drama majors, right here at Dorset Playhouse, in an annual public performance.”

But perhaps the heart and soul of Dorset Theatre Festival’s emphasis on new plays is the Theresa Rebeck/Lark New Play Development Retreat, which the festival has hosted every year since Janis came aboard. For this writers’ sanctuary, selected playwrights are vetted in advance and invited to spend a full week in Dorset Hollow at the festival resident playwright Rebeck’s writing compound.

“They spend a week writing each day, gathering at 4 p.m. for readings of new pages, and then spending the evening making dinner and talking into the wee hours about the new work,” Connell said. “It’s a very stimulating and cultivating environment.”


Top talent and feedback
In recent years, Dorset also has attracted several big names from Hollywood for lead roles in its new plays, something seen more regularly in the Berkshires at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Among these were veteran TV and film actor Judd Hirsch, who once found sitcom stardom playing Big Apple cabby Alex Rieger in “Taxi.” He came to Vermont several years ago pursuing his first love, the stage, and played in Cristofer’s “The Whore and Mr. Moore.”

“Dorset was the best place to try this wonderfully strange comedy by Michael, who’s one of our most important playwrights, film writers and actors,” Hirsch said from his home in New York. “We knew the audiences at Dorset had a good history of expecting new plays and talented Broadway and off-Broadway actors. So this turned out to be the perfect place for me to play -- and for the play to get its most professional chance.”

Hirsch said the intense preparation for the premiere of Cristofer’s work was helped, and really made possible, by the “very astute and professional technical management that Dorset is capable off offering.”

Dorset also provided proof in the interest of the audience, he said, explaining: “We broke the house attendance record!”

Another nationally known TV actor, Tim Daly of “Wings” sitcom fame, now has two Dorset Theatre Festival credits to his name, one being Rebeck’s new play, “The Scene.”

“The first thing anyone must consider regarding Dorset is that Dina is a real pro,” Daly said in an interview from Los Angeles. “This company may be out in rural Vermont, but everything about it is first class, as good as you’d find anywhere. Dina’s had a very long and interesting career at the top levels, and when you come to act at Dorset, you feel it right away.”

Daly said one of the great advantages for an actor in a new play at Dorset is that the festival is removed from the commercial demands and distractions of New York City and Los Angeles. The absence of the typical marketplace pressures makes a big difference in the creative process for playwrights, actors and crew, he explained.

“It’s getting right back to the grass roots of the stage,” Daly said. “And there’s no pretension. I’ve seen Broadway audiences almost sleep through performances with The New York Times under their arms and then jump up at the final curtain in a standing ovation. It’s almost like they take their cue from what’s written in the Times. At Dorset, you can feel the purity of the audience response. It’s worth everything.”

Considering the difference between rural and urban audiences, Janis agreed that context – such as more direct knowledge of a certain playwright or actor – affects audience responses. And the audience reaction, she said, influences how a playwright changes and rewrites the script.
“The feedback for the writers is so direct, because people talk about the play itself: which characters spoke to them, what wasn’t clear, what the play made them think about,” Janis said. “The perspective of folks in a rural area on plays that look at urban issues can be illuminating.”
But she also emphasized that this demonstrates how “similar the human condition is, regardless of its landscape.”


Playwrights’ agony and ecstasy
Rogelio Martinez, a native Cuban who came to the United States in the Mariel boatlift, spent a residency at Dorset working on a play titled “Born in East Berlin.” With time away from all of his responsibilities except his writing, he said Dorset helped him figure out what to do with one of the play’s main characters.

“It also put me in a room with other writers, who I found both helpful and inspiring,” Martinez said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than to see a play grow right in front of you, even if the play is not your own. Having someone waiting for your writing is one of the more inspiring things a writer can feel. When is someone actually eagerly waiting to hear your play? It rarely happens, but it was a daily occurrence during my time at the residency.”

Vic Shuttee of Texas spent his time at Dorset working on a western-set comedy. He said having access to a group of theater professionals with a wide variety of expertise was a rare opportunity in getting multiple perspectives on his work.

“One man was a Broadway actor, and another was a book publisher, another a big-time philosopher, another a major-league playwright,” Shuttee said. “They all had such unique insights for offering advice, praise and criticism. It’s the kind of feedback you can’t pay enough for. Just to be a fly on the wall was a thrill.”

Elena Hartwell, a playwright and mystery novelist from Washington state whose play “A Strange Disappearance of Bees” has received favorable reviews in its few productions – including at Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington -- said even such moderate success doesn’t guarantee a particular work will continue to be performed.

“Not all writing is created equal,” Hartwell said.

Although writers of novels or nonfiction can complete their works without outside help, she said, playwrights depend on lots of other talented people to make their works a reality.

“A playwright’s work can’t be completed until actors perform the words in a space in front of an audience,” she explained. “A play requires other people to be complete.”

Hartwell stressed that playwrights with little or no production history may struggle to find the talent who can help them “plumb the depths of any given play.” Even if others get together and read the work out loud, it’s not the same as hearing it from experienced actors guided by a seasoned director.

And speaking perhaps for all playwrights waiting to hear dreamy echoes of their new plays at Epidaurus, Hartwell said Dorset’s retreat is particularly important to allowing new plays to take shape and come alive.

“It’s only through opportunities like Dorset’s that new plays can come fully into fruition -- to grace our stages and enrich our lives,” she said.


For more information about Dorset Theatre Festival’s new play development programs, visit www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.