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


Arts & Culture July 2016


Summer stage troupe focuses on the fresh

Adirondack Theatre Festival opens 22nd season devoted to new works


Ken Farrell and Kate Braun play Irv and Peg in last year’s production of “Kalamazoo” at Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls. This year’s festival runs through mid-August and features five new plays. Courtesy photo/Jim McLaughlinBy TELLY HALKIAS
Contributing Writer



Ken Farrell and Kate Braun play Irv and Peg in last year’s production of “Kalamazoo” at Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls. This year’s festival runs through mid-August and features five new plays. Courtesy photo/Jim McLaughlin

Chad Rabinovitz is a crusader, a theater man who has devoted his professional life to navigating one of the hardest roads in the industry: developing new plays.

When he was looking for a place to call his home base, from which to launch campaigns on behalf this creative cause, Adirondack Theatre Festival was a perfect fit.
In the world of theater production, the festival, also known by its initials ATF, stands with very few, a regional arts outpost on the road to Canada along Interstate 87, yet seemingly off the beaten path.

Clearly, though, it’s close enough to New York City and Broadway, the heart of the American theater world, to not feel squeamish about the risk of commitment to new plays.

Rabinovitz came to Glens Falls two years ago from Indiana and the Bloomington Playwrights Project – another venue dedicated solely to new play production.

He currently holds the post of producing artistic director both at the Adirondack festival and at Bloomington, making him the only theater professional in the country holding two such positions dedicated to new plays simultaneously.

“We certainly are unique here at Adirondack Theatre Festival,” Rabinovitz laughed last month as the festival’s first play of the 2016 season, “Island Song,” went into “tech,” or the technical preparation phase.

One after another, cast and crew interrupted Rabinovitz to ask him questions as he pondered his next answer.

“Putting on a new play is very dynamic,” he said. “The good thing about ATF is that we are, and have been, a known product to our local area and visiting patrons.”

Many people in the industry, Rabinovitz continued, marvel at how the Adirondack festival is able to survive financially without recycling the latest popular shows coming out of Broadway or “putting on the obligatory run of Agatha Christie or ‘My Fair Lady.’

“But we seem to be giving our audiences something they really enjoy,” he added.


Growing attendance
Bridget Dunigan, who has just one month on the ground as the festival’s new managing director, said the attendance statistics support Rabinovitz’s theory.

Dunigan said that in 2015, Rabinovitz’s first season at the helm, attendance, which was already healthy, rose sharply. She said that seems to show that “if you do new play development right, the energy from it is near contagious.”

“I think if you asked any theater company in the country if they would like an appreciable increase in attendance in just one season, they would sign up for that,” Dunigan said. “That we did that here with new plays and other initiatives means it can be done, if we do our homework and stay true to our mission.”

That mission was first stated 22 years ago by Adirondack Theatre Festival’s founders, a group of young, aspiring stage aficionados led by three people who have stayed involved to this day: David King, Martha Banta and David Turner.

At the time, Rabinovitz noted, the founders were cautioned to stay away from new plays in the name of keeping steady revenues.

“We’re still here, though, right?” he asked.

It’s clear there’s a charm surrounding the festival, one that heralds back to those early years and that Rabinovitz and various of the founders wear proudly on their sleeves.

In 1995, the company’s first performance season took place at the Lake George RV Park. The very next summer, the festival’s founders happened upon the deserted old Woolworth’s store on Glen Street in downtown Glens Falls.

So in 1996, the operation moved there, with the long-term dream of turning the space into a true performance venue. Nearly two decades later, in 2004, the vision became reality with the completions of renovations to what is now the Charles R. Wood Theater, which many see as a key element in the ongoing downtown revival in Glens Falls.

The beat goes on
This season, Adirondack Theatre Festival has already experienced a successful kickoff with the musical “Island Song” (June 21-July 2) by Sam Carner, Derek Gregor, and Marlo Hunter.

In it, the fast life of New York City engrosses five young people. They seek what every aspiring human would want: love, professional success, and establishing distinct personal identities in a metropolis where everyone and everything seems interconnected.

The second production of the season is “Stuart Little” (July 5-21), written by Joseph Robinette.
The story parallels the classic 1945 children’s story of the same name. It chronicles the struggles and adventures of a very human-like mouse in New York City. Stuart becomes embroiled in high jinks after the disappearance of Margalo, a bird who is also his closest buddy.

“Stuart Little” is part of the Adirondack festival’s recently instituted “PB&J Café,” an initiative that aims to offer interactive children’s theater each year.

“Last season, we not only sold out the shows for children, but we sold them out quickly,” Rabinovitz said. “Many insiders speak to children’s theater being about building future audiences, but in reality, it’s just plain fun and entertaining -- and now a very strong draw for us.”

The PB&J Café will give youth audiences the chance to order a meal from characters in the play, share in an artistic activity, eat during the show, and leave with actor autographs.

Next up in the season is “A Comedy of Manors” (July 12-22) by Zoe Samuel. This is a classic British-style period-piece farce that has been described as a combination of the hit PBS series “Downton Abbey” and the raucous stage comedy “Noises Off.”

The story’s catalyst is the death of the Earl of Whitelingham. His estate is in tremendous debt, so his survivors try to make up for it through illegal means involving the black market. The ensuing fun and utter confusion among the characters starts there and turns into a roller-coaster ride of the absurd.

Samuel, the playwright, said the ability to develop such an intricate, frenzied comedy is directly tied to Adirondack Theatre Festival’s willingness to consider new works – and then support them to the hilt.

“This is the first production of a modern farce which has to be timed to perfection, after the style of ‘Noises Off,’” Samuel said, adding that Adirondack Theatre Festival helped to assemble a great cast that has added “further layers of zaniness” in rehearsals.

As a writer, Samuel said, this enhanced her ability to “dial the crazy up to 11 and know they will elevate it even further and make it look easy.”


Why new plays matter
The season, which also is peppered with short one- to three-day runs of other works, will have as its final long production “Home” (July 28-Aug. 5) by Christy Hall and Alan Scott.

In this musical, Katherine returns to the childhood home and sickly mother in Texas she had escaped almost a decade earlier. But then, her memory takes over and she begins seeing the recollections, as real as ever. The contrast of growing up and being a parent thrusts many moral and human questions to the forefront.

Dunigan, the managing director, said “Home” is both poignant and witty and that “there’s definitely a buzz surrounding ‘Home’ throughout the entire company. It’s just that kind of show. It will make people laugh and cry.”

Hall said she spent six years writing the musical and three years as an Adirondack Theatre Festival prospect. The timing was finally right for its first production, she added.

“You can have enormous talent coupled with steadfast determination,” Hall said. “But without opportunity, your words will simply continue to gather dust on your laptop.”

She added that the 22nd season of the Adirondack festival “just happened to be one of those ‘right time, right place’ moments when the stars finally aligned” for “Home.”

As one of ATF’s latest beneficiaries, Hall reflected on the theater company’s ability to survive while defying industry logic for so long.

She said she understands why so many organizations don’t take the route of new play development. But she added that even modest movement in this direction would benefit the arts as a whole.

“If every single theater in the United States did even just one new work per season, it would enormously change the landscape and the general state of the American theater,” Hall said.
In addition to giving writers more support and opportunity, she explained, it would begin “to shape audiences in a very exciting way.”

The result, Hall concluded, would be theatrical communities that create a culture in which audiences not only tolerate new work but are excited and inspired by it.
“Business and art so rarely go hand in hand,” Hall said. “My hope is that ATF might become the model” for other theater companies to follow.

Adirondack Theatre Festival is located at the Charles R. Wood Theater at 207 Glen St. in Glens Falls. For tickets and information, visit www.atfestival.org or call (518) 480-4878.