Stage helps off-Broadway hopefuls

Vassar program hosts annual two-month slate

NEW YORK — In the next few weeks, multiple productions will bow Off Broadway that were developed at under-the-radar legit org New York Stage & Film. A pipeline for Gotham theater since 1984, the company’s summer Powerhouse Program at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., hosts an annual two-month slate that includes everything from full productions to development workshops and staged readings.

Notable alums include “Romantic Poetry,” a musical by John Patrick Shanley and Henry Krieger that bows Oct. 28 at Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center space. That’s just two days after “Love Child,” by Daniel Jenkins and Robert Preston, opens at Primary Stages, and a few weeks before Stephen Belber’s “Geometry of Fire” preems at Rattlestick.

Another NYSF vet also is being groomed for Broadway: “Nerds,” a satirical musical about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, is skedded for the Rialto in the spring, with Jerry Zaks directing.

Yet for all its contributions, NYSF, which was co-founded by actor Mark Linn-Baker, producer Leslie Urdang and director-playwright Max Mayer, doesn’t have the profile of such similar outfits as the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center or the Sundance Theater Laboratory.

While, like the O’Neill and Sundance, NYSF bars Gotham and national critics from reviewing any of its full productions, the other two orgs have greater brand impact and possibly are more aggressive about getting their names out there.

“The company was founded partly in response to the recognition that shows weren’t getting enough time to develop before being reviewed,” says a.d. Johanna Pfaelzer.

That protective environment attracts both emerging writers and a flashy list of pros like Steve Martin, Beth Henley, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.

Shanley, who also took “Doubt” and “Defiance” to Poughkeepsie, says New York Stage & Film “provides a crucial moment for a playwright. It’s important to figure out how you’re relating to audiences instead of second-guessing what critics are going to say.”

Cloistering does have a price, however. “Romantic Poetry,” about New Yorkers falling in love, received a full production at New York Stage & Film last summer, yet Manhattan Theater Club is trumpeting its run as a world preem.

Similarly, much of the early press for “Nerds” has mentioned the show’s appearance in the New York Musical Theater Festival and its stint at Philadelphia Theater Company, but omitted its 2004 gestation in the Powerhouse Program.”That’s one of the trade-offs for not having critics come,” Pfaelzer says. “We have to make sure people know we’re here.”

The company does have a steady audience in the Hudson Valley and tends to attract Gotham industry, resulting in roughly 9,000 patrons per season. However, Pfaelzer acknowledges that the recent boom in the local arts community (including high-profile legit seasons at Bard College) has clarified that NYSF needs to enhance its marketing and programming. One tactic has been the recent creation of “off-season” readings, which give the company visibility beyond its summer slate.

New horizons are limited by the company’s $900,000 budget — a relatively large sum that NYSF has stretched to its limit. This year, for example, the company staged two full productions, two workshops of musicals and readings/ workshops of 13 other plays. The “Film” in “New York Stage and Film,” for instance, is limited to readings of screenplays. If coin can be found, though, Pfaelzer says there are plans to create a more aggressive film development series.

But getting funding is tricky. “Our dilemma is that we do this quickly and quietly, and we do it way up in Poughkeepsie,” Pfaelzer says. “So how do I explain that what we do has a real impact?”

One strategy could be filling the roster with nothing but well-known writers (not to mention actors and directors), but Pfaelzer says neophytes will always be welcome.

“I think the most successful season is the one that has people at all levels of their careers working together,” she adds. “All those people have things to teach each other.”