Powerhouse Theater’s free Readings Festival at Vassar

Photo of the audience on its feet in the 145-seat Powerhouse Theater, which hosts the season's mainstage shows, its most fully-produced pieces, by Dixie Sheridan

Seeing a play performed onstage in its most complete and polished form is a great joy. But do you ever wonder what it’s like to be in the thick of it, weaving the magic of theater as part of the ensemble early in the production, teasing out the work’s greatest potential and tweaking its weaknesses? If you find that idea even more exciting than being passively entertained by the finished product, then you’ll surely be intrigued by the Readings Festivals that take place twice each summer at Vassar & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater.

The whole concept behind Powerhouse is to present new plays and musicals in development through “an eight-week residency on the Vassar campus, during which more than 250 professional artists and 40 apprentices live and work together to create new theater works.” Each summer Powerhouse pulls in the crowds with four fully staged productions, two of them dramas and two musicals. You’ll read more about those offerings in the pages of Alm@nac in the weeks to come. But the real heart, soul and guts of the program are to be found in the Readings Festivals. You won’t see much of the glossy finishing touches of scenery, props and costumes, but you’ll be there to experience the changes that make a play better, right as they happen, and observe the learning process of actors and directors honing their craft.

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The first of the summer 2012 Readings Festivals begins next Friday, June 22 and runs through Sunday, June 24. The first offering, Good Bread Alley by April Yvette Thompson, who wrote Liberty City and performed in Phoebe in Wonderland and The Accidental Husband, begins at 8 p.m. on Friday. The title refers to a stretch of I-95 in the predominantly black Overtown neighborhood of Miami that lies within smelling distance of a famed bakery. The 3 p.m. Saturday matinée belongs to a new screenplay-in-progress, Wendy and the Lost Boys by Jon Robin Baitz, who was nominated for a Tony for authoring Other Desert Cities and a Pulitzer for A Fair Country, and Michael Hoffman, director of One Fine Day, Soapdish and The Last Station. Whether it’s merely a coincidence that this script shares its title with Julie Salamon’s 2011 biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein is a mystery that Powerhouse has yet to reveal.

The curtain goes up at 8 p.m. on Saturday for Big Sky by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, who was nominated for a Pulitzer for her post-9/11 drama Omnium Gatherum and also developed The Argument in a previous Powerhouse season. Sunday’s offerings are a 2 p.m. matinée of 22 Seconds by Michele Lowe, author of String of Pearls, Inana and Victoria Musica, and a 5 p.m. performance of For Worse by Deborah Rennard, an actress best-known for her roles as J. R. Ewing’s secretary in Dallas and Dr. Esther Pearson in Due South.

Among the cast members announced so far for Powerhouse’s Readings Festival 1 are Tim Daly (Wings, Private Practice), Dana Delany (Body of Proof, Desperate Housewives, China Beach), Seth Gilliam (The Wire, Oz), Tony-winner La Chanze (The Color Purple, Dreamgirls) and Jon Tenney (The Closer, Brothers and Sisters, The Heiress).

Best of all, admission to the Readings Festival is free. But seating in the intimate Susan Stein Shiva Theater is very limited, so advance reservations are strongly recommended. Purchase of a full Powerhouse subscription gives priority access to the Readings reservations prior to the general public, through June 17. Beginning June 19, anyone can make a reservation by calling the box office at (845) 437-5599. The Theater opens 15 minutes before curtain and there will be no late seating.

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