“STS has one of the few proscenium theaters in this area,” points out Michael Koegel, recently named artistic director of the STS Playhouse in Phoenicia. “In Woodstock, companies are doing theater in the Town Hall or in the director’s living room, and we have this underutilized proscenium theater that we own. We have dressing rooms, costume storage — a real theater that we need to be taking advantage of in a much bigger way.”
Koegel hopes to draw from the pool of New York City theater people residing in the Catskills as a new set of board members strives to revitalize the 36-year-old Shandaken Theatrical Society. He acknowledges that a balancing act will be required to attract city-educated audiences with modern, edgy works — like Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss — while satisfying long-time customers with better-known plays such as The Sunshine Boys and Grease!
Known to many residents as the proprietor of Mama’s Boy Cafe and Market in Phoenicia, Koegel has an array of theater credentials, from his Masters of Fine Arts in directing from the University of Pittsburgh to almost two decades of producing television for Nickelodeon and PBS, while directing off-Broadway on the side.
He describes going to see Ingmar Bergman’s Hamlet in Swedish at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the night before his Nickelodeon interview. “After seeing that, I didn’t want to go to the interview,” he recalls. “But I ended up getting the job. I thought I’d give myself six months to make enough money to get settled, then quit and do theater. Two months later they were flying me to L.A., and then around the world, to do casting. When I flew to London, I got picked up in a Jaguar and taken to an insanely expensive hotel. I couldn’t give that up.”
After a while, he began directing small plays in small venues, as well as writing some one-acts, but he couldn’t keep up a high-pressure job and a life in theater at the same time. In 2002, ready for a change, he tried teaching at the University of Buffalo while working in regional theater, but he didn’t like Buffalo. Back he went to TV in New York City.
“If you go to any other city for vacation or work, you end up thinking, ‘This is no New York City — I couldn’t live here,’” notes Koegel. “The only way to get out of New York with any sanity was to go to place that’s so different, I couldn’t possibly compare it to Manhattan. So I chose Phoenicia. I opened up a coffee shop. Lo and behold, there was a theater across the street.”
Amy Wallace was artistic director of the Playhouse at the time, and Koegel admired her work. When she and her family relocated last year, the position was left vacant. “There was no momentum,” says Koegel. “They only managed to put up one show in a year. It was something I always wanted to do, so I offered my services as artistic director.”
Koegel has appeared in several STS plays over the past two years, but he has always preferred directing to acting. “I have kind of a bossy personality,” he says. “Actors are very into their craft of transforming themselves into someone else. Maybe I don’t have the attention span for acting. Directors have more of an artistic vision of an entire production, putting all these aspects together and stewarding the whole thing.”
Originally created as an outlet for amateur thespians, STS is faced with an audience increasingly composed of transplants from the city, second-homeowners, and vacationers, who have more sophisticated tastes than traditional community theater attendees. Koegel wants to provide fare that will pay the bills and enhance the reputation of the Playhouse by attracting those audiences. But he doesn’t want to alienate the life-long residents who have formed the theater’s base for decades, both as actors and performers.
“We’re planning a theater season that will be accessible to people but won’t be chestnuts like Ten Little Indians or Arsenic and Old Lace,” says Koegel. “There’s nothing wrong with those shows, but there’s so much out there that can be done. We want to make sure that what we’re doing is a little bit challenging to the audience.”
Thus, Koegel will be directing Prelude to a Kiss, a play that ran in Manhattan in the 1990s with Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker. “It has a modern fantasy element, and some of the language is a little ‘adult’,” notes Koegel. The crowd-pleasing comedy The Sunshine Boys will be next, directed by Linda Burkhardt. Much as Koegel would like to do an over-the-top rocker musical like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the show selected for next spring is the more community-oriented Grease!, with lots of parts for local teens.
With a recent turnover in membership, the board of directors has a number of people with professional theater experience, including newly elected board president Michael Mills. “He’s really gotten things organized,” says Koegel, “doling out responsibilities to board members.” Koegel hopes to leverage board skills to help bring quality and polish to the forthcoming shows.
In late August, professional guitarist and lutenist Carver Blanchard organized a variety show at the Playhouse, an event that is planned to recur every two months and eventually once a month, entitled “Phoenicia Saturday Night.” Before the performance, Koegel overheard two out-of-towners debating whether to buy tickets to what they assumed would be a joke of an event at a hick theater. They ended up staying through the whole show and applauding enthusiastically, pleasantly surprised by the talent Blanchard had assembled.
“There’s a ton of talented theater professionals in this community who don’t know about us or have dismissed us as a crazy-ass little community theater,” says Koegel. “I want to reach out to those people and let them know this is a place that wants to work with them on a lot of different levels — acting, directing, pitching a show of their own, renting our space to produce their own show.”
He adds that the theater “is currently working with a handful of Equity actors, and we’re working on establishing an ongoing relationship with Equity.”