TheatreWorks’ New Works Initiative – Part 1: History

TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley is a nationally acclaimed and award-winning theatre company founded in 1970 in Palo Alto, California by Artistic Director Robert Kelley who continues to be its heart and soul with the crucial assistance of Managing Director Phil Santora.  In addition to a full subscriber series (currently eight shows a year, almost always including world and regional premieres and several musicals), TheatreWorks has one of the most significant New Works Festivals in the country with a serious mission and track record in finding, nurturing, and developing new work for the stage.

photo by Tracy Martin

photo by Tracy Martin

With its 64th world premiere The Loudest Man on Earth now in rehearsal  and scheduled to open July 13, 2013 (this “intelligent and profound love story” was a huge audience favorite in last summer’s festival), and its twelfth annual New Works Festival set for August,  this seems like a good time to look at the distinguished contribution TheatreWorks has made and its continuing impact on the national process of how new plays and musicals are created, developed and brought to the American stage.

Although new work has been part of the fabric of TheatreWork’s history since inception (its very first staged show, Popcorn, was a world premiere musical), Artistic Director Robert Kelley marks the beginning of the TheatreWorks New Works Initiative as the year 2000.  In that year, TheatreWorks formalized its mission and commitment to new works by Board resolution and the world premiere of the musical Everything’s Ducky  with book by Bill Russell and Jeffrey Hatcher,  music by Henry Krieger, and lyrics by Bill Russell.  That show went on to win the San Francisco Bay Area’s Will Glickman Award for Best New Play in the Bay Area.  Not a bad start for a new initiative.

Kent Nicholson (now the Director of Musical Theatre for Playwrights Horizons in New York) was hired as the first Director of New Works in 2001 and planning began with an original goal of delivering a producible new work to the TheatreWorks mainstage within five years.  It didn’t take that long:  instead, the very first New Works Festival in 2002 included Memphis and My Antonia, both of which were subsequently TheatreWorks mainstage premieres  (and ultimately Memphis went on to win the Tony award for Best Musical on Broadway). memphis poster

In addition to being one of the most established New Works Festivals in the country,  there are two key distinctions which mark TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival:  First, it differs from all but a very few in that musicals are actively sought (there are usually 2 or 3 out of the 5 or 6 total pieces chosen each year) — which is a true rarity at the developmental stage.  The second significant difference is, because the Festival is on a multi-week schedule, the creative teams are granted the uncommon (perhaps unique) experience of being able to see an audience response and have an immediate chance to react to that response and test out their tweaks and new directions on a new audience just days later in a subsequent reading.

Writers, composers and others artists love working on new shows at TheatreWorks.  Renowned American musical theatre lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz said:  “I consider TheatreWorks one of the best theatres in the country for producing new works.”   One of my favorites quotes comes from Broadway luminary Andrew Lippa, who said “Musicals need development. TheatreWorks’  New Works Festival is a high-speed, high octane and high-inducing experience.”

TheatreWorks also has a well-trained and sophisticated new works audience.  After a dozen years of seeing the New Works Festival in one form or another TheatreWorks’ patrons know (and love) what’s in store from a staged reading and bring their imaginations with them and the appropriate level of expectations for a work at that stage of development.  Written comments are solicited from the audience and, with only rare exceptions, are supportive, constructive and well-meaning, responsive to the tailored questions specifically posed by the creative teams.

Describing the festival in 2011, Robert Hurwitt said “TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival is both an important incubator of new plays and musicals and a concentrated 15-day interactive lesson in how plays are made for an increasingly engaged and loyal audience.”

logo art by Ev Shiro

art by
Ev Shiro

The audiences feel a sense of pride and participation when some of the work comes back in full productions in later years on TheatreWorks’ stage or (since TheatreWorks can’t do every new work, even the great ones) those of other professional theatre companies.  (Two of my favorites, Girlfriend  by Todd Almond based on music by Matthew Sweet and How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain were picked up by Berkeley Rep and have gone on to have other productions in regional theatres around the country.)   In a video about TheatreWorks’ New Works Initiative, composer David Kirshenbaum (Summer of ’42) said: “It’s sort of unique:  There are a lot of theatres that do new works and create relationships with writers, but there aren’t a lot that seem to have the enthusiasm of the community that this one does.”

2012 Reading of  "Being Earnest"

2012 Reading of
“Being Earnest”

In addition to the New Works Festival, TheatreWorks commissions works and provides time, space and resources for established and emerging writers to work at annual Writers Retreats and special invitational collaborative writing project events.   When describing TheatreWork’s support, John Caird, director and playwright of Daddy Long Legs (music by Paul Gordon) said: “you are given the artistic freedom, the room, the budget and the ability to just imagine something that’s never been imagined before.”

DLL in Japan

Daddy Long Legs in Japan

Many shows which started at TheatreWorks have a continuing life and have gone on to see many other stages.   You can buy six cast albums of TheatreWorks’ world premiere shows:  Memphis, Vanities,  A Christmas Memory, Summer of ’42A Little Princess  and Daddy Long Legs.  In just the last year,  six TheatreWorks-developed shows ran in New York:  Memphis, Wild With Happy, The North Pool, Lucky Duck (formerly titled Everything’s Ducky at TheatreWorks) and Sleeping RoughDaddy Long Legs has had more than eighteen productions around the country and in Canada and Japan and London!  TheatreWorks’ hugely popular world premiere Fly by Night just closed a triumphant run in Dallas and is scheduled at Playwrights Horizon in New York next spring. This list could continue —  and probably will grow to include one or more of the shows to be presented this August.

See my post next week for Part 2 and details of the line-up of plays and musicals scheduled  for the 2013 Theatreworks New Works Festival.  They have found some very exciting  writers, directors, music and stories for you!


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