Creating tomorrow’s theater: Writers and composers escape to Weston Playhouse

Courtesy Weston Playhouse

By JIM LOWE
Staff Writer

When Weston Playhouse’s retiring producing artistic director Steve Stettler chose participants for this year’s Artist Retreat, he selected six individuals or teams, writers that had been at a previous Artist Retreat.

Each year, Weston Playhouse invites select theater creators to spend a week in Weston, all expenses paid, working on their latest project away from the tension of the city and their work life. The program was instituted and is directed by Stettler, who with fellow longtime artistic directors Malcolm Ewen and Tim Fort, is retiring at the end of the summer. (A nationwide search for one replacement for the three is nearing completion.)

“The people are super-supportive,” playwright and actor Vichet Chum explained in an interview May 5 at the culmination of the retreat. “I live in New York, so there’s a lot of noise, and you’re constantly doing seven things all at once. Here I can focus, and really spend my time doing what I want to do — and I don’t feel that rush that I need to get it right immediately.”

Chum developed “Knyum,” his one-man play about his Cambodian heritage, last year, and it was recently premiered at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts. This year, he’s working on the multi-character “High School Play,” about a competitive high school theater troupe that is pushed to the brink when a community rallies in protest against their play selection.

“I’ve been sort of deconstructing the script, taking it apart and putting it together again, trying to figure out the most sensible order, the most evocative order,” he said.

Chum will be returning to Weston at the end of the month to begin rehearsal for the season’s opening of “Our Town,” in which he will play George Gibbs.

Avi Amon and Julia Gytri came to work on “Salonika,” a musical they began developing at a Weston retreat in 2016, in preparation for an upcoming two-week workshop at Berkeley Rep in California. Salonika is a town in Greece, where the Ladino Jewish (a Hebrew-Spanish hybrid) community lived.

“It’s about these two young people dealing with the incoming trauma of World War II,” Amon said. “This is a super-personal story. My grandmother’s from this town, and she escaped from Turkey just before the war.

“So, these two kids start telling stories,” he said. “In order to deal with the trauma, they invent stories about a made-up past, a magical world. It turns out that the people in this magical world are also telling ones about a made-up future. It’s about how we’re all connected.”

Since 2016, the structure has probably shifted 20 times, Gytri said. “We’re really good at taking index cards and mapping out on the floor all of the different plot points and rearranging everything — which we have the floor space to do here in Weston.”

While at Weston, they particularly enjoyed the locals.

“When we got to go to community members’ houses for dinner, that was the best,” Amon said.

“They were wildly fascinating people — with great pets,” Gytri added.

Sean Barry and Jenny Giering, whose musical, “Saint-Ex,” Weston premiered in 2011, returned to work on something much more personal, “What We Leave Behind.”

“We’re working on a one-woman musical about what happens when you get sick and don’t get better,” Giering, the composer, said. “I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer years ago, and then developed silicone toxicity, which is a not-so-rare complication of silicone implants, but it’s left me with a disease that’s probably going to be with me for the rest of my life. So we’re writing about what it’s like to go through.”

“But it’s funny,” she said.

At Weston, they wrote four songs.

“And Sean’s hammered it into this beautiful structure,” Giering said. “It’s really promising.”

“So much of writing a new piece is figuring out what you’re saying, and why you’re saying it in that way. In this case, why is it a musical?” Barry, the wordsmith, said.

David Cale’s play “Harry Clarke” is currently playing off-Broadway, starring Billy Crudup. He was in Weston working on his already successful one-man show “Palomino”

“I’m working on a film version of it, and I think the film script version has things in it that are more interesting than the solo show,” he said. “And I’m seeing if I can write a three-person play based on the screenplay. So I’ve got many things I could be working on.”

“Palomino” concerns a charismatic Irish carriage driver in Central Park who accidentally becomes a male escort. He writes about it — because he wants to be a writer.

“I’ve got a show that’s opening in the fall, and I should be working on that,” Cale said. “Instead, I’ve been hanging around this play.”

This kind of success is somewhat new to Cale. “Harry Clarke” is in its 18th week.

“Chelsea Clinton tweeted about it today,” Cale said. “She really liked it.”

Composer and playwright Zack Zadek was the winner of Weston’s 2016 New Musical Award for “Deathless,” which was subsequently produced at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut. Currently, he is working on a contemporary musical inspired by “The War of the Worlds,” set in contemporary New Jersey.

“I’m very much in the throes of writing it,” Zadek said. “I had this idea, I had my characters and I had one or two musical ideas, but this week had been about fleshing out the story, and fleshing out the structure of the show.”

Zadek is writing the book, lyrics and music himself.

“It’s a little bit like a chamber play, so claustrophobic, with this family in their house freaking about the end of the world,” he said. “It felt like something I could tackle myself.”

Zadek wrote five songs during the week.

“That means maybe two might be in the show,” he said, adding. “It’s the lack of distraction.”

Composer-playwright-actor Joe Iconis opened Weston’s new intimate theater, Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, with his cabaret last fall. This time, he is fine-tuning his “Love in Hate Nation,” a rock musical about a girls’ juvie hall in 1962.

“It is a romance between two girls … about how they become the revolutionaries of tomorrow,” Iconis said. “It’s a score inspired by ‘60s girl groups like the Shirelles, with a rock ‘n’ roll edge to it. So it’s a badly behaved musical.”

Commissioned by the Penn State School of Theater, it premiered there last month.

“It went really well,” Iconis said. “So now I’m working on a rewrite based on that production — reordering things, fine-tuning characters. One character went through a large change, stuff like that.”

In addition to enjoying previous Weston retreats, Iconis has directed cabarets, acted in “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” as well as coming as an audience member.

“I just love it,” he said. “I wanted to do theater because of the community, and the community at Weston is just unbelievable. It’s a place where you feel part of it, no matter where you fall in the food chain. It feels like everyone is welcomed here and supported.”

Weston Playhouse

For information about the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company 2018 summer season, go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.