"All of a sudden it hit me: My goodness, what an amazing day this is!" Frank Ventura is talking about the realization of a dream he's had since he, his wife and partner Eliza Ventura, and Peter T. Van Wyck inaugurated CAP21 in 1993.
Ventura is the artistic director of CAP21, which stands for Collaborative Arts Project 21, a multi-pronged concern dedicated to training actors, developing new work, and building theater audiences through education. The specific dream now being realized is the grand opening of the 98-seat CAP21 Theater with The Immigrant, a new musical featuring music by Steven M. Alper, lyrics by Sarah Knapp, and a book by Mark Harelik based on his play of the same name. The show recounts the tale of how Harelik's Jewish grandfather and grandmother were befriended by a Texas couple (the wife was a Southern Baptist) when they arrived in America in the early 1900s to make a new life. It's capitalized at $105,000, a significant chunk of the not-for-profit company's annual budget of roughly $2 million.
To discuss this musical, the theater in general, and the whole CAP21 raison d'etre, Ventura has been joined by literary manager Eliza Ventura, managing director Van Wyck, and general manager Sharon Hamlet in a pleasantly cluttered, sixth-floor office in midtown Manhattan. All are ready and willing to talk about their "mission to develop new works and new talent"--and, more than that, to discuss a performance venue described by Frank Ventura as "a landmark for CAP21. It's really a place that people can come and see all aspects of our work." Considering the proximity to the opening, the foursome appears surprisingly calm. "We're probably unconscious," Ventura jokes, but then notes that the careful planning of the move may explain the assemblage's relatively serene state. He adds: "Now, let's go to the party!"
He means the opening night party for The Immigrant. "We're thrilled that it's a musical," Ventura says about this premiere presentation in the new space, "because musicals are so difficult to develop. They take so much time and care, and they're extremely expensive." Eliza Ventura observes that "many teams writing musicals today are learning their own collaborative process, and they need to know that they can actually create something and it can be produced." Van Wyck suggests that "it's a tough time for the writers of musicals. There aren't that many organizations out there that are willing to invest money in the process. So many organizations get a team of writers together and then push a project into production before it's really ready."
Mrs. Ventura sees The Immigrant as a prime example of what CAP21 was set up to do, part of which is to develop shows from the ground up. Or from almost the ground up, since Alper, Knapp, and Harelik--whom Mrs. Ventura terms "extraordinary"--brought their property to CAP21 almost two years ago after they'd completed a first-act draft and had a couple of second-act songs. Subsequently, the Venturas and crew gave the tuner two in-house readings with actors Cass Morgan and Jacqueline Antaramian, who are still involved. This was followed by the show's inclusion in CAP21's annual Black Jacks Festival, where new shows are presented to interested audiences with fuller staging.
The goal, needless to say, is to get a piece to the point where it can have a life in the theater. During our interview, everyone involved with The Immigrant seemed eager for the press to size-up the show and for producers to come look it over for a possible move. Van Wyck notes that, for this first run, only $7,000 of the budget is earmarked for advertising--the bulk of it for The New York Times' ABCs--but Hamlet says that "huge word-of-mouth" generated during previews has resulted in "steady" ticket sales. As of now, the production is scheduled to continue through October 8, although there's talk of extending it a week. The concern is that the Jewish holidays may cut into attendance; as Frank Ventura comments, "We want as many people to see it as possible."
Of course, even after The Immigrant closes or moves on, the theater--which was refurbished at a cost of $280,000--will remain. (The outlay was originally estimated at $100,000 but, Frank Ventura says, "Everything in there had to be redone--all new electricity, all new lights, all new sound system.") CAP21's first season in the 28th Street space is already set, and will include another new show planned to open March 7. Nothing has been announced, but Eliza Ventura reports that she and her colleagues are as dedicated to developing plays as they are to readying musicals, so a drama or a comedy may be up next. (At other times, the theater will be used for the Barbara Wolff Monday Night Reading Series.)
Since CAP21 was established first as a conservatory for "actors who sing and dance," fourth-year students will be able to show their wares in the new venue via so-called "practicums." (The organization has an affiliation with the undergraduate drama department of the Tisch School of the Performing Arts.) Prior to the opening of CAP21, these practicums were presented in a large room at the company's headquarters or in rented space; this year, City of Angels and then an evening combining Flying Solo and Starting Here, Starting Now will turn up on the new stage.
"We've really targeted young people in our programs," says Frank Ventura; by way of example, he mentions Camp Broadway, an intensive course for youngsters (organized by Susan Lee). There is also a series of further outreach initiatives for schools. "It's deeper than just taking them to the theater and saying, 'Here's the seat, here's the play.' It's an appreciation of what goes into creating theater."
For Van Wyck, working at CAP21 is enjoyable because, "Most of the time, we don't know how to do it. We don't really follow the rules." Eliza Ventura adds: "We're not even sure what the rules are!" But Frank Ventura concludes that, in terms of projects both short-term (The Immigrant) and long-term (buying a building 10 years from now in which to house the conservatory and at least two theaters), the impetus is to "work together to create valuable pieces of art."