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Powerhouse Theater 2015: Stephen Trask Heads to Studio 54 and Duncan Sheik Goes Film Noir

Here's what to look out for in the program's 31st season.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch veterans Michael C. Hall and Lena Hall will star in a reading of 15 Minutes by Rick Elice, Stephen Trask, and Peter Yanowitz.
(© David Gordon)

Powerhouse Theater, a collaboration between New York Stage and Film and Vassar College, is now in its fourth decade of supporting artists in the development and production of new works for theater. During the past 31 years, the program has served as an incubator for exciting works like John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, Green Day's Broadway musical American Idiot, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway-bound Hamilton.

Each Powerhouse season features two mainstage productions as well as a number of musical workshops, Inside Look Play Workshops, and a Readings Festival. And the upcoming 2015 season promises to be as intriguing (and full of Broadway promise) as any so far. Notable projects include a mainstage production of Keith Bunin's The Unbuilt City, workshops of Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow's Noir, as well as Sybille Pearson and Michael John LaChiusa's Rain, and a reading of 15 Minutes by Rick Elice, Stephen Trask, and Peter Yanowitz and starring Lena Hall and Michael C. Hall.

In addition to its capacity as an incubator, Powerhouse is a training program that gives actors, directors, and writers the chance to work alongside leading and emerging theater practitioners. "[Powerhouse is] a great place to be able to do theater," said Producing Director Ed Cheetham, "You have all of these bodies that are working together to create this thing that can only happen once. And I like being able to pass that along to other people, especially younger people. There's [this] big old world that you can connect to and you don't need a lot of stuff. You don't need anything!"

At a recent press-preview event, TheaterMania spoke to the creators of several of this season's shows about what it's like to spend the summer at Powerhouse, working without "a lot of stuff," and the new projects theater fans should keep their eyes on.

Duncan Sheik is the cocreator of Noir, along with Kyle Jarrow.

Duncan Sheik

What are you working on?

It's called Noir. I wrote it with my friend Kyle Jarrow. We did Whisper House together a few years back. This musical is unique to me in that it's very story-driven…A lot of musicals, it's like you have some really great songs and you have a great concept, but it's kind of hard to make a satisfying narrative out of them. And this one is very much about the story. It's a little bit of a thriller, and obviously it has a lot of film noir tropes that it's playing on, but it's contemporary. There's a little bit of an aspect of a kind of Pulp Fiction meets The Usual Suspects.

What are you hoping to get out of the Powerhouse experience?

It's a little bit about what kinds of casting works for the show and what kinds of actors you want to work with. And of course we're playing with how much you use those genre attitudes and how much you make it kind of authentic and contemporary — kind of turning the knob in order to see what's more effective with style.


The Unbuilt City director Sean Mathias and writer Keith Bunin with cast members Beth Dixon and Carter Hudson.
(© Jenny Anderson)

Sean Mathias

What are you working on?

This play is called The Unbuilt City. There's a woman who has a very valuable collection. It's very mysterious; we don't know all the things she has. And there's a young man who comes to see her because the archive where he works wants to know what she has in her collection. And that collection turns out to be very related to the history of the city, her own personal history, and to the young man's personal history. So it's really a ninety-minute conversation between these two people in real time about all that.

What are you hoping to get out of the Powerhouse experience?

The play isn't really finished until you've heard it in front of a number of houses, because they finish the story for you…And the design team gets to try out their designs, which you never get to do at a workshop. You workshop everything else, but you never get to actually workshop your design process, which is so important to the play.

And there's no [reviewing] press, which is a real luxury, and a protection, but there's an audience, which is the other luxury.


Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson's Rain will play as part of Powerhouse's season before heading to the Old Globe.
(© David Gordon)

Sybille Pearson

What are you working on?

It is a musical that we adapted from a short story by Somerset Maugham, called Rain [but] I took it away from having an all-English cast because I wanted to write something that I knew a little more about…so I put it in America. There is a character in it called Sadie Thompson [who is] a prostitute…and [there is] a missionary…and he tries to convert her — and then I made quite a few choices, hopefully staying with the sensibility of Somerset Maugham. They still are exiled for two or three weeks in this house in Fiji, Western Samoa [because] there's measles on their ship. And [a] tragedy happens because of this experience.

What are you hoping to get out of the Powerhouse experience?

We've never seen it move…So for me, it's very exciting to work with actors, see what carries, what I've left out, and then rewrite [before we go] to San Diego's Old Globe with it in February.


Along with Rick Elice, Peter Yanowitz and Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask are the creators of 15 Minutes.
(© Jenny Anderson)

Stephen Trask and Peter Yanowitz

What are you working on?

Stephen Trask: The show is called 15 Minutes, and it's set in the club world of New York City in the late seventies. It follows the story of this kind of rakish, would-be party boy at Studio 54. He starts off as a busboy and then inherits money from his miser father and reinvents himself as a rich playboy and goes in the front door and is not recognized at all as the busboy because now he's rich…and they eat him alive. He really thinks he's gonna become somebody special and instead he ends up accused of a crime he didn't commit and is cast out of this world having lost all his money. And he has a rocker ex-girlfriend who is an up-and-coming performer in the downtown club scene. And after he loses everything, he wants to get back into her life and of course she's not really having it. He has to kind of earn his way back in, has to reinvent himself.

And so the first act is glamour and a lot of fun language and lots of rhyming and the costumes are really extravagant — there's a mix of like restoration-comedy costumes and like seventies Halston, there's sort of a mixing of time periods. I'm thinking it's like a non-punk version of London Calling in terms of like, the stylistic variation. But it's not punk. I mean, there might be some, but it's not. The second act is grittier and more emotional and stylistically contrasting.

What are you hoping to get out of the Powerhouse experience?

Peter Yanowitz: [Powerhouse] chose us. It's just an incredible— it's been going on for thirty-something years and it attracts these amazing, talented people, and always has. So, to be asked to be invited to do our show for a week is, there's no better place for us.

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