Tag Archives: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre

Artistic Choice or Financial Risk?

Art and commerce can make strange bedfellows in the world of nonprofit theater, especially in hard times. Can a theatre risk producing new work and still keep its doors open?  When should a theatre sell its soul to please audiences? Can a theatre focus too fearfully on the spreadsheet’s bottom line and violate the bottom line of its artistic mission and the leader who guides it?

The question can be asked right here in Los Angeles. Sheldon Epps has had to program the Pasadena Playhouse with commercial, crowd-pleasing fare to lift the company out of bankruptcy. But, at least, Sheldon remains at the helm. That’s not always the case.

Jeff Zinn has stepped down after 23 years as Artistic Director at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Among others, one reason seemed clear: the Board decided that the cutting-edge new work that Zinn championed — and was at the core of WHAT’s artistic mission — could no longer financially support the organization and its gorgeous (and expensive) new state-of-the-art 220 seat theatre. You gotta fill seats.

Jim Petosa

Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa knows that for sure. He has led the Maryland landmark since 1994 and directed shows there well before that. On Petosa’s watch, the sprawling 14-acre campus north of Washington DC  has built a new mainstage, an intimate theater lab, and an outdoor amphitheater for summer Shakespeare.

As Olney’s artistic leader, Petosa has confronted both financial and artistic struggles. In 2010, the theater faced a $6 million debt and a 5 percent drop in subscriptions. Olney added more revivals of family-friendly shows instead of the more cutting edge theater Petosa favored. The overall tone of season 2011 at Olney has been demonstrably tried, true — and commercial. The strategy seems to be working, but for Petosa, the artistic challenges lie elsewhere.

It has just been announced that he will step down as artistic director at the end of this year.

“I think sometimes personal artistic ­ambitions and institutional ­artistic ambitions don’t necessarily meet,” he says.

The sad truth gets sadder: The family-friendly programming at Olney is not viewed by the theater’s board or its audiences as an “unconscionable compromise,” says Petosa. Indeed, they “seem to be responding to these programming ideas with enthusiasm and passion.”

This is what scares us.

Joy Zinoman, a longtime colleague and friend, says Petosa is “a beloved figure as a director — high energy, very warm, very positive; filled with ideas.”

But Zinoman, who stepped down herself in 2010 after 35 years as founding artistic director at Studio Theatre in Washington, questions the road that Petosa and Olney have taken. “Jim is not a person who just wants to do commercial work. In his heart, I don’t think he’s that at all. I would myself not agree that the way to attract an audience is to do that kind of work.”

Even in a bad economy?

“Even so,” she says. “I believe that it is possible to lead an audience. You have to lead an audience and just doing ‘The Sound of Music’ again, or ‘The Christmas Carol’ again, I’m not sure that’s the way to build a theater. I mean, it might solve your problem in the moment, but it’s not going to get you anywhere.”

From NYC: Full Circle, Picture Perfect

by Stephen Sachs

Now in New York City, the calm idyllic oceanfront of Wellfleet Harbor feels a universe away. One world slammed into another. From harmony to frenzy. The call of seagulls now sirens and car horns, the roar of waves now pounding jack hammers, the open clear horizon of ocean now vertical towers of cement and glass.  The sky only visible between buildings. Like blinders on a horse.

Reviews for Bakersfield Mist wash in from Wellfleet like driftwood on the sand:

  • “Absorbing.” – Boston Globe
  • “Clever, witty and even poignant … a smart and insightful play not just about art and truth, but also about class differences … the dialogue swinging with wit and a zinging rhythm … the play is true to reality as it intelligently, yet subtly, examines class struggles, the aesthetics of art, the power of the privileged, the anger of the disadvantaged and the desire of all of us for self-worth.” – Cape Cod Times
  • “Wild and witty … Lively and smart, new play packs as much punch as a Pollock .” – Cape Cod Today

On this muggy New York afternoon, I briskly dart and dodge my way down 53rd Street to 6th Avenue like a tardy school boy. I have only a brief moment today between meetings. The moment is now. I must make an urgent appointment. With two paintings.

I dash into the Museum of Modern Art. Up the stairs, to the 4th floor. Post-Modern Expressionism. Wind through the bee-comb of exhibits and galleries, weaving past tourists and  art-gawkers with cameras. Turn a corner, enter the alcove I’m looking for … and there it is …

One: Number 31 (1950) by Jackson Pollock is an immense canvas dominating an entire wall. I slowly approach, holding my breath. It is the first Jackson Pollock I have seen since writing Bakersfield Mist. I am coming home, full circle.

In the play, art expert Lionel says a Pollock painting “rewires your retinas.” It’s true. I stare at the expansive monolithic delirium in front of me and my eyes go through a kind of molecular transformation. I see movement, explosions, mad slashes of color. The painting not only rewires your retina — it becomes your retina, is your retina.. Ever see a color photo of the human retina?  The pulsating colored lines, the high-charged circuitry, the webbed network of electric current? That is a Pollock painting. The human retina on canvas, made visible.

Seeing the painting is like paying homage to an old friend. Pollock has lived in my imagination for three years. Seeing his work in books or online is no match for the  visceral connection of his canvas in person. Like how a movie or TV show pales to the thrill and wonder of live theatre.

I lean my face close to the canvas. Examine the drips, splatters and blotches. Like Maude in the play, I am searching for a fingerprint.

Upstairs, on the 5th floor, the other painting waits. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso. It was when first seeing this painting as a boy that Lionel first heard the “Art Gods speak” to him. Changing him, and the world of art, forever.

One can not overstate the importance of this masterpiece by Picasso. Or how different it is from the Pollock. The master of one generation superseded by another. The Industrial Age exploded by the Atomic. Picasso is fleshy, primitive, tribal, animal-like. Distorted, frightening. The figures heavy and weighty. In the Pollock canvas,  there are no human beings. It bypasses form to a realm beyond anything physical. It is light,  airy, electric. You expect to hear the canvas hum like high-voltage wire.  Alive.

Standing before these two paintings, I come full circle with my play. These two paintings, these two artists, in my imagination for so long, have meant so much to me and my play. Arriving now is like returning to old friends.  As I approach, they see me coming. I hear them gently whisper to me, “Ah, yes … yes …  here you are.”

Pray to the Art Gods. When they speak, listen. And give thanks.

From The Cape: Opening Night and the Alchemy of Actors

Thursday, August 11

by Stephen Sachs

Think of these words: brave, fearless, heroic. What comes to mind? Soldiers, right? Infantrymen? Military men and women? What comes to my mind, when I think of these words? Actors.

Actors are miraculous and extraordinary beings. Brave soldiers willing to put their souls on the line for a cause greater than themselves.

Actors Ken Cheesman and Paula Langton in "Bakersfield Mist"

Veteran soldiers often admit that their conflict in battle, with bullets whizzing by, bombs exploding,  the threat of peril and death surrounding them, was the most exhilarating time of their life. When they felt most alive. Same is true for actors. Actors are the courageous foot soldiers of theatre. They volunteer, enlist themselves to be put on the front line, in the line of fire, at the very center of risk and danger, all for the sake of a higher purpose and the benefit of others. Willing to take a bullet — or rise to glory. That intoxicating thrill of conquering fear, the ecstasy of risk. When the battle is won —  it is glorious, transcendent. An actor connecting with an audience is an extraordinary communion of will and spirit that can lift an entire building of strangers up to heaven. How does an actor do it?

The lobby of the Julie Harris Stage.

Think of it. In the final frantic days before opening a new play the actor has to memorize 80 – 100 pages of text (often constantly changed and rewritten by a playwright); remember all stage movement and blocking (adjusted and altered by a still-tweaking director); know exactly when all light  and sound cues happen and remember precisely where to stand for best effect, learn to handle props and fidgety costumes — they do all of this — and must stillat the same time — give a performance with a complex emotional life that fulfills whatever the role requires: be vulnerable, be powerful, laugh, cry, bellow, whisper, be angry, mournful, philosophical, silly, wise — and do it all in front of 200 people, watching you do it, keeping them entertained and engaged throughout. And somehow tell the story of the play and dramatize the arc of your character. And make it all look effortless, spontaneous and alive, as if happening for the first time. How do they do that?

As Hamlet says,

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage waned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing …

I love actors. I am in awe of actors. I’ve been a professional director for more than 25 years and the whole mystical, methodical process they go through still astounds me.

Opening Night of "Bakersfield Mist".

I am witness to the actors’ fearless alchemy once again as we are hurled toward Opening Night of Bakersfield Mist at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. The audience arrives. The lights go down. A hush of silence. An inhalation, a breath of courage. Lights up! The play begins — all of it now, as it always is and will forever be — in the hands of the actors.

In Bakersfield Mist, art expert Lionel Percy tries to put into words how he feels about art. He could easily be describing how I feel about actors: “A work of art is both human and spiritual. A physical thing expressing the non-physical. The beyond physical. Great art has spiritual power. Embedded within it. The power to cure the heart, heal the human spirit, save and uplift the soul.”

The same can be said of actors.

From the Cape: Dream Worlds

by Stephen Sachs

The outside world goes away whenever I work on a play. More so, when I’m out-of-town. And when the town happens to be a soothing and idyllic seaside village like this, the dream work of play-making dissolves into the dream world around me and the outside world recedes from consciousness  like a toxic cloud and evaporates.

I haven’t turned on the TV or read a newspaper since I arrived. The peril of Obama, the Dow dropping 600, the savage dysfunction of Congress, seems to exist in an alternate universe very far away. I know this will not last.  I will have to return to civilization. Just, not yet. Not now …

I have never lived next to the sea before. The ocean is teaching me something. There are matters of Man, and there are forces of Nature. One is momentary, the other Eternal. In Bakersfield Mist, art expert Lionel describes a Jackson Pollock painting as “Movement made infinite. No beginning or end. Each painting just is.” The same is true of the sea. The ocean just is. Movement made infinite. No beginning or end. Enormous. Unknowable. Mysterious. Alive. The matters of Man, so small and temporary, like the discarded shards of oyster shell littered along the ocean side, broken and dropped by gulls.

I live in the world of theatre. The world  of dreams. Where dreams can appear real, and reveal truth. I know dreams are not real, are not reality. Even so … Shhh … don’t wake the dreamer yet. Let him sleep. Let him dream. One more hour.

Fountain Co-Artistic Director and writer/director Stephen Sachs is in Cape Cod for the opening of his new play, Bakersfield Mist, at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre.

From The Cape: Tech Day and Stages of Marriage

Tuesday, August 9

Technical rehearsals are a slow, painstaking process. When all of the technical and design elements — light cues, sound cues, sets, props, costumes — are layered in and integrated with the timing of the actors. Whenever I work at other theatres around the country I’m always curious to witness how other companies run a tech. The procedure is the same but the experience is different. Some are slow, some fast, some meticulous and detail-oriented, some breezy and easy-going.

As a director myself who just opened this play in Los Angeles, watching director Jeff Zinn run the tech rehearsal is like letting someone else drive your car. You hand over the keys. Sit quiet in the passenger seat. And try to not to shout out “No! Turn here!  Go faster! Slow down! Look out!” No one likes a back-seat driver. Let Jeff drive. See how he handles the road.

Whether in a sparkling new 200-seat venue or the funky intimate Fountain, the basic questions and challenges of a tech rehearsal remain the same: how do we make this moment work? What story are we telling in this scene? What should the lights be doing as she crosses to the table? Let’s work out the timing of sound cues for the opening.  How do we create the best lighting effect for the end?

The set for "Bakersfield Mist" on the Julie Harris Stage.

At 12 noon, actors Ken Cheeseman and Paula Langton arrive on stage and walk on the set for the first time. After weeks in a barren rehearsal room, they finally  step into the colorfully eccentric universe of Maude’s trailer. Their eyes light up. Grins spread over faces.  They explore the set, picking up props and playing with all the weird-looking tchotchkes like giggly kids on Christmas morning. Continue reading

From The Cape: Toto, We’re Not in Los Angeles Anymore

Fountain Co-Artistic Director and Writer/Director Stephen Sachs is in Cape Cod for the opening of his new play, Bakersfield Mist, at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre.

by Stephen Sachs

Monday, August 8

Wellfleet Harbor sits nestled on the edge of Cape Cod just a few hamlets over from Provincetown. A tiny beachfront resort village famous for its oysters and art galleries. A galaxy away from the smog, traffic and congestion of Los Angeles.

I’m here for the opening this week of my play, Bakersfield Mist, at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Arriving for the final week of rehearsals, tech week and opening on August 11th. This is the second production of the play to be produced, the first since our opening at the Fountain (which is still running). It will be the first time I get to see the play directed by someone else, performed by a different cast of actors. I expect to learn a lot. As playwright, I’m here to continue tweaking the script, lend support, offer guidance, and try to stay out of the way.


My apartment is up the stairs to the second-floor balcony.

For my one-week stay, WHAT has provided me with “artist housing”. My apartment sits nestled on the edge of beachfront, overlooking the harbor. It’s  funky and bohemian and absolutely divine. From the second-floor balcony I stand and peer out over the harbor and bay. Mac’s Seafood Market is an arm’s reach next door. The crisp aroma of steamed oysters, clams and lobster mixes with the salt air and drifts up to my balcony. Delicious.

“Downtown” Wellfleet is a postcard of charming, picturesque shops, cafes and galleries. Tree-lined, quaint. Townfolk and tourists stroll leisurely in t-shirts, shorts and sandals. The pace is slow. Languid. Why hurry to go anywhere else?

This morning I meet Jeff Zinn for breakfast at a homey little cafe off the main road. Jeff is the Artistic Director of WHAT and directing their production of my play. He’s smart, warm, easy to chat with.  We talk shop: discuss new plays, new writers, share ideas, complain, bitch and gossip.

I do a quick phone interview with the Boston Globe, then Jeff and I jump into his car for a short drive over to the theatre.

The Julie Harris Stage

Jeff gives me a tour of his gorgeous new venue: the handsome Julie Harris Stage. Named for the Tony-winning actress, of course, who did Beauty Queen of Leenane at Wellfleet in 2000. The new $6.8 million year-round theater seats 200 people and complements the 90-seat Harbor Stage where the company has been performing since 1985. “The Julie” is exquisite, glittering fresh like a new Cadillac. The stage is huge, tall and wide. The building also holds a labyrinth of office space, a costume shop, dressing rooms, green room, rehearsal room and a two-level lobby. Although I wouldn’t trade the quality of our work at the Fountain with anyone, I can’t help but gape at the glory of a fully-rigged two-story new theatre building with 200 seats and drool with envy. I mutter Yoda’s mantra (“Size matters not”) and keep moving.

The Bakersfield set is being assembled on stage. Carpenters, technicians and designers scurry about  clutching power tools and design plans. Because the Harris stage is so much bigger (and taller) than the Fountain, Maude’s trailer sits entirely on stage like a mobile home parked on blocks in a trailer park.

Jeff ushers me into the rehearsal room for a quick introduction to the Bakersfield actors, Ken Cheeseman and Paula Langton. We’re delighted to meet each other and equally excited about doing the play at Wellfleet. I’m then quickly guided out of the room so the actors can run lines with the stage manager.

Back at my apartment at sunset, I stand on my rickety wood balcony and peer out at the ocean, the orange sun painting the harbor water a shimmering coral rose, marveling at how lucky I am to be visiting such a beautiful place.  And how blessed I am to be doing what I love.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) will be a long, full 10-hour tech day.