Sunday, August 13, 2006

Collaboration in the Catskills: A Retreat for the (Theater) Troupes

by Alexis Soloski

Maplecrest, N.Y.

AT Sugar Maples, a derelict summer resort perched here atop the northern Catskills, the Olympic-size swimming pool has been filled with concrete, and the roller skating rink has fallen into grave disrepair. Waist-high weeds obscure the ball fields. Roofs list, and doors dangle on their hinges. But in this dilapidated holiday spot, a new arts group, the Orchard Project, sees a warm-weather retreat for innovative theater artists. While other residencies, like the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, are devoted to playwrights only or playwright-director teams, the Orchard Project will try to serve entire companies who create work collaboratively.

Ari Edelson, the Orchard Project’s artistic director, met his co-founders, Piers and Lucy Playfair, two years ago at a benefit for Old Vic/New Voices, a program started by Mr. Edelson that sends up-and-coming New York playwrights to London and brings British playwrights to New York. Mr. Playfair, the chief investment officer of a private equity firm, Bassini Playfair Wright, had recently become involved with the nonprofit Catskill Mountain Foundation, which has raised $8 million to revitalize upstate New York towns through arts initiatives.

As Mr. Playfair’s family tree features a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate and a knighted theater director, he naturally felt that the foundation should sponsor more theater. Impressed with Mr. Edelson, Mr. Playfair told him: “Come upstate. There’s all this theatrical hardware, maybe you can think of something to do with it.”

Speaking from Tokyo, where he is preparing a production of “Blood Wedding,” Mr. Edelson remembered his initial visit to the area. He toured a movie theater the foundation had revamped, as well as the Red Barn performance space and another cinema, the New Orpheum, that will reopen as a 265-seat theater next summer. Then Mr. Playfair drove him to Sugar Maples, an 80-acre, 22-building campus recently donated to the foundation.

“I started plodding through this property, this ghost town ‘Dirty Dancing’ resort,” Mr. Edelson said. “It was amazing.” He said he knew immediately how the space should be used and told Mr. Playfair, “Writers have the O’Neill, writer-director teams have Sundance, but there’s nowhere for companies to go.’ ”

Intrigued, Mr. Playfair signed on as the project’s chairman, and his wife stepped in as the development director. With horticultural metaphors of fruition and a dash of Chekhov, they named their venture the Orchard Project and set to work developing a business plan and persuading Peter Finn, the chairman of the Catskill Mountain Foundation and the chief executive of the public relations firm Ruder Finn, to let them use Sugar Maples.

Eventually Sugar Maples will include four rehearsal spaces, costume and prop storage, and housing for 70 participants. For now only five buildings have been renovated, and four more are near completion, but these primarily serve the organic farm and visual arts institute that share the campus.

Dormitories and dining areas were not ready in time for the Orchard Project’s inaugural season this summer. Nevertheless the Civilians, a quasi-documentary company in Manhattan best known for musical shows, arrived in June with two projects. Mr. Edelson, under the aegis of another Manhattan troupe, the Play Company, arrived with one. For two weeks writers, directors, composers and actors lived together in three donated houses in the town of Hunter, a short drive from Maplecrest, and rehearsed in the foundation’s movie theater.

Caitlin Miller, a writer and performer with the Civilians, spent her time on “Way to Go!,” a one-woman show that examines the separation of church and state. Her goal was to transform it from a three-part piece into a cohesive evening. “I still have a lot more work to do,” she admitted. “But when you have the time, and you don’t have other distractions, it’s amazing how much can get done. Poor cellphone service could make for great art.”

Her colleague Steve Cosson, a director, went upstate with the playwright Neal Bell and a group of Civilians actors to work on Mr. Bell’s “Shadow of Himself,” which combines the contemporary military with the epic of Gilgamesh. Mr. Cosson explained: “I wanted to discover with the actors how they could play these different kinds of realities that coexist within the play. I’m really glad we had four days to do that out in the woods and not in the first week of rehearsal in a three-week rehearsal process.”

Mr. Edelson was working with a composer, Jamshied Sharifi, and an Iranian-American journalist, Roya Hakakian, on an adaptation of Ms. Hakakian’s memoir “Journey From the Land of No.” In the evenings members of the companies ate together and chatted.

“What amazed Roya,” Mr. Edelson said, “was how the Civilians operate and the unique joint stock process that the Civilians use to create work. And what amazed the Civilians were the ways we were taking a memoir that was all first-person account and turning it into something else.”

Mr. Cosson remembered the evening talks somewhat differently, “I’d like to say that we had deep soul-searching artistic conversations, but mostly we talked about pie.” Apparently the lemon meringue was excellent.

According to its mission statement, one of the Orchard Project’s foremost goals is “engineering collaboration,” staggering scheduling so that companies can watch one another work. But how do you engineer anything more collaborative than swapped dessert recipes? This week the second part of the project’s pilot season will begin, with 24 representatives from 24 companies on hand to produce a version of “The 24-hour Plays,” in which artists race the clock to produce new work.

“I’ve got someone from the Royal Shakespeare Company,” Mr. Edelson said, “someone from Radiohole, and someone from this Brooklyn puppet company, Drama of Works — such a hodgepodge. Hopefully it will be a way for us to get to know a few companies who we might look at for the Orchard Project.”

Still, more spadework is needed before any companies can be invited back. Though the project has the promise of new buildings and an impressive advisory board (including P.S. 122’s Vallejo Ganter and the Tectonic Theater Project’s Moises Kaufman), it still must clarify its abilities and aims. The mission statement and business plan are ambitious but diffuse, with many goals and proposals in discussion: an apprentice company, courses for writers and performers, and a two-week theater festival.

Before next summer officers have to establish an application process, decide their criteria for successful projects, start raising money and determine just how an array of bucolic rehearsal spaces will help make the Catskills an arts destination.

In the meantime there are mundane details, like sewage permits, to see to. “We’re waiting for approval to flush the toilets,” Mr. Edelson said. “Then we can house some artists.”

After the first season he and the Playfairs remain optimistic, confident that their project can benefit theater troupes. Mr. Playfair, for one, has overcome some initial reservations. “I thought, all we’re doing is giving 20 people a holiday in the Catskills,” he said. “But I don’t believe that at all now.”

[Photo by Dean Strober: At the Orchard Project, Steve Cosson, left, directs the Civilians company in a play reading.]