The New Works Festival lineup is stacked: three days of plays and musicals, currently in development, from some of the best and brightest on the theater scene today.And it’s all going down this weekend at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
Kicking off the festivities is Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate,” directed by Mike Donahue, on Friday night, followed on Saturday by Steven Kaplan’s “Community” under the direction of Rob Urbaniti.
Two familiar faces, and voices, on the East End round out the festivities on Saturday and Sunday, respectively—“From Ship to Shape” by Walker Vreeland, the host of “The Afternoon Show” on WBAZ 102.5 FM, and “The Man in the Ceiling,” by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and direction by Jeffrey Seller.
“All four works in the festival are entertaining and thought provoking. It’s a great lineup and each show has a strong, individual voice,” Bay Street Theater artistic director Scott Schwartz said. “I am so happy to include the plays by Walker and Jules, specifically, as they both are explorations about our dreams and our aspirations: how we achieve them and what it does to us when we can’t.”
At first, Jules Feiffer was hesitant. So was Andrew Lippa. But they had a common goal: to make a great musical comedy.
The impetus was Mr. Lippa’s reading of Mr. Feiffer’s circa-1993 book, “The Man in the Ceiling.” But the beloved cartoonist wasn’t sure how this deeply personal story would play out on stage, until he saw one of Mr. Lippa’s shows, “The Wild Party.”
“Andrew, who’s a noted and brilliant composer and lyricist, approached me after he finished the book and fell in love with it and wanted to make an adaptation of it. It wasn’t my choice,” Mr. Feiffer recalled during a recent telephone interview from his home in East Hampton. “And I wasn’t sure. Then once we met and talked, and I saw his work, I got very excited about it.”
That just left Mr. Lippa struggling with his own doubts—which turned out to be unfounded.
“I had never written a musical and he thought—this was eight or nine years ago—he thought I was too old,” Mr. Feiffer said. “Now that I’m 87, three years away from 90, he thinks I’m a boy.”
Directed by Tony Award-winner Jeffrey Seller, “The Man in the Ceiling” is a quasi-autobiographical portrait of Mr. Feiffer as 11-year-old Jimmy, a quiet and artistic boy who is bad at sports and thinks he is destined to fail. While his feelings, sensitivity, sensibilities, doubts and fear are drawn directly from life, the rest of the children’s book is fiction, Mr. Feiffer said, as it will be on stage.
“This musical presented a series of challenges all along. I didn’t know what I was doing or how to service the composer,” he said. “The role of the book writer is to enable the music—give the music a home to work within, and without trying to dominate the scene with dialogue, and writing succinctly and telling the story. And what helped in that was not just my years of experience in theater, but in some ways my years as a cartoonist and learning how to say a lot in six or seven panels.”
Mr. Feiffer got his first taste of the cartooning world when he was just a young boy, living through the Great Depression in the Bronx. Out of the dark times came comedy, spread by radio, film and, most notably to him, adventure comic strips.
“I was un-athletic, and that plays a big part in the musical,” he said. “The one thing I had to keep me from getting beat up from the other kids on the street is I could draw and they couldn’t. I drew cartoon characters in chalk on the sidewalk as a matter of survival.
“I learned cartooning was my way of making it in the world because there was nothing else I knew how to do. That was true then. That is true today.”
Mr. Feiffer landed his big break in 1956 with his cartoon strip in The Village Voice, which ran for 42 years and won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. He has illustrated and/or written more than 35 books, among them the children’s classic “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster, his former Brooklyn roommate, as well as screenplays, stage plays and, now, a musical comedy.
“I found that once I mastered the six-panel cartoon and narrative cartoons, it drew me, it gave me the confidence and recognition and the arrogance of writing plays and novels and all of that,” he said. “Without the cartoon, I never would have had the chutzpa to try anything else.”
The Bay Street staging feels like a family affair—Mr. Seller is a part-time East End resident—and that has helped keep Mr. Feiffer’s nerves at bay. For now.
“I’m very good at suppressing it,” he said. “I’m sure prior to the actual event, I’ll be quite jumpy—not really nervous because the whole thing, there’s a sense of play involved and a game, and while it’s nerves, it’s the best forms of nerves. It’s the kind of nerves that galvanize you and basically, as in my entire life, it’s the kind of nerves and fear that make life worth living and going on with.”
On a recent spring morning, Walker Vreeland was sweaty, nearly caffeinated and full of energy.
It wasn’t all thanks to the spin class he’d just come from, or the resulting endorphins. The newest evolution of his autobiographical monologue, “From Ship To Shape,” was on its way to Bay Street and, little did he know, he’d receive news six days later that it was also accepted into the New York International Fringe Festival.
“This play has been a long time in the making,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee. “I feel more confident than ever that it’s ready for a larger audience.”
What is now a 90-minute reading first began as a series of journal entries, Mr. Vreeland explained. It was the summer he was 24, and he had taken a job as the lead singer for a Norwegian Cruise Line ship—a Bermuda-bound voyage that, instead, landed him in a bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Mood Disorders Psychiatric Ward after suffering from a severe mental breakdown.
“I’ve been trying to steer clear of cruises ever since,” he laughed, though he continued on a serious note. “It wasn’t the cruise’s fault, although there were many problems in the job, in and of itself. I really was already in a pretty shaky place, mentally, when I got on the boat. That’s something I’ve wrestled with all my life—depression and anxiety.”
It was a brief but critical time of his life, one that he documented while lying in that hospital bed and even beforehand on the ship. Almost a decade later, he would rediscover those journal entries and say, “I think there’s a one-man show here.”
“In retrospect, thank God for the cruise ship,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the cruise ship, there wouldn’t be any comedy. Something about cruise ships automatically makes things funnier. You could take any intense drama and add a cruise ship, and you have instant, much-needed levity.
“Yes, this is an intense and dark piece, but it is also funny,” he continued. “I found laughter to be a means of survival throughout my entire life, and definitely a means of surviving this experience. And the writing has helped me heal over the years.”
Mr. Vreeland’s openness and raw honesty within “From Ship to Shape” brings his audience one step closer to a world free of the stigma surrounding mental illness, he said. The subject material is universal.
“One in four people suffer from some form of mental illness. If it’s not you, it’s someone you know,” he said. “Hopefully, by the end of the play, everyone walks out feeling a little, or even a lot, less alone in the world.
“I think, as we all know, mental illness is still very taboo. We’ve come a long way, but I think this gives voice to what most people are not willing to talk about, especially in the Hamptons. I’ve always been honest about it on the air, ever since day one. When I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I have been completely myself. I just simply don’t know any other way.”
To relive one of his most disastrous, shameful chapters—and to douse it in humor and fun—takes a great deal of stamina, he said. The radio personality had to get back into physical, vocal and emotional shape, he said, as he will perform multiple characters, sing and experience very intense emotional highs and lows without an intermission. It’s truly athletic, he said.
“Contrary to what people might think, reliving your mental breakdown is boatloads of fun. People should try it. It’s highly underrated,” he said. “I’m just loving every minute that I’m on that stage. There’s great power in the brutally honest unapologetic testament of suffering. And recovery.”
As scary as that time was in his life, the 38-year-old wouldn’t take it back “for anything in the world,” he said, even though he is currently battling another health issue.
“I have a tumor in my gastrointestinal tract. Thank God it’s benign,” he said. “I’m in a little bit of pain and having surgery in May. But as I say to Scott Schwartz, ‘I don’t care if I’m missing a limb, or wearing a colostomy bag, I’ll be on that mother f—g stage.’
“At the end of the day, speaking the truth has always been very healing for me. It’s essential I do it, regardless,” he said. “It makes me wonder what the next monologue will be about. Am I destined, is that really my purpose on this earth? To go through these dark nights of the soul and report about them and tell stories with as much honesty and integrity as I possibly can?”
He chuckled to himself. “I don’t know, but I will find out.”
The third annual New Works Festival will be held this weekend at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. “The Roommate” by Jen Silverman, directed by Mike Donahue, will be staged Friday, April 29, at 7 p.m. “Community” by Stephen Kaplan, directed by Rob Urbaniti, will be staged Saturday, April 30, at 3 p.m., followed by “From Ship to Shape” by Walker Vreeland at 8 p.m. “The Man in the Ceiling” by Jules Feiffer, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, and direction by Jeffrey Seller, will round out the festival on Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m. Admission to all readings is free. For more information, call (631) 725-9500, or visit baystreet.org.
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