A&E

When all the world's a stage

TheatreWorks' 2014 New Works Festival features musicals, drama and comedy

From a portrait of artist Norman Rockwell to the misadventures of a transgender artist considering gender reassignment, TheatreWorks' 2014 New Works Festival brings six new plays and musicals to the Palo Alto stage starting Aug. 9.

Now in its 13th year, the New Works Festival showcases multiple staged readings of upcoming plays, a panel discussion, live outdoor music and food trucks offering al fresco dining at Lucie Stern Theatre.

Works developed in past festivals have gone on to Broadway, including the hit "Memphis," which earned four Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. Other accomplished works that got their start at the New Works Festival include Paul Gordon's adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma," the musical "Striking 12" and the play "Equivocation," which both had successful off-Broadway runs, and "The North Pool," by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph. This year's successful TheatreWorks' production "The Pretender" also got its start at last year's New Works Festival.

The 2014 festival is the first developed by Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks' director of new works, who joined the company in May. Sardelli has directed mostly new works for 14 years, including 10 off-Broadway productions and Joseph's "Huck & Holden" and "The North Pool." She staged the latter for TheatreWorks.

This year's festival offerings are especially compelling to Sardelli because of their range of subject matter and the emotions the plays elicit, she said. She proposed many of the plays to the entire TheatreWorks staff; the reading committee and artistic staff read and chose the works, she said.

Sardelli looks for works that move and affect her -- and are purely entertaining, she said.

"Do I want to keep turning the page out of anything other than a sense of obligation to finish the play? I check my emotional state. Did it transform me? Did it illuminate me in some way?" she said.

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One work in particular, "Norman Rockwell's America," did that from the beginning, she said. The musical is penned by Lynne Kaufman, author of 20 plays ("Our Lady of the Desert") with music by Alex Mandel, composer of Pixar's "Brave," (songs "Touch the Sky" and "Into the Open Air").

Rockwell is known for his "apple pie" cover illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post of small-town America. But civil rights conflicts in 1950s and 1960s America created a crisis within the artist that changed his life and the direction of his work, Kaufman said.

She drew her inspiration from a biography about Rockwell that highlighted his personal struggles.

The musical explores Rockwell's "second act" in life, where he found his great love after two failed marriages. He stepped away from an idealized depiction of American life to one that searched into America's conscience and changing times.

Kaufman was not interested in writing a biographical play of Rockwell. But she was interested in the key moments in his life that resonated with her -- his midlife crisis -- and how he emerged from it as an artist and a person, she said.

"There are themes in your chronological life that speak to you, and the most compelling thing is resilience," she said. "Other people's lives are a vessel for things I want to explore. I was deeply drawn to his new life in his 60s. You're not finished; you can use that experience to flourish," she said.

She decided on a musical because the story needs to be visual, she said. "We've got to see his painting, and we've got to see history and the times changing," she said.

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The autobiography of circus press agent Dexter Fellows was playwright and composer Jahn Sood's inspiration for "The Disappearing Man." The musical takes place during the 1930s Great Depression. A group of circus performers face a crisis; their headlining act, a magician, might take a straight job.

There's a magician who doesn't believe in magic anymore and a cast of clowns and assorted performers who face identity crises. They question the life they might have outside of the circus, he said.

"The stakes are pretty high for people in many ways. The clowns say, 'I don't even know what I look like without my makeup on.' Each has to embrace their role and escape from it," he said.

Fellows was the press agent for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Barnum and Bailey's Circus. Sood found the autobiography in a bargain bin while on tour with a rock band, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. The story of circus life and of trying to create an event and make it real resonated with him, he said.

"I realized my life was a lot like these guys', going from place to place to play a show and not knowing if you are going to make it to the next place alive," he said.

Sood rented a factory in Brooklyn, New York, and built a workshop there to develop the musical. He booked circus acts and staged the musical so the audience felt they were walking into the 1930s circus.

He wanted to merge the intimacy of folk music and drama. He said rewriting the story is about clarifying and refining his characters and then letting them walk away from him to become their own personalities.

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In "An Entomologist's Love Story," Melissa Ross examines the friendship between two scientists who are about to reinvent their relationship.

The 30-something researchers work in New York's Museum of Natural History entomology department, where their conflicted love affairs are under the microscope in this edgy, comedic work about love in modern times.

Ross wrote the play after being awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commission to write a play about science. The commissions were received through the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Researching science subjects, she found a paper about the mating rituals of insects. At least one made it into the play, which added to the hilarity, she said. New York City also had a bed bug infestation in 2010, the year in which the play is set, she said.

"I thought at the time, 'I wonder if there are paranoid New Yorkers who are calling the museum to identify if they have bed bugs?'" she said.

Ross worked for several months in the museum's entomology department as part of her research, but none of the characters are based on anyone she knew there, she said. The setting contrasts the simplicity of instinct versus the complications of romance, especially with today's interactions that depend on online dating and texting, she said.

"An Entomologist's Love Story" is Ross' first time in the TheatreWorks festival, and readings before an audience are an integral part of a play's development, she said. Ross said she finds what works when she hears the actor speak and hears the audience reaction. "I love the shared experience of theater," she said.

Other festival works include"Describe the Night," a political drama about the mysterious 2010 crash of a Polish airplane, written by Rajiv Joseph; "Tokyo Fish Story," a play by Kimber Lee about generational differences, gender and tradition as a sushi master struggles to preserve his ancient artistry in a society obsessed with change; and "One Woman Show," a musical written and performed by Shakina Nayfack about a transgender artist on the brink of reassignment surgery.

What: TheatreWorks' 2014 New Works Festival

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Aug. 9-17. Go to theatreworks.org for performance times.

Cost: Festival passes are $65; $49 for TheatreWorks subscribers. Single-event tickets are $19.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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