In 2014 it is easy for two of the founding members of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab to look back on seven successful seasons of producing and supporting new plays and playwrights. Matthew Penn and Jim Frangione, along with Joe Cacaci and Bob Jaffe, created this company to do exactly that and they have been delighted with the results of their hard work.
The Lab was created to provide playwrights the opportunity to develop their work and more than 25 short and 30 full-length plays have been presented under the BPL banner. At the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington this will all be celebrated with a special Gala performance of new short plays by some of the most important playwrights of our time featuring actors we long to see on stage.
“This is one of my favorite events in the Berkshires,” said Shakespeare and Company actress and Communications Director Elizabeth Aspenlieder. Aspenlieder will be performing on stage as a part of the one-night Gala. “It’s a true honor to be a part of this — they are celebrating new playwrights, new work, rich language and stories that resonate within all of us.”
She and Jim Frangione will be playing husband and wife in Peter Mattei’s play “Sex Tapes” and Shake & Co. actress Kaileela Hobby will be playing their daughter. In her first season with the Lenox-based Shakespeare company Hobby is already getting a good deal of buzz. “She’s terrific,” said Matthew Penn, “she has a lot of talent. We’re hoping to get her into one or more of our summer season plays if we can get her.”
Penn has become a cross-over artist going from his own Great Barrington company to the more established Shakespeare and Company world, starting last season with the play “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” starring Aspenlieder and Shakespeare founder Tina Packer.
“It really was a bit of cross-pollination for me,” he said. “I didn’t know Elizabeth Aspenlieder at all, and we had her in the Gala where I directed her in a play by Kevin Snipes and then months went by and out of the blue I got the ‘Beauty Queen’ script from her and I thought it was just to get my input for a role she thought she should do. So I read it and said this is a spectacular role for you and she said great. Maybe two months went by and she e-mailed me about directing this. Loving the play and knowing some of the actors with S&Co, I went down and met Tony Simotes and the next thing I knew I was directing it.” Penn will be directing Aspenlieder again this summer in Lenox in Christopher Durang’s play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
“Matthew is an actor’s director. A former actor, who is so in the room, really 200 percent, and able to get the best story told,” Aspenlieder commented. “He always makes me feel so cared for as an actor; he respects that my insights are valid and counted. He is very intuitive. Tony Simotes and I said we have to do ‘Vanya and Sonia…’ with him. As a play it so holds the mirror up to nature where we can see ourselves. He has the ability to draw this out in the actors. Matthew is the perfect director for it because he used to be an actor.”
“I haven’t acted in twenty years,” Penn responded. “Directing started for me in 1988. I had been acting eight or nine years. This play was one of those age-old things and we lost a director and they wanted some one to take over the play so I did it and that led to this and that and to the George Street Playhouse and then ABC television and then ‘Law and Order.’ I knew I didn’t want to be acting when I was 40, and I was fast approaching 30 and directing felt more comfortable for me — I have this aptitude for it.”
The original foursome of founding fathers has dwindled to three. Bob Jaffe has moved on to other things. According to Frangione, “We killed Bob Jaffe — he was too tall.” Frangione’s sense of humor is much cherished by the Playwrights Lab. “When we started the lab, lo those many years ago, the first event we did was a reading of a play ‘The Guys’ about 911 — Wendy Malick and Dan Lauria had done it – we did it at Simon’s Rock as a benefit for the Great Barrington Fire Department. We were all interested in the developmental aspect of the theater; we loved scouring the world for new plays. We were really out there beating the bushes for the new plays. Joe and Matt and I have, by now, between us a 100 years of experience in the theater. It’s difficult to get through all the plays that come to us. Still, I think we’ve come to a pretty good point in the trajectory of the lab. When one of us reads a play he thinks has potential, we add our comments and move them along to the others. That’s how we do it.”
This Gala on Saturday, June 7 at 8 p.m. at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center features six new plays including Elaine May’s new one-act comedy “Not Sick in Heaven” which Penn is directing and featuring actors David Adkins and Jeannie Berlin; Sopranos actor Ray Abruzzo is in Joe Cacaci’s new play, “Sixty” which the author himself is directing; Richard Dresser’s one-act “Goodbye, Alan” is another Cacaci directed play starring Frangione (replacing Treat Williams who has appeared in two other short plays about this same character for the BPL; Matt Hoverman (author of “Searching for God in Suburbia”) is contributing his play “Old Friends” directed by David Adkins; Kevin Christopher Snipes new play, “The Age of Iron,” directed by Penn will star Tina Packer; and of course Peter Mattei “Sex Tapes” rounds out the live action evening. There is also a short film made for fund-raising purposes by the triumvirate at BPL with performances by Penn, Frangione, Dan Lauria, Lauren Ambrose, Wendy Malick and Treat Williams.
“Matt and Joe directed the film,” Frangione said, “and in it Matt steals Lauren’s purse in front of the Mahaiwe. This is a fund-raising event and film so we sort of hold investors by their ankles and shake them.”
“Jim is my accomplice in the film, engineering the getaway,” Penn added. “It was made as part of our fund-raising, end-of-year holiday efforts. We’re really just poking fun at ourselves. With each gala we try to do some sort of mini-sketch that celebrates the theater and what we do.
“We don’t charge our audiences a penny for the plays we do over the summer, so each year the gala steps in and brings in what we use for our productions and workshops. My family has had a house here in the Berkshires for 50 years and I spent part of elementary school years here: I went to BCD. It’s the spot I love most in the world. It’s where I started as a director. For me it’s such a wonderful confluence of elements. I loved working at Shake & Co. To have Elizabeth and Tina in my first play there was such a pleasure. And now we have them with us for the Gala.”
“We do four to six developmental readings per season,” Frangione added. “We’re attempting to raise money for a Richard Dresser play called ‘Closure’ and we’re hopefully moving into the production phase.”
“Collaboration, in my book, has always equaled success,” Aspenlieder added. “The more we do it the stronger we are. We started our collaborations in 2008 when we did a reading for Joe Cacaci, — he brought us a play by David Black — Jim Frangione was in it. In 2012 at their spring gala they cast me for one of the plays Matt Penn was directing and I introduced him to Tina, and once someone meets Tina Packer you want to work with her for the rest of your life. Another collaboration may be coming down the pike, as there’s a new play that Matt may be directing for Tina and me and Nigel Gore. I can’t say anymore about it.”
“Another thing to note,” Penn remarked, “we used a lot of New York actors over the last six years, but we’re the Berkshire Playwrights Lab and as time has gone by we are glad to cast local actors. It just makes sense when there’s so much good talent here.”
Premium Orchestra and First Row Mezzanine: $202 (includes post-show reception with the artists at Castle Street Café). Available through BPL – 413-528-2544
Show Only: $52 Orchestra & Mezzanine; $27 Upper Balcony. Available only through the Mahaiwe Box Office – 413-528-0100, mahaiwe.org
All sales are final.
All tickets will be held at Will Call and may be picked up 1 hour prior to the performance.