A&E

Making connections — love or otherwise — at TheatreWorks

New Works Festival lets audiences in on the theater-making process

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley will always have a special place in the hearts of Kait Kerrigan and Nathan Tysen. Not only because it's a supportive and nurturing place for writers such as themselves, but for more personal reasons, too. It was a TheatreWorks writing retreat that brought them together. Now married and parents of a young daughter, they both have shows in this year's New Works Festival, the annual staged-reading showcase of promising works in progress.

According to Tysen, the New York-based pair met "basically at Kennedy airport" on the way to the Palo Alto retreat a decade ago, "although Kait claims we actually met at a holiday party," he said, laughing, during a joint interview. Regardless of the technical details, it was thanks to TheatreWorks and the convivial retreat atmosphere that they bonded for real.

"It was all these amazing writers all hanging out; the group became friends and our writing teams became our closest friends," Kerrigan recalled. "We were friends for about nine months, then we started dating, got married and had a kid."

At the time of that first retreat, Tysen was working on a very early version of a commission that evolved into "Revival," which is part of this year's festival, and also wrote the very first song from "Tuck Everlasting," which went on to Broadway and, last year, was produced at TheatreWorks.

"That was maybe our most full circle moment with TheatreWorks," Kerrigan said. At least until now.

This year, Tysen and his writing partner Chris Miller (also his "Tuck" co-writer) are bringing the musical "Revival" to the Lucie Stern stage. Based on the Willa Cather short story "Eric Hermannson's Soul" and set in 19th-century Nebraska, it tells the tale of a New York socialite who's looking for one last wild adventure before getting married. She's seeking the infamous violinist and "wildest man on the frontier," Tysen said, but finds him to be a shell of a person.

"She finds out that he has joined this fundamentalist religion that has stripped music from his life and challenges herself to bring this man back to life and back to music," he said. Tysen and Miller have drawn on Cather's story, which references many composers, as well as the show's setting, to inspire their songwriting, which bears a mix of classical, folk, choral hymn and other influences.

"It's relating to what makes our hearts sing, how do we process what life throws at us?" said New Works director Giovanna Sardelli. "It's such a beautiful play about the soul of a person, what we each need to thrive. It really speaks to paths you can take in grief and fear and trying to be a good, decent person."

Kerrigan's contribution to the festival is the play "Father/Daughter."

"It ties into our love story a bit too," she said. "I'd had this experience, during our wedding, of discovering how my relationship with Nathan, and how kind and generous his family is, could impact my slightly more fractured family. How your romantic relationship can have an impact on your childhood relationships and how that can change in a way I didn't anticipate."

"Father/Daughter" is told from the perspective of a father of an 8-year-old and, 23 years later, of his daughter, who's now the same age her father was when she was 8.

"It's deliciously complicated and multilayered, told over two different generations. We see the father and his love life and his concerns about if he has been a good parent. Then we meet the daughter and we see how she's putting together her own life, how she relates to what she's learned from her parents," Sardelli said. It's humorous in spots but poignant, too.

"I'd call it a feel-good drama. There's plenty of drama but at the end of the day, it makes you feel better about the world rather than worse about the world," Kerrigan said.

Though both Tysen and Kerrigan are writers (particularly lyricists), they said they don't often collaborate, preferring instead to use each other's feedback at early readings. They do share office space but "because we're not actually making sounds, we can both put on headphones and write but not really bother each other," Tysen said. "It makes us very good roommates," Kerrigan added. "The other complication is that now we have this 3 1/2-year-old so if one of us does something out of town, the other can't go see it unless we're able to bring the kiddo along."

On that note, TheatreWorks, she said, is "one of the most supportive places I've ever been as a writer. This process has been especially wonderful because we do have this 3 1/2-year-old daughter and they really put their money where their mouth is in supporting us to bring her with us and getting us the help that we need. It allows us to be artists while also not being terrible parents."

Sardelli said she sees in this year's assortment of shows a certain "open-heartedness; a respite, in a way, from the onslaught of news and chaos and crisis" that plagues everyday life, while still being relevant to current issues.

The second musical in this year's festival is "Iron John, an American Ghost Story," by Rebecca Hart and Jacinth Greywoode, which takes place in the same small town in two time periods: 1915, when an Irish housemaid falls in love with an African American blacksmith, and the present, focusing on a romance between a white debutante and mixed-race neighbor. Directed by Ken Savage, a Stanford graduate who has strong TheatreWorks ties, the show, Sardelli said, is "looking at racism in this country and this idea that we keep trying to bury the past. Like all good ghost stories, the things we try to bury take root and until we actually look at our past, we're going to be haunted."

Sardelli herself is directing Jessica Dickey's "Nan, and the Lower Body (The Pap Smear Play)," about Dr. George Papanicolaou's discovery of the breakthrough medical screening the Pap smear (a method of detecting cervical cancer) in the 1960s.

"Looking at this year where there was some vile talk about women, a year in which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was confronting all this sexism ... I this year did not want a play where a woman was sexualized or was traumatized," she said. "In this moment, what I loved about this play was that a woman was celebrating her body and her sexuality." Dickey's own grandmother turns up as a character in the play, as her family believes she did actually help Dr. Papanicolaou with his early work on the Pap smear.

It's "personal in that way, and it's very frank and funny, dealing with people in the '60s trying to figure out, 'How do we talk about all this?' It's a fascinating story," she said.

Lynn Rosen's "good old-fashioned farce," the madcap comedy "The Imperialists," takes place in a British-style, "probably failing" tea shop in Brooklyn, where a daughter tries to free her father from his "old-school" colonial ties. When rumor has it the royal family will visit Brooklyn, the whole neighborhood's hopes are high that if they can just get the royals to step through the tea-shop's door, all their various problems will be solved.

"All of Lynn's plays have to deal with identity and relevance, and wrestling with old and new," Sardelli said.

The keynote speaker this year is Amy Ayoub who, like Sardelli, hails from Las Vegas. A longtime political fundraiser and motivational speaker, Ayoub revealed in recent years her own harrowing experience with sex trafficking when she spoke on behalf of a law to protect trafficking victims.

"For me this year, the theme was really connection: how stories connect us to our past, how stories can release us, how stories that we're told remind us of who to love and how to love," Sardelli said. "There was a thread in (Ayoub's) story that connected her to every single play in some way. It's about that moment where you tell a truth you've been running from ... the moment where you realize, 'Me telling my truth may save the lives of others.'"

Getting up close and personal with speakers and artists' stories is one of the reasons the New Works Festival is a beloved tradition, where audience actually get to help shape future plays and form connections with theater makers.

"One of the things that I think is so unique about TheatreWorks is the way they bring their audience, and their board and donors, into their writing process," Kerrigan said. "It creates an environment where we meet those people and learn about their lives and they also get to see a project way before it's finished, so they're invested in the future of it in a way that's different than other places."

Tysen agreed. "It can be a very scary experience to share your work, especially when it's at a very early stage, and TheatreWorks understands that. They understand the kind of feedback that we want, and even when things bomb the audience is there to support you," he said.

Kerrigan noted that the writers especially appreciate being able to ask audience members questions and get feedback even between the first and second presentations of their work.

"The way that they handle the writers, they teach us how to interact with the audience as much as they teach the audience to interact with us," she said.

What: 2019 New Works Festival.

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

When: Aug. 9-18 (performance times vary; click link below for complete schedule).

Cost: Single tickets $20. Festival passes $49-$65.

Info: New Works Festival.

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