By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor
The Adirondack Theatre Festival opens its 25th anniversary season this week. Here are 25 random facts and thoughts.
1. Big-time from the start. ATF launched in 1994 with a winter fund-raiser performance of Love Letters starring Broadway icons Jason Robards and Elaine Stritch at the Lake George RV Park. The playhouse was filled and rapt. “Where did you get that audience!?” Robards marveled afterward.
2. Home-grown. Founding artistic director Martha Banta was a Lake George High grad and Youtheatre alum, as was her friend and founding board member David King of the Lake George RV Park. Martha and her now husband David Turner were 20-somethings wanting to make their own work in a venue outside New York City. Notably, their son Henry is now a second generation Youtheatre actor.
3. Three Tall Women. ATF’s 1996 take on the Edward Albee Pulitzer winner was this writer’s first wallop-upside-the-head revelation that ATF was indeed something special. Nuanced, measured and spare, beautifully acted and moving beyond words, it set the bar high.
4. Fully Committed. ATF debuted Becky Mode’s one-character comedy starring Mark Setlock as an overwhelmed underling-with-heart taking reservations at a hot New York City restaurant. It was a big hit for ATF that went on to huge off-Broadway fame — and still has a life.
5. The ‘Rent’ connection. Martha and several founding ATF board members were involved with this musical before it became a Broadway phenomenon. Young playwright Jonathan Larson died unexpectedly from an aortic dissection just before the debut. Gilles Chiasson was a Rent cast member and ATF founding board member. Reeling from the loss, he sat on a stool with a guitar at ATF’s winter benefit and quietly, powerfully sang a selection from Rent, an unknown song from a then unknown but soon to be renowned show. Imagine.
6. Rent cast — ATF’s third benefit starred several members of the Rent cast who now suddenly were bona fide stars.
7. Tick Tick Boom. ATF ended its 15th season — and its last under the co-directorship of Martha Banta and David Turner — with a musical written by Jonathan Larson’s before Rent. The video that closed the show, on how we live our lives, morphed before our eyes from a generic montage from the play to the real-life impact of Martha, David and ATF. Still gives me goosebumps.
8. Mark Fleischer — he of the natty pocket square and deep commitment to town, arts economy and moving the ball forward — succeeded David and Martha and achieved the near impossible, transitioning a beloved entity from its founding leadership to permanence, reflecting the mission but independent of the founders. Also, for the first time the director got paid a living wage, unlike Martha and David.
9. Showman/magician Chad Rabinovitz is in his fifth season as ATF’s producing artistic director, growing the festival, growing the audience, generating big productions, adding one initiative after another. Don’t be fooled by the showbiz savvy. Chad has also directed some of ATF’s most heart-felt, sensitive shows, like Home.
10. Ambition — from Jason Robards to the PB&J Children’s ‘Dinner’ theater (served with lunch), ATF is at its best when it’s cooking up something new.
11. The ‘five and dime theater’ was the make-shift venue that ATF created to stage shows at the empty former Woolworth’s store. From that was born the brilliant idea to put a permanent performing arts center into the space.
12. The Charles R. Wood Theater’s 15th anniversary not by chance coincides with ATF’s 25th. ATF’s initiative — and David’s willingness to put his New York career on hold to help lead the charge — led to creation of the Wood Theater, with much fund-raising and heavy lifting from the local not-for-profit Partners for Progress and this community in general. I will never forget the chills when Andi Lyons, the theater’s first director, introduced the first show: Elaine Stritch’s autobiographical one-woman smash on Broadway, now here in little Glens Falls. Ms. Stritch, in her signature white button-down shirt, black tights and heels, was raspy voiced, honest and memorably demanding in the most delicious manner of a true Broadway icon.
13. The daring outdoor production. I still remember The Lake’s End, staged on the mountainside at the Lake George Recreational Center in the year that ATF was homeless as the Wood Theater was under construction. Opening night, everyone in the audience received a yellow poncho to stave off the rain. There was that gorgeous moment at the close when lights lit up the woods in the distance, such a lovely theatrical gesture, so typical of Martha Banta.
14. Adam Armstrong in Ordinary Days. A local won the part in regular auditions before anyone at ATF even knew he was a guy from here. Sweet show, with a lovely set that played big-city views against small-intimate relationships. I’m hearing that another local is in the cast for one of the shows this season, also.
15. The Family Business — Do you remember this show about plumbers, staged in the empty Woolworths with a seemingly infinite row of white ceramic toilets lining the back wall?
16. Mary Beth Peil in Wit. The Dawson’s Creek star was memorable in that moving play about a woman battling cancer.
17. World premieres in Glens Falls. ATF’s emphasis remains on nurturing new works and emerging playwrights. Actors, directors, technicians coming from out of town tell us repeatedly how much they appreciate ATF for the opportunity it provides emerging talents.
18. Murder for Two. One of my favorite shows ever, a tour-de-force two-handed musical by Kellen Blair and Joe Kinosian, where one guy plays the detective and the other breathlessly plays all the suspects. It was a killer show, light as can be, sweaty hard work for the actors and a master class in how you do theater right. It’s gone on to much afterlife.
19. UnCivil War. The smash hit of Chad Rabinovitz’s first season was funny and nuanced and a reminder that not all good things from here go on to the glory they seem so richly to deserve. (Also, judging from the rework that came our way the next season, how an overthinking team of producers can kill a show in the re-writes.) Sometimes the great moment of seeing its first version is the best moment that any of us sitting together in a darkened room, on one side of the footlights or another, will ever get. That’s the definition of live, living, breathing theater. Lucky us.
20. The cabaret. Some of us very much still miss the UnCorked wine store in the former Wood Theater retail space, but ATF under Chad built it out as a secondary performing arts space, right for comedy, cabaret shows, the PB&J series, event rentals.
21. The young interns, families that house performers and sometimes make lifelong friends, the way this town makes the guest actors feel like real stars in chance encounters on the street. All that is part of the ATF mystique as well.
22. Nicola Tesla Drops the Beat. Three seasons back, ATF raised the bar yet again for what the Wood can handle, what ATF can do, in terms of production values, number of lights, big-city ambitions, a dazzling show and star performers with more chops than a steakhouse. Very young frontman Isaac Powell went directly on to star as Daniel in the Broadway revival of Once on This Island. A thrill all around.
23. So many memorable shows. How far back can you go? Remember John and Jen, Men on Ice, Lucky Stiff, Times of War, Boston Marriage, Bomb-itty of Errors, Loch Ness (a wow!), the rock musical Spun, Art performed at the Hyde Collection; Bill Bowers (the mime) in his lyrical one-man show It Goes Without Saying, Punch Me in the Stomach — and the all-time record-breaking show Altar Boyz.
24. A film festival! ATF launched its now-annual multi-day Adirondack Film Festival in October 2016. For the several days when the Film Fest is in town, Glens Falls feels an awful lot like Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Festival. We are so urbane — and we get free popcorn alongside a heady overstuffed menu of movies, shorts, documentaries and stars.
25. The musical Calling All Kates opens this 25th anniversary Adirondack Theatre Festival season. Like many ATF shows, it is brand-new, original, workshopped here last season, playing in conjunction with Chad’s other theater in Bloomington, Indiana. See the next page for details on the show — and fasten your seatbelts. The flight is about to begin again.
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