The Journal New
10 and counting
By Peter D. Kramer
October 30, 2008

There must have been something in the air a decade ago when three professional theater groups set up shop: Croton's Hudson Stage, The Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls and Axial Theatre in Pleasantville.

Each has survived perilous economic times to create new homes for theater in the suburbs. Successful theater companies with devoted followers, each is about to set off on 10th-anniversary seasons.

For the first two seasons at Hudson Stage Company, co-founders Dan Foster, Olivia Sklar and Denise Bessette looked to the sky.

"It seemed that every event we did was met with some weather disaster: a flood, a hurricane, several blizzards, and even a late spring hailstorm," recalls Foster. "But being in the theater, we took them all as positive signs."

The skies have long since cleared over Hudson Stage, which began as an informal play-reading series in the Croton Free Library and 10 years ago formed as a professional company at Clear View School in Briarcliff.

Last year, they had to turn people away from the sold-out run of Jeffrey Hatcher's "Murderers" at the 130-seat Woodward Hall Theater at Pace University in Briarcliff.

By design, the fall and spring main-stage productions dovetail with their professional and personal lives, Foster says.

"Denise acts and Olivia is a recurring character on 'One Life to Live,' says Foster, an in-demand director. "I think we're right where we want to be, given the parameters we've set. We want to try to have balanced lives. It means that during this one little period leading up to the show, our families eat a lot of pizza."

Foster says the company's latest production, opening tomorrow for a three-weekend run, is just the kind of show he and his co-founders set out to produce a decade ago.

"Mary's Wedding" is a two-character play by Canadian writer Stephen Massicote that mixes dreams and reality, love and loss, life and death. It stars Christina Bennett Lind and Blake Kubena. Set in World War I, it is steeped in poetic language, and requires an audience to think, to make connections, to fill in the blanks.

"It feels cinematic, but there's an inherent theatricality to it that is part of the experience," says Foster, who directs the play. "If it were a film, there'd be nothing for the audience to do, nothing for them to fill in.

Hudson Stage audiences can handle it, says Foster, who directs many of the shows while Sklar and Bessette act as producers.

"We learned that audiences are smart and that we had to court them," he says. "They weren't naturally going to come to us. But once word got out, we became a legitimate choice for them."

Hudson Stage is trying something new this fall, with Sleepy Hollow playwright Staci Swedeen presenting her monologue "Pardon Me for Living" - about a run-in with a rabid raccoon - on the next three Sundays, at 7 p.m. It is directed by Yvonne Conybeare.

On the main-stage, Foster says he likes the distance that "Mary's Wedding" offers as a historical piece and the universality it offers as a romance.

"It may have the same themes and the same emotions as a contemporary play, but as an audience member, you go and figure, 'Oh, this is historical. It isn't about me.' But if it's done well, before you know it, it is about you. That sneaking-up quality is exciting. I love that trick that it plays."

Pamela Moller Kareman, the artistic director for The Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, says the venue's first show as a professional regional not-for-profit theater - Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly" - had two things going for it.

"It was a budgetary consideration: Two people in the cast," she says. "And (founder) Lee (Pope) loved the lyrical quality of the writing."

"Talley's Folly" also fit the mission that Moller Kareman and Pope had for the converted elementary school: Presenting lesser-known works of American playwrights.

"We've done Tennessee Williams, but we haven't done 'Streetcar,' " she says. "We look for award-winning playwrights, but we've also done newer writers, like Todd Susman."

Susman's "Locked and Loaded," about two men with brain tumors who agree to kill themselves, opened the ninth season. His play "Him" - about the last Jew on Earth, who is on display at the Brooklyn Museum - opens the 10th, with performances running weekends from Nov. 13 to Nov. 30.

For Susman, having a stage for his work "means the world." "Lee Pope is a patron of the arts, a lovely person," he says. "And Pam Moller Kareman is not only smart and progressive, she's really interested in the area. She loves her audience and she drives herself hard to bring them wonderful material. And she has great courage. Who's gonna take a chance on my stuff"

Moller Kareman knows her audience, often sitting among them in the tiny theater.

"These people can go to New York and be there in an hour," she says. "We look for things that they won't necessarily see in New York or that they may have missed in New York.

"When we did 'The Sisters Rosensweig,' we got more than one e-mail saying 'I saw the New York production and this was so much better.' Not that I want to say we're better than Madeline Kahn, but the experience of seeing a show in our intimate theater is wonderful."

"Intimate" is an understatement. Moller Kareman likes to joke that the theater - which used to be the school's cafeteria - "can seat 75 comfortably, 100 uncomfortably."

Moller Kareman knows which scripts are Schoolhouse scripts. "Some plays are not really plays; they're radio shows," she says. "They don't need production, there's too much dialogue. ... Even if we do something like 'Lost in Yonkers,' it has such a big heart for our stage and a special place for our audience."

Last season's production of "The Crucible" had a huge cast and a huge budget but it came with a big upside - it transferred to a New York theater for a month-long run.

After 10 years, Moller Kareman is not being smug when she says that what she does on her tiny stage is just as important as what people see in Manhattan.

"Keeping The Schoolhouse and its mission in order and finding a way to keep producing these plays in that wonderful building with that great team behind the scenes is very fulfilling," she says. "It's a joy, a joy, a joy."

When Howard Meyer and a group of actors and writers tried to start Axial Theatre in 1998, the mix wasn't right. "Terrific actors, but a few too many egos," he says.

"It's the difference between the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees. You can buy all the best players in baseball, but that still doesn't win you a World Series," he says.

A year later, the group had changed, the egos were gone and Axial was born.

To an outsider, Axial's approach is collaborative in the extreme. When the stage manager for the group's current show - "Inside/Out," four one-acts - started planning set changes, she found every actor ready to do his or her part.

"I think that's a small example of how everybody feels happy to be part of this family," Meyer says.

For 10 years, this "family" has been developing new plays over an extended process of improvisation. The scripts are written by company members and then honed by the entire 15-member company. It's a model used successfully by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the creators of last year's Tony-winning drama, "August: Osage County."

Meyer's not in a hurry.

"I grew up in an era of impatience," he says. "We all did - 'Get it fast, get it done' - and it's impossible not to get sucked into that for a period of time, but I grew weary of things being rushed to the stage."

The audience is part of the collaboration: Axial uses audience talk-backs to help shape its pieces. And the audience provides inspiration, with playwrights writing with a metropolitan suburban family in mind.

Meyer says he's seen already the impact of the financial crisis on that audience. The turnout at this year's fundraising gala was down about 40 percent from last year. Still, those who attended helped to raise 80 percent of what was raised last year.

"The vibe was so warm," Meyer says. "The people who know us value what we're doing because they feel included and invited into the process."

Meyer hopes that in another 10 years, the group's connections will be broader.

"It'd be nice to keep growing and become a regional theater that gets some respect beyond our borders," he says. "Westchester's our home, but we're not just a Westchester theater anymore. It'd certainly be nice, like Steppenwolf, to move a show into New York and be recognized for the work we do."

Meyer doesn't just talk the talk about teamwork and collaboration He lives it. In the play "Junior" in "Inside/Out," he plays a yet-to-be-born baby who forces his future father to come to grips with fatherhood. That's Meyer on stage in a diaper.

Consider it taking one for the team.