copious notes

Rich Copley: New Works' first full production of a new work frees actors, audience

For New Works Inc., world premiere fills the bill as its first full production

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistSeptember 29, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    'Saint Christopher Is Not a Saint Anymore'

    What: World premiere production of Hunt Scarritt's play.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3-5, 10-12, 17-19; 2 p.m. Oct. 6, 13, 20.

    Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.

    Tickets: $15-$20; available at the Downtown Arts Center box office, by calling (859) 225-0370 or at Lexarts.tix.com.

New stage works have been very good to Lexington native Stephen Currens.

Gorey Stories, his original musical with David Aldrich, had a brief run on Broadway in 1978 and helped establish his stage career, often working with original scripts.

"Throughout my life, my happiest experiences have been with new works," Currens says.

And that is why, when he decided to hang out his shingle as an artistic director in his hometown, Currens chose to focus on new plays and musicals.

His New Works Inc., which has presented a number of staged readings, opens its first full production this week with the world premiere of Louisiana playwright Hunt Scarritt's Saint Christopher Is Not a Saint Anymore.

"It has become a personal mission for me to be involved in new-play development," Currens says. "And that is one thing I thought we could commit to is new-play development in local theater."

Area theaters, he knows, are not averse to new plays. Just last month, Actors Guild of Lexington presented the world premiere production of local playwright Walter May's Gone Astray, a script New Works had offered in a staged reading last spring. And the cast of Saint Christopher includes Lorne Dechtenberg, director of Bluegrass Opera, a company dedicated to presenting new and occasional world premieres of operas and musicals.

"It's exciting," Dechtenberg says before a Tuesday night rehearsal at the Downtown Arts Center's rehearsal room. "You get to be part of the first vision of what this play will be."

Saint Christopher centers on a Louisiana bar that has just been robbed and its denizens, who still show up and try to maintain a sense of normalcy in the alley out back.

"It's a play about the kind of people who come to a bar, even when it's closed," says Burley Thomas who plays Percy, one of the bar employees.

Matt Kelder, who serves as New Works' general manager and plays Brother, says, "It's an existential comedy with a lot of laughs, but you're left with questions at the end."

Figuring out how to describe the show to friends and family is something new for the actors and behind-the-scenes personnel. It's not like doing a production of Romeo and Juliet, where you say the title and everyone knows the story.

Although there are selling points. Actors describe Saint Christopher as being like a Tennessee Williams play but not as depressing, and while this script is new, Scarritt has some noteworthy credits, including writing for the TV dramas J.A.G. and Bones.

Jennifer Parr. who plays barfly Mabel, says, "All I have to do is tell people it's set in New Orleans and they say, 'I'm there.' People love New Orleans."

To the actors, one of the freeing things about being in a new play is also the most daunting: they are starting from scratch, with no precedents for how their characters are seen.

"You really have to focus on the script and looking for what the playwright's intentions were," says Leah-Marie McDivitt, who plays Sister. But, she and others say, performing in the first production of a play frees them from falling into the trap of parroting previous performances.

As Saint Christopher prepares to premiere, Currens is looking for the next show. Quality new scripts are hard to come by, he says, but he is hearing from more playwrights as word gets out about the company and its mission. One of the main things is that playwrights need to be open to working with the theater on a development process for the show, he says.

"I have talked to some playwrights we were interested in who thought their plays were just fine as they were, and I disagreed," Currens says.

But the main question for the company is how interested Lexington audiences will be in New Works.

Members of the Saint Christopher company say a new play tends to engage the audience too, because they are the first to see the show and provide the first real feedback.

"Hopefully the audience is experimental as we are," Thomas says.


IF YOU GO

'Saint Christopher Is Not a Saint Anymore'

What: World premiere production of Hunt Scarritt's play.

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3-5, 10-12, 17-19; 2 p.m. Oct. 6, 13, 20.

Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.

Tickets: $15-$20; available at the Downtown Arts Center box office, by calling (859) 225-0370 or at Lexarts.tix.com.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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