New Work in Progress: Pittsburgh CLO & Up and Away

This month, we chatted with Mark Fleischer and Van Kaplan, respectively the Producing Director and Executive Producer at Pittsburgh CLO, about their new works program. We learned more about the program’s history, their upcoming festival of new works, and their spring world premiere musical, Up and Away, written by Kevin Hammonds and Kristin Bair. The PCLO new works festival will have its inaugural season this spring in conjunction with the NAMT Spring Conference.

What is Pittsburgh CLO’s history with new works, and what inspired the theatre’s decision to create a festival of new musicals? How does this new endeavor fit into Pittsburgh CLO’s larger mission?
The Festival is new for Pittsburgh CLO, but we’ve actually produced new work for over twenty years. We’ve had several world premiere productions on the main stage and most recently at the Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret (including Judge Jackie Justice: The Trials of Love and ‘S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical), and we routinely invest in and produce new works on Broadway that then go on to tour Pittsburgh (An American in ParisOn Your FeetMatilda, Come Fly Away…). Our new works programming began in 1994 with Lunch, which appeared in the NAMT Festival of New Musicals. Projects since then have included Barry Manilow’s CopacabanaDoctor Dolittle, and many more. Our commitment to nurturing new work and new talent is true both on our stages and behind the scenes; we’re also training the next generation of talent at our theater school, the CLO Academy.It’s true that the Festival is a different beast, in terms of the time and resources dedicated to each project and the scope of the programming as a whole. We’ll be developing 11 shows at all stages of development, from table read to world premiere production, with writers joining us for residencies ranging from two days to three weeks.The idea for the Festival really emerged out of need. CLO had been programming the 250-seat Cabaret space for 14 years, and we’d kind of reached the end of the line, in terms of shows that made sense in the space. Trying to find a small-cast show that works in an intimate space and is financially viable and entertaining is a challenge. Trying to find a show that fits those specifications and is compelling to an audience in 2017 is even tougher. So we realized that, in order to keep producing theater that is innovative and that we’re excited to present to our audiences, we’d need to actually seek out and support the creation and development of new work here in Pittsburgh.What we’ve recognized, while building this Festival, is that there are many theater companies and venues around the country that are looking for shows of this scale. So we’re eager to fill that need—to develop musicals that can then go on to future life not only in New York, but in cities and venues around the country. So many people are exposed to theater through musicals—and embracing that experience is what drives Pittsburgh CLO; our mission is the “celebration of musical theater.” In many parts of the country, seeing a musical means driving an hour to go see a national tour come through your nearest city. But the shows that we’re developing here are shows that can actually be sustained by the resources of a small company. We are motivated by the fact that the Festival isn’t just going to impact the audience here in Pittsburgh, but is going to build a development pipeline for work that can change people’s experience of musicals around the country.

What is your vision for the shape the new works program at Pittsburgh CLO will eventually take?
We’re very fortunate to be launching the sort of “dream version” of the Festival in its inaugural year. We have received incredible support for the Festival from our Board and donors; the Festival is funded, in large part, from our Next Generation Capital Campaign, which wrapped earlier this year. Thanks to that support, we are able to offer our artists fully compensated development time here in Pittsburgh, with the dramaturgical support and production resources of Pittsburgh CLO. And thanks to the length of our timeline (readings will rehearse for two 40-hour rehearsal weeks, workshops for three), writers are going to be able to build meaningful collaborative relationships here with their directors, music directors, and casts.

As the new works program continues to develop, our top priority is ensuring that it remains a writer-centric, process-oriented initiative. New musical development is a long and laborious process, and our goal is to give writers the time, freedom, and support they need to bring their ideas to fruition. That is going to take some agility on our end; we expect that the new works program will ultimately be made up of a variety of development opportunities—from residencies to public readings to world premieres—so that we’ll be able to respond to the unique needs of each creative team.

As time goes on, we’re looking forward to integrating new work development into the everyday fabric of the company. The Festival is the culminating event, but we have plans to continue new work development throughout the entire season. This year, we’ve dedicated time to workshops and writers’ residencies and commissions. We’re eager to find more of these types of opportunities as we develop relationships with writers, and we’re happy to support them through multiple projects. To have a thriving new works program both on and offstage, we also need to bring our audiences into the development process. In the next five years, it would make us happy to have an audience member buy a ticket for a world premiere without knowing the title or knowing what the show is about—but rather to buy that ticket out of excitement for the concept of new work in general. Similarly, in the next five years, we want to be one of the first companies to which a writer or composer will send an early draft.

You have a world premiere production of a new musical coming up in your cabaret space. How did Up and Away first find its way to Pittsburgh CLO, and more generally, how do you plan to choose new musicals to program for upcoming Pittsburgh CLO seasons?
Up and Away came in through an agent submission (Seth Glewen represents writers Kevin Hammonds and Kristin Bair), and we knew of Kevin and Kristin through their work at BMI. We have an open submissions policy at Pittsburgh CLO, which means that any writer can submit their work to us with or without an agent. A few other shows in the Festival were also submitted in this way. You can check out our submission guidelines on our website. We’ve also commissioned writers whose work we admire, and we often receive scripts and writer recommendations from artists we’ve worked with before—directors, writers, actors and other theater companies will share scripts that have crossed their paths. And, since we’re still building our pipeline of new work, we’ve reached out to writers individually to encourage them to submit.

What has the development process looked like as you and the writers prepare for the January opening of Up and Away?
Up and Away was featured last April in a pilot program for our Festival, Next Generation New Musicals Weekend. We developed four shows over the course of a week, and Up and Away was included in that lineup and received a week of rehearsal and an invite-only reading. That period of development was a great way to generate momentum in the rewrite process, because Kevin and Kristin and our director, Marlo Hunter, came out of the week with new ideas and challenges and priorities. Over the next six months, we had long dramaturgy conversations via email, and Kevin and Kristin turned in an astounding number of rewrites. They are writers who are not at all precious about their work, and in that period of development, basically every page of the script was changed in some way, sometimes just a tiny dialogue tweak, and sometimes a wholesale rewrite of a number. The show’s titular number, “Up and Away,” has gone through about four different iterations. We came out of that period with a strong draft, which we then explored with actors and our set designer, Reid Thompson, during a two-week workshop in October. It was a combined script development process and pre-production process, and of course, many more rounds of rewrites happened within those two weeks. The last couple of months have been about putting in the last big changes and doing the polishing and tightening work that you can tackle when you have a solid foundation. Kevin and Kristin turned in their rehearsal draft at the beginning of December, but nothing is set in stone yet—we’ll be tweaking up to Opening Night.

NAMT members who will attend the Spring Conference will have the chance to see Pittsburgh CLO’s inaugural new musical festival. What has the process of creating that festival looked like, and what kind of new works can NAMT members expect to see in the spring?
We’ve been in the interesting position of defining and building the Festival simultaneously, which has been an exciting experience. In recent months, in addition to finalizing our musical programming, we’ve been working on the logistics of the Festival as an event: finding spaces in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District that we can use for programming, hiring temporary staff members to come on board and help us execute this massive event, and making plans for all of the unique pieces of programming that elevate a reading series to a festival—talkbacks, panel discussions, late night events, parties, classes, local partnerships, etc. That means very full email inboxes and numerous calendar drafts, both for us and for the many, many people who have partnered with us to make this Festival happen—not only our colleagues at Pittsburgh CLO, but also our counterparts at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, City Theatre, Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and, of course, NAMT. We’re excited to announce our programming later this winter; for now, we’ll say that NAMT members are going to see small casts telling big stories that are smart, funny, and inventive.

Why should everyone plan a trip to Pittsburgh this spring to see all the exciting new work the Pittsburgh CLO team is putting together?
Because you’ll get to meet nearly one hundred artists, see new musical theater in process, and be among the first participants in a Festival that we believe will become a destination in just a few short years. And when you do come, make sure you take the Fort Pitt Tunnel from the airport. The view is pretty spectacular!

For more information about Pittsburgh CLO and Up and Away, visit the the PCLO website. You can also read more from Mark about starting a new works program on the NAMT Nuts & Bolts Guide to Producing New Musicals.

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