by Morey Storck
When White Plains Performing Arts Center (WPPAC) General Manager Kathleen Davisson, and Associate Producer and Resident Musical Director Stephen Ferri, were asked what would be their suggestion for the headline of this article, it just fit.
They are enthusiastic, energetic, and optimistic with a vision for this professional theatre, and that is to bring the New Generation Broadway, and its adventurous attempt to build a new theater audience looking for fresh, innovative productions, to Westchester, to their own backyard.
“Our demographics, here in Westchester, indicate a younger, more attuned audience that is heavily involved with social media, with new social norms and changing attitudes, and a hunger for new excitement in entertainment,” Ferri said. “That is not to say that we throw away the brilliant musical stage classics of yesterday. But, that was yesterday, and there are plenty of venues all around Westchester that cater to very appreciative audiences that enjoy the beloved songs from Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, etc. and that’s good. But, a younger audience is looking out for what’s new, what’s cutting-edge now.”
In November 2003, the City of White Plains opened a 410-seat, state-of-the-art, professional Equity theatre in its downtown commercial center, within easy reach of the surrounding areas of Westchester, Rockland and lower Connecticut. It now is the home of the WPPAC. With self-produced, professional theatrical productions, as well as presentations of nationally and internationally known performing artists, WPPAC strives to bring to its stage the best in contemporary theatre, dance, music, stand-up comedy and children’s programing in an intimate, modern, comfortable setting.
“But, all of this, obviously, takes money, and it takes a lot of money to make money AND art,” Davisson explained. “There’s a song from Curtains by Kander and Ebb, that says it all. Show business is just that. It’s a business! Everything revolves around profit and loss. No matter your noble intentions, if you can’t afford the production you want, the standards of professionalism in every aspect of performance and production your audience and we demand, we don’t do it. It’s that simple.”
In addition, WPPAC’s Conservatory Theatre is the only youth theatre and educational organization in residence at a professional theatre in Westchester. The Conservatory is a professional training and presentation program offered year-round for all theatrical artists between the ages of 10-25. They strive to be “the epicenter for theatrical training and education in the county. Students are held to the highest professional standards while providing them the tools necessary to meet those standards.”
Heathers: The Musical is one example of serious content musicals that WPPAC is bringing to its stage. It is a rock musical with music, lyrics and book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy and is based on the cult film Heathers. After a sold-out Los Angeles tryout, the show had a production Off-Broadway in 2014. While ostensibly a comedy, the show deals with issues of teen suicide, murder, bullying, homophobia, and gun violence. It has since become immensely popular on various social media outlets.
As Jeremy Quinn, WPPAC Producing Artistic Director at the time of this interview with “Black Women for Wellness”(BWW) in 2016, pointed out: “I think it’s a very important show for us to be doing because there’s no other theatre in Westchester County who’s going to touch it. That’s actually what makes WPPAC special. We embrace our own uniqueness and individuality as a production company by doing shows that others may stay away from. Otherwise we’d fall into the trap of bland, uninteresting programming that people are tired of seeing. You’ve got to shake things up or there won’t BE a next generation of theatergoers. Stephen Ferri, the Heathers Musical Director, and I are constantly searching for new material that’s smart, very direct, cutting-edge and contemporary. No fluff. That’s what our audience wants. That’s why we’re here.”
Today, Ferri continues in that direction. They start around a blank table with a production team consisting of a director, musical director, company manager and program scheduler or, in other words, a selection committee. What’s the show that is unanimously selected to be produced? Is it available? Is it financially tenable? Can it be adapted to their stage and venue? Do they have an audience for it? Is their choice for choreographer and scenery designer available? Do they have a talented adapter for the material they have selected?
When finally there is a collective “yes,” then that’s when they put their heads together and begin the really hard work. Collaboration is key, empowering everybody from the creative team and cast to the designers and crew to figure out how to collectively do it.
“But, there is one thing that I insist on and have since I joined WPPAC, that there can be no down-sizing of the show to fit our stage or benefit that all-important financial statement that can jeopardize the integrity of the material,” Ferri stressed. “We can cut the number of musicians, use fewer dancers, pare down some of the chorus, be inventive with less scenery, but never change the script or score or the intent, power and signature of the original creative team that wrote and composed the show