Brind School Announces 2016 'Polyphone' Festival, March 20-27

‘Festival of the Emerging Musical’ to challenge convention with explosive, concert-style performances featuring 4 new musicals and one American classic

Scene from "Elementary Spacetime Show" from the 2015 Polyphone Festival. Photo credit: Paola Nogueras.

January 22, 2016

The Ira Brind School of Theater Arts announces the 2016 lineup for Polyphone, a “festival of the emerging musical” on the UArts campus in Philadelphia. Running March 20-27, the 2016 Polyphone festival produces staged concerts of new musicals and re-imagined canonical works offering professional composers, librettists and directors an opportunity to develop their work among the rich creative community of the Brind School at UArts. The festival will program five musicals, including both classical and new works, with three performances each.

“‘Polyphone’ convenes artists-in-training, master artists developing new musicals and the general public in a radical exploration of the question, ‘What is a musical?’” said Joanna Settle, director of the Brind School.

By lifting up musicals and artistic voices that are under-supported and under-developed by the musical theater establishment, Polyphone seeks to be a home for young musicals and young artists, pushing both further as a result of their encounter with each other. The festival offers artists, theaters, producers and students in Philadelphia and beyond a glimpse into alternative futures of what the American musical might be. Each performance stands in sharp contrast to the others, making it thrilling either to attend all five performances or just one.

Polyphone will feature staged-concert performances of four new works includingFinn the Fearless” with music and lyrics by Andrew Butler, book by Andrew Farmer, directed by Kent Nicholson;Annie Salem: An American Talewith music and lyrics by Heather Christian and book by Rachel Chavkin; “Sometimes in Prague” by Stephanie Johnstone and Joshua Gelb, music by Stephanie Johnstone, directed by Joshua Gelb; and “The Material World” by Dan Fishback, directed by Stephen Brackett. Alongside these new works will be an anchor of the musical theater canon, “A Chorus Line,” directed by Assistant Professor Kati Donovan BFA ’06 (Musical Theater), with music direction and new orchestration by Master Lecturer César Alvarez. The festival was co-founded in 2015 by Brind School Director Joanna Settle and Alvarez, a New York-based composer, lyricist and performer who serves as Polyphone’s artistic director.

“Each of the five musicals is stripped down to its essence as an off-book, semi-staged concert with a full band. The resulting performances are explosions of song and story, which vibrate on the boundary between concert and musical. It’s all very rock ‘n roll,” commented Alvarez.

On Friday, March 25, in the spirit of Polyphone’s investigation of the contemporary American musical, New York-based playwright, lyricist and composer Michael R. Jackson will deliver the Polyphone keynote address titled “Unpacking ‘Diversity’ in Musical Theater” at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 26 will feature a marathon day in which audiences can view all four new works beginning at 11 a.m. 

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS:
A Chorus Line
(March 20 & 23 at 8 p.m.; March 27 at 4 p.m. at the Merriam Theater)
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante
Director: Kati Donovan ’06
Music Director: César Alvarez

Description: The story of Broadway dancers auditioning for spots on a chorus line, the musical is set on the bare stage of a Broadway theater during an audition for a musical. A Chorus Line provides a glimpse into the personalities of the performers and the choreographer as they describe the events that have shaped their lives and their decisions to become dancers.

Finn the Fearless
(March 22 & 25 at 8 p.m.; March 26 at 11 a.m. at the Merriam Theater)
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Butler
Book by Andrew Farmer
Director: Kent Nicholson

Music Director: Amanda Morton
Description: Once there was a weird little fella from up north named Finn who wanted to feel his heart race. So he trekked on down to the most devilish, hair-raising and humid pit known to man: a little place called...Florida. Told through tall tales, lively Americana music and gator wrestling, Finn the Fearless uses our nation's most confounding state to frame a story about our species' most confounding emotions: fear and love.

Annie Salem: An American Tale
(March 24 at 8 p.m.; March 26 at 5 p.m.; March 27 at 12 p.m. at the Merriam Theater)
Music by Heather Christian
Book by Rachel Chavkin
Dramaturg/Concert Director: Amy Dugas-Brown
Music Director: Heather Christian
Assistant Music Director: Ellen Winter

Description: Blending social commentary, sci-fi and romance, Annie Salem: An American Tale tells the story of teenage misfit Jack, his love for Annie and a journey to mars. A surreal, experimental new musical adapted from Mac Wellman's genre-defying novel. This project and its creative team comes to us fresh from a residency at Sundance Theater Lab.

Sometimes in Prague
(March 22 & 24 at 8 p.m.; March 26 at 8:30 p.m. at Arts Bank)
Written by Stephanie Johnstone and Joshua Gelb
Director: Joshua Gelb
Music Director: Stephanie Johnstone

Description: A chance encounter between three Americans in a Czech pub ignites this vibrant theatrical event. A rock concert that culminates in an actual dance-party, Sometimes in Prague provocatively examines the tensions between open and monogamous relationships and the values that shape these orientations, posing the perennial question: “What is the most authentic way to love in our progressively shifting culture?”

The Material World
(March 23 & 25 at 8 p.m.; March 26 at 2 p.m. at Arts Bank)
Written by Dan Fishback
Director: Stephen Brackett
Music Director: Dane Terry

Description: A multi-generational family epic about capitalism, Judaism and Madonna. Time Out New York observed, "Slacker anxiety, diva entitlement, Kabbalistic mysticism and socialist dogma collide to mind-swelling effect in Dan Fishback’s Kushnerian folk-pop musical."

Marathon Day on Saturday, March 26
(11 a.m. – 11 p.m. at the Merriam Theater and Arts Bank)
Four new works in succession: Finn the Fearless, The Material World, Annie Salem: An American Tale, Sometimes in Prague

* Musicals are currently in development and are not open for critical review at this time.

ARTIST BIOS:
JOANNA SETTLE (Producer) is the director of the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She recently directed “Hands Up” for Flashpoint Theater, “Rapture Blister Burn” for the Wilma Theater, Heather Raffo’s Opera “Fallujah” for the Kennedy Center and “The Total Bent” by Stew for the Public Theater. She has also directed Winter Miller’s “In Darfur” for The Public in 2007, as well as the finale of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “365 Days/365 Plays” and Stephen Brown’s “Future Me.” She directed Heather Raffo’s “Nine Parts of Desire” at Manhattan Ensemble Theater and restaged the production for the Geffen Playhouse, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, MassMOCA, Seattle Repertory Theatre and D.C.’s Arena Stage. Her other credits include “Slither” by Carson Kreitzer and the South American tour of “Grease! The Musical.”  Settle served as the artistic director of Division 13 Productions from 1998 to 2004 and directed and/or adapted 15 of D13’s 17 projects, including “BLOOD LINE: The Oedipus/Antigone Story,” two plays by Sophocles, “Macbett” by Ionesco, and several Samuel Beckett shorts including “Cascando” and “Play.” Settle served as artistic director of Shakespeare on the Sound from 2009 to 2012, where she directed productions of “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” “Othello,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Settle holds a BA in Theater Directing and Design from Hampshire College and completed her graduate studies at the Juilliard School in the inaugural Graduate Directing program. Settle has taught in the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA Directing Program, at Bard College,  and the Stanford University Ph.D. Program.

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CÉSAR ALVAREZ is a New York-based composer, lyricist and writer. Recent composition credits includeFUTURITY” directed by Sarah Benson (Soho Rep/Ars Nova, A.R.T, Walker Art Center, Mass MoCA); Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' “An Octoroon” (Soho Rep, TFANA. Drama Desk Nomination); “Washeteria” (Soho Rep); the Foundry Theater's “Good Person of Szechwan” (LaMaMa, Public Theater; Drama Desk Nomination); Mac Wellman's “3 2's; or AFAR” (Dixon Place); and “Full Still Hungry” for Contra-Tiempo (Ford Amphitheater, Dance Motion USA). Works in development include “The Universe Is a Small Hat,” a multi-player participatory musical (Berkeley Rep Ground Floor, Civilians R&D Group, PRELUDE NYC, Babycastles, Sarah Lawrence College), “The Elementary Spacetime Show” (Ars Nova Uncharted, EST/Sloan Commission, Polyphone) and “Castro” with Lucas Hnath (Berkeley Rep Ground Floor and Space at Ryder Farm). César is an artist-in-residence at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the artistic director of Polyphone, a festival of the emerging musical at UArts.

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HEATHER CHRISTIAN is an Obie Award-winning composer and performer for music and theater (“Mission Drift, National Theater London; “The World Is Round” Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC; “Of Mice and Men,” West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds; “Annie Salem,” Ars Nova/Sundance Theater Lab) as well as film (“Gregory Go Boom,” winner of 2014 Sundance Grand Jury Prize). She teaches an Atelier at Princeton University for traditional songwriting in non-traditional applications and was named a TimeOut NY Downtown Innovator to Watch. Primarily a songstress with her band the Arbornauts, she has released four records and can be seen all over the world avant-torching.

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STEPHEN BRACKETT is a company member of Lesser America and Partial Comfort, and an alumnus of the Soho Rep Lab. Works in collaboration with Dan Fishback include “The Material World,” “thirtynothing” and “You Will Experience Silence” (Dixon Place). Credits include Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar” (Rattlestick and Barrow Street Theaters/National Tour/London’s Menier Chocolate Factory); Bixby Elliot’s “Sommerfugl” (InViolet); Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz’s “Be More Chill” (Two River Theater); Anton Dudley’s “City Of” (Playwrights Realm); David West Read’s “The Great Pretender” (TheatreWorks); Lucas Kavner’s “Carnival Kids” (Lesser America), “Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief” (Theatreworks USA); Ken Urban’s “The Correspondent” (Rattlestick); Micheline Auger’s “American River” (Lesser America); Bekah Brunstetter’s “Nothing is the End of the World” (Waterwell/PPAS); Chad Beckim’s “After” (Partial Comfort); Brunstetter’s “Be A Good Little Widow” (Ars Nova); “The Tenant” (Woodshed Collective); Rick Viede’s “Whore” (Summer Play Festival); and “Kilroy Was Here: A Styx Rock Opera” (Williamstown Theatre Festival).

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KENT NICHOLSON most recently directedLong Story Short” at Prospect Theater in New York. New York credits include “Five Flights” (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), “Wet” (Summer Play Festival) and “Marry Harry” (NYMF, American Theater Group). Regional credits include “Light in the Piazza” (South Coast Repertory); “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” (South Coast Repertory, Berkeley Repertory, Seattle Repertory); “Lizzie” (Theater Under the Stars, Village Theater); “Grey Gardens,” “Vincent in Brixton,” “Ambition Facing West” andAll My Sons” (TheatreWorks); ”Saint Ex” (Weston Playhouse); “9 Circles,” “The Good German” and “Jacques Brel” (Marin Theater Company); and “Small Tragedy” and “Satellites” (Aurora Theater Company). Kent created the New Works Initiative at TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley in 2000 and served as the director of New Works until 2008. He currently serves as the director of musical theater for Playwrights Horizons.

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DAN FISHBACK has been making theater and music in New York City since 2003. As director of the Helix Queer Performance Network, he organizes public events, teaches workshops and curates various performance festivals. His musical “The Material World” was named one of the Top Ten Plays of 2012 by Time Out New York. Other works include “thirtynothing” (2011) and “You Will Experience Silence” (2009). As a singer-songwriter, Fishback has released five albums, both solo and with his band Cheese On Bread, with whom he has toured Europe and North America. He has received grants from the Franklin Furnace Fund, the Doris Duke Charitable Trust and the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, and has been a resident artist at Kelly Writers House, the Hemispheric Institute of Performance & Politics, Dixon Place, MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center and BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange, where he has been in residence, in some form or another, since 2010.

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ANDREW R. BUTLER is a writer, performer and composer. He has been a resident artist at Ars Nova as a member of their 2014/2015 Uncharted music/theater writers' group, where he wrote music and lyrics for storytelling folk-musical “Finn the Fearless” with playwright Andrew Farmer. Also with Farmer: “BLESSING,” a new musical commissioned by the Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU, directed by Kent Nicholson; and a musical adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's children's novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, commissioned by TheaterWorksUSA. As recipient of the 2014 Boris Sagal Fellowship at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Andrew wrote music and lyrics for The Dixon Family Album. His science-fiction solo folk-musical “Rags Parkland” has been presented at Ars Nova and JACK. He is a recipient of the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat and of a new musical workshop at the 2015 Aspen Theatre Festival (both with “Finn the Fearless”). Andrew is a founding member of harunalee theater company. Selected performance credits include “Futurity” (SoHo Rep/Ars Nova), harunalee's “War Lesbian” (Dixon Place), “Political Subversities” (Joe's Pub, Ars Nova), “Folk Wandering” (Joe's Pub, Ars Nova), “WOLFERT,” “The White Stag Quadrilogy” (Dixon Place), “BYUIOO” (Gym at Judson), and William Burke's “Comfort Dogs” (JACK). BFA: NYU: Experimental Theater Wing.

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ANDREW FARMER is a writer, performer and storyteller. He is currently in residence at Ars Nova as a member of their 2014/2015 Uncharted music/theater writers' group, where he is writing book for the folk-musical “Finn the Fearless” with composer Andrew Butler. Also with Butler: “BLESSING,” a new musical commissioned by the Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU; and a musical adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's children's novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, commissioned by TheaterWorksUSA. Recent playwriting credits include “The Gray Man” (Walker Space, Dir. Andrew Neisler); “The Fall of Hotel Mudafier to the Toltecs” (Williamstown Theater Festival, Dir. Annie Tippe); “Our Farm” (The Tank, Dir. Andrew Neisler); and “Hands” (Best New Play 2006, Southeast Theater Conference.) Also at Ars Nova, he created and performed in “I Heard Sex Noises: A Glimpse at Gardening On Roosevelt Island” with Claire Rothrock, Ryann Weir and Annie Tippe, and wrote the book “Boats And” (music by Nate Weida). Recent performance credits include “Clown Bar” (The Box) for which he received a NYIT Nomination for Best Supporting Actor, “The Universe Is a Small Hat” (directed by Sarah Benson) and “Bull's Hollow: Part I” (Ars Nova). His storytelling has been featured on “F@*k! I'm In My Twenties,” New York Magazine's “The Cut” and Mara Wilson’s “What Are You Afraid Of?” He currently teaches playwriting at NYU's Playwrights Horizons Theater School. BFA: NYU: PHTS. 

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JOSHUA WILLIAM GELB is a director, performer and librettist whose work runs the gamut from devised physical theater, to stylized adaptations of classics, to experimental, original musicals. His work has been produced at Ars Nova, JACK, Incubator Arts Project, Edinburgh Fringe, Knockdown Center, Dixon Place, Target Margin, Ice Factory and NYMF. Gelb's reimagining of America’s supposed first musical, “The Black Crook,” last seen in 2008, will be remounted this September at Abrons Arts Center in honor of The Crook's 150th anniversary. Gelb is a Carnegie Mellon John Wells Fellow and a member of the 2012 Lincoln Center Directors Lab. 

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STEPHANIE JOHNSTONE is a human, composer, theatermaker, muckraker and sexuality educator with a fierce commitment to celebrating and cultivating interdependence. Her recent original theater work has been seen at Joe's Pub, HERE Arts Center, 3LD, CSC and in the New York Musical Theater Festival. As a music director, she has worked with Taylor Mac and Anais Mitchell, among others, and she was the associate music director of “War Horse” (1st national tour). She catalyzed a radically inclusive choir (“Everybody Now!”), which aims to amplify the voice of direct action in beauty and in power, and her queer-politics-focused album, Love Songs for the Rest of Us, was developed through holding concert/conversations in living rooms across the USA. She also has a podcast, “Sex For Smart People* (*that means you).”

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KATI DONOVAN is an educator, director, dramaturg and published scholar. A proud graduate of San Diego State University’s MFA in Musical Theater program, Kati is also an alumnus of Villanova University (MA in Theater, dramaturgy focus) and the University of the Arts (BFA in Musical Theater). As a musical theater specialist, she has taught and directed undergraduate students in a number of different academic settings, at Franklin and Marshall College, San Diego State University and the University of the Arts. Supplementing her teaching with a strong scholarly background, Kati has presented papers at the Association of Theatre in Higher Education, American Literature Association, Philadelphia Theatre Research Symposium and Music Theatre Educators Alliance conferences. Her scholarship has been published in The Eugene O'Neill Review and in the international journal Studies in Musical Theatre.

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MICHAEL R. JACKSON holds a BFA and MFA in playwriting and Musical Theatre Writing from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. As a songwriter, he has seen his work performed at the Barrington Stage Company, Merkin Hall, the Laurie Beechman Theater, 54 Below, the Triad, Ars Nova, Joe’s Pub, the Metropolitan Room, the Bruno Walter Library and ACT in Seattle. He wrote the book, music and lyrics for the musical “A Strange Loop.” He wrote the book and lyrics for the musical “Only Children” with composer Rachel Peters and is currently writing the book and lyrics for the musical adaptation of the 2007 comedy horror film “Teeth” with composer Anna Jacobs. He is an alum of the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony and Ars Nova Uncharted Writers Group.

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RACHEL CHAVKIN is a director, writer, dramaturg and founding artistic director of Brooklyn-based experimental ensemble the TEAM, with whom she has co-authored and directed nine works that have been seen across NYC (including the Public Theater and PS122), nationally (including the Walker Art Center and A.R.T.) and internationally (including the National Theatre and Royal Court, and festivals across Europe, Australia, and Asia). She collaborates regularly with writers and composers on new work, including Dave Malloy’s “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” (Ars Nova World Premiere, off-Broadway transfer, A.R.T., Broadway transfer upcoming; New York Times, Time Out NY and NY Post Critics' Pick); folksinger Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown” (NYTW, Spring 2016); Chris Thorpe's “Confirmation” (2014 Scotsman Fringe First, national and international tour); Bess Woh's “Small Mouth Sounds” (New York Times Top 10 2015); and Marco Ramirez's “The Royale” (Lincoln Center, Old Globe). Recipient of the 2010 and 2013 Obie Award, Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominations for Best Direction, and 2013 and 2014 Doris Duke Impact Award nominee. Proud SDC Member.

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