Theater & Dance
Theatre event
2015 New Works Festival

Readings of new plays and musicals, panel discussions, meet the artists.
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Festival director: Giovanna Sardelli
When: August 8-16, 2015
Where: TheatreWorks at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California
Tickets: Festival passes $49-$65; single events $19. Call 1-650-463-1960 or visit

What: "THE MAN IN THE CEILING," music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Jules Feiffer, based on the illustrated novel by Jules Feiffer, directed by Jeffrey Seller, 7 p.m. August 9 and 8 p.m. August 13, "Someday he’ll be an artist! But for now, Jimmy is a flop as a boy: hopeless in class, helpless at sports, clueless as Mom and Dad. Can you find happiness with just a pen? A Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist joins a Tony-nominated composer to find out."
What: "MARIE AND ROSETTA," by George Brant, directed by Neil Pepe, 8 p.m. August 8 and 12, 4 p.m. August 15, "With competition growing on the 1940s gospel circuit, Sister Rosetta Tharpe unveils a new partner, a beauty with a voice made in heaven. Will they blend, will they break, will life’s truths and tragedies find harmony at last?"
What: "MAN AND BEAST," by Lynn Rosen, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, 2 p.m. August 9, 8 p.m. August 15, "As his predictable life crumbles around him, a white social worker cares for a black client who cares for an orange tiger. Does everyone bite the hand that feeds them?"
What: "THE THERE THERE," by Jason Gray Platt, directed by Courtney Sale, 8 p.m. August 11, noon August 15, "Love lost. Love found. Love beckons, bewilders, grieves, and heals. We invent technology to define it, to protect it, to connect us ever more closely. And still, love breaks. But sometimes, played out over half a century, love lasts."
What: "CONFEDERATES," by Suzanne Bradbeer, directed by Lisa Rothe, 8 p.m. August 14, 7 p.m. August 16, "Dad’s running for president. Daughter’s running wild. Reporters are running out of time. Then someone unfurls a Confederate flag. This headline-hunting political drama is a fresh, fascinating, and intense look at today’s muckraking media."
What: "THE PAPER RAINCOAT," by Alex Wong, Amber Rubarth and Devon Copley, artistic liaison Leslie Martinson. 10:30 p.m. August 14, "Chronicles a woman’s poignant, memory-driven journey into what might have been."
What: MEET THE ARTISTS PANEL, noon, August 16, "The Festival’s featured playwrights and composers share their anecdotes and insight"; 15 minutes before the panel begins, a short play from the winners of this year’s 1440 Countdown – Check Your Six; five students from Milpitas High School (Joronica Vinluan, Holly Nguyen, Kalina Aragon, Connor McGarry, and team captain Peter Rafe) will perform the short play that won.

Andrew Lippa
Matthew Murphy photo
Andrew Lippa

Jules Feiffer
Courtesy of Jules Feiffer
Jules Feiffer

Jeffrey Seller
Josh Lehrer photo
Jeffrey Seller

George Brant
Mark Turek photograph
George Brant

Lynn Rosen
Jonas Gustavsson photo
Lynn Rosen

Jason Gray Platt
Michele Crowe photo
Jason Gray Platt

Suzanne Bradbeer
Anne Gwynn photo
Suzanne Bradbeer

Rubarth, Wong
Ric Agudelo photo
Amber Rubarth, left, and Alex Wong of The Paper Raincoat

Devon Copley
Courtesy of Devon Copley
Devon Copley of The Paper Raincoat

Jordan, Liberatore, Hodges
John Orr / Regarding Arts
Actor/singer Michelle E. Jordan, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Music Director Billy Liberatore and actor/singer Chaz Hodges, from left, after the first reading of George Brant's "Marie and Rosetta at the New Works Festival 2015 on August 8, 2015.
2015 New Works Festival
opens with 'Marie and Rosetta'
Popular TheatreWorks hothouse for new plays runs through Sunday at Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto
August 9, 2015

The 2015 TheatreWorks Silicon Valley New Works Festival is underway through Sunday, August 16, 2015, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

The festivities began on Saturday, August 8, with the Inner Circle dinner in the Lucie Stern ballroom, as a number of Festival producers, TheatreWorks board members and others schmoozed with playwrights, directors and top TheatreWorks staff, and dined on tri-tip, chicken and other dishes catered by Mavericks BBQ.

There was a modest amount of speechifying from Founder and Artistic Director Robert Kelley, Managing Director Phil Santora and News Works Director Giovanna Sardelli, before Sardelli began a Q and A with playwright George Brant and director Neil Pepe.

Robert Kelley
John Orr / Regarding Arts
Robert Kelley

Giovanna Sardelli
John Orr / Regarding Arts
Giovanna Sardelli

Brant's latest play, "Marie and Rosetta," was to get its first public reading — indeed, its first complete reading at New Works — that night in the auditorium, directed by Pepe.

Santora noted that TheatreWorks' goal is to create "an environment when art can grow."

Kelley talked about creating the New Works Festival as a means of injecting "new fire into the core of TheatreWorks."

Who knew, he said, that the first New Works Festival, in 2002, would nurture a play —- "Memphis" — that would go on to Broadway? That show ran on Broadway 2009 to 2012, with 30 previews and 1,165 regular performances.

New Works has seen a long line of great playwrights, among them Pulitzer Prize winners, he noted.

New Works has "changed the repertory of TheatreWorks and the American theater," Kelley said.

Sardelli noted that New Works allows multiple readings of new plays, which is very rare in the theater world.

Brant told about how he'd become aware of Sister Rosetta Tharpe via a song on an album he'd heard, "A strange, mysterious song about a strange, mysterious person."

He began his research and found that Sister Rosetta had been a big star of the gospel circuit in the 1930s, and became a huge influence on the development of electric guitar in gospel, swing and rock music. Thousands of people had attended one of her three weddings — the one held at a baseball stadium — but her following waned, and by the time she died, she'd been forgotten by most people, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Brant decided to focus his tale on the relationship between Sister Rosetta and Marie Knight. whom she'd spotted a gospel show, and recruited for her own tour. "The goal," said Brant, "is to get at the emotional truth of these two women."

Pepe said that Brant and he hadn't known each other, but both knew producer Scott Rudin, who sent the play to Pepe to read. Pepe read it, loved it, and now he and Brant are working on it at the festival. "We're trying to make it as important and as vibrant as it can be."

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Pepe noted the "amazing" work done by TheatreWorks Music Director Billy Liberatore, who created the score in just days.

After the performance, I asked Liberatore what orchestrations he'd been given.

"Orchestrations?" he exclaimed. "I was given a script!"

So, what Liberatore did was watch some of the videos and hear some of the recordings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and work out some piano parts. A day and a half before the first reading, guitarist Tim Roberts was added, and he did a great job emulating some of Sister Rosetta's idiosyncratic riffs.

The actor/singers were Michelle E. Jordan and Chaz Hodges, both of whom are excellent.

And no, I may not review a reading. It's against the rules, because it is never known how much a show might change between readings.

Barbara Shapiro
John Orr / Regarding Arts
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley board chair Barbara Shapiro

The Lucie Stern seemed to be about three-quarters full for this first reading, which is a fine indicator of how popular the program is with theater audiences. No sets, no costumes, just performers with their scripts on music stands in front of them. And the playwright and the director in the back of the hall, paying very close attention to the audience reactions.

"There are certain qualities to silence," Brant said, to a good laugh.

"The deeper you get into it with readings," Pepe said, "the more the actors show you what's there."

Pepe said it is their hope to get the play to New York. He has an in at Atlantic Theatre Company in New York, he pointed out, "Because I run it." He is artistic director of the off-Broadway theater that David Mamet and William H. Macy founded.

Pepe also said that he and Brant would launch a campaign to get Sister Rosetta Tharpe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The festival continued today with "Man and Beast," written by Lynn Rosen and directed by Sardelli, and "The Man in the Ceiling," with book by Jules Feiffer and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, directed by Jeffrey Seller.

The festival is dark on Monday, then runs Tuesday through Sunday with a number of other readings, including repeats of "Marie & Rosetta" and "Man in the Ceiling," other plays, a late-night musical performance and a meet-the-artists event on Sunday. Feiffer is to be at the Lucie Stern Theatre on Sunday after the matinee to sign copies of his book. The full schedule is on this page, in the column at left.

Email John Orr at

Sardelli, Brant, Pepe
John Orr / Regarding Arts
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley New Works Festival Director Giovanna Sardelli, playwright George Brant and director Neil Pepe, from left, at the New Works Festival 2015 Inner Circle Dinner on August 8, 2015.
Martinson, Charlene and Jerry Kabcenell
John Orr / Regarding Arts
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Associated Artistic Director and Casting Director Leslie Martinson, Charlene Kabcenell and board member Jerry Kabcenell, from left, at the New Works Festival 2015 Inner Circle Dinner on August 8, 2015.
Phil Santora
John Orr / Regarding Arts
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Executive Director Phil Santora lays down the law about the green tote bags and admission bracelets at the New Works Festival 2015 Inner Circle Dinner on August 8, 2015.
Anne and Larry Hambly
John Orr / Regarding Arts
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley board member Anne Hambly and Larry Hambly at the New Works Festival 2015 Inner Circle Dinner on August 8, 2015.
Martha and Mike Kahn
John Orr / Regarding Arts
Martha Kahn and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley board member Mike Kahn at the New Works Festival 2015 Inner Circle Dinner on August 8, 2015.
Rosen, Sardelli, Brant
John Orr / Regarding Arts
Playwright Lynn Rosen, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley New Works Director Giovanna Sardelli and playwright Charles Brant, from left, at the New Works Festival 2015 Inner Circle Dinner on August 8, 2015.