Monday, June 11, 2012

The PITCH: An Interview with the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's Ed Sayles

The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival is a summer-long festival (May 30-October 20) located in Auburn, New York and produced by Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. This year, the festival will feature shows from Altar Boyz and 9 to 5, to My Fair Lady and Fingers & Toes. New to the festival, however, is The PITCH, a festival of new work where every night 2-3 writing teams present a 40-50 minute musical sample from their shows. Live audiences will have the chance to give feedback on these musical pitches and to see works-in-progress in a bare bones setting. The full roster of presentations is listed on the festival's website, but to delve even deeper into how The PITCH came to be, I asked Ed Sayles, the festival's Producing Artistic Director, some questions:

Me: Where did the idea for The PITCH come from?

Ed: I’ve always loved the movie Yankee Doodle Day with James Cagney as George M. Cohan. In the movie, Cohan and his partner Sam Harris meet with a producer, and Harris sits at the piano while Cohan “pitches” their story for a show in less than 15 minutes. Pitch. The idea stuck with me for a while. Over the years I’ve become disturbed at the production costs creative teams incur in the early stages of developing their musicals. So The PITCH came into being as a way for creative teams to receive feedback about their work without any out-of-pocket expenses. This summer, The PITCH will be hosting 20 new musicals, which we hope will give them a start on the way to being fully realized productions. I suspect that a number of wonderful ideas for shows have never reached fruition because of the financial burdens that accompany the development process. It is my wish that, in a small way, this will remedy that problem.

Me: What was the process like curating all the musicals that will be presented as a part of The PITCH?

Ed: Oh, it was great fun. Highly amusing as we were going through the shows. The PITCH Coordinator, Walter Ryon, is based in New York City, so he was in a perfect position to establish personal relationships with creative teams. The finalists were vetted by the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival staff, and then the final selections were made.

Me: What stage of development are most of the musicals selected for The PITCH in? What kinds of resources has the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival provided for these writers to prepare for the presentations?

Ed: The musicals vary from being the initial first draft to being close to a full-scale production. The biggest resource we are providing is an audience. The audiences will provide feedback that will be crucial to helping the writers advance their work. Of course, we are also providing a quiet week and a rehearsal space to help the writers devote themselves to the task at hand.

Me: What do you hope audiences will gain most from being a part of The PITCH?

Ed: I think the audiences will be entertained by the novelty (and certainly the uniqueness) of these pieces. I think they will also enjoy a great sense of satisfaction because their reactions during the show and their suggestions in the talkback that follows will all become part of the creative process that the creative teams will use to better their musical. I also hope that audiences will gain a fuller understanding of the process through which a contemporary musical goes to reach full production. 

Me: What do you most hope writers will gain from participating in The PITCH?

Ed: More than anything, I want them to learn where and how to take their creation to the next level by using the feedback that they receive here at The PITCH. Also we expect to attract a number of potential producers from both the commercial and not-for-profit industries.

Me: What do you think it is about musicals that make it possible to present them this way?

Ed: Well, The PITCH format is designed to help creative teams clarify their pieces. This should allow the writers to focus on the through-action in their work in a way that will allow them to more fully shape the piece for future successful theatrical productions.

Me: Do you see these shorter presentations as being a more common way for musical writers to get their shows out to the public early in the process in the future?

Ed: We see The PITCH and the format being created as a totally new developmental stage for the creation of new musicals.

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