Fast and Furious

by Bryan Reesman
The cast of Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical
The cast of Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical

The annual New York Musical Festival (NYMF) in Manhattan delivers an array of quirky, eclectic entries that both play into and upend the genre’s conventions. The festival’s recent 14th season included a month of performances, workshops, concerts, and readings. NYMF has developed an efficient system to foster talented new writers, along with their exuberant casts and dedicated crews every year. They are paired with veteran directors and designers, tasked with the challenge of working under the festival’s extremely tight schedules. At NYMF, bigger or bolder is not better if it eats up valuable production time. “You need that wild energy, but it has got to be contained systematically,” says NYMF executive director Dan Markley, who just finished his fourth season with the festival.

While four NYMF shows have graduated to the Great White Way since its inception—specifically, Chaplin, Next To Normal, [title of show], and In Transit—many others have gone to off-Broadway houses or regional theaters around the country. Markley believes that productions trying to work outside of the NYMF umbrella would likely spend four to six times as much money to do so. NYMF buys everything “in bulk”—from real estate to sound and lights to marketing—thus reducing costs. “PRG has been a sponsor of the festival since its inception,” says Markley. “Only through their financial subsidy can we offer the highest quality sound and lighting for NYMF productions and its patrons. Global Scenic is our official scenic sponsor, handling construction of rep scenic plots and offering flameproofing services to all of our shows. Tinc Productions acts as our festival production manager.”

Through Tinc, NYMF provides an audio A1 and A2 for each venue, and the festival often connects writers with directors and general managers who have festival experience. “The directors and/or the GMs usually bring on designers they’ve worked with previously,” notes Markley. “The GMs generally source the stage management, technical, and production support personnel not attached to the venue. NYMF also provides a resources portal where productions can source show personnel resumes for people who have indicated interest in working on a show.”

He believes that the key to successful production design in the festival repertory context is meticulous planning and communication. “First between the creative team and the designers, then with the show and festival production management,” explains Markley. “Each show submits their designs as well as set up, strike, and storage plans to the NYMF production manager supplied by Tinc Productions. The PM then coordinates all production and technical requests in an effort to give every show the aesthetic experience they want the audience to have. AEA agreements eliminate some elements such as smoke and open flame, but complex effects such as rigging, magic, even food fights have been very effective in recent festival productions.” There was also an increased use of projection in many shows this year, which Markley attributes to the outside connections of individual production teams.

The technical parameters for NYMF are certainly tight. Multiple shows can share the same stage in the same day or weekend, therefore each production is required to have their sets and wardrobe fit in a 4’ x 4’ x 8’ space backstage or underneath seating platforms. Productions tend to have three to four weeks of rehearsal and literally one day of tech that varies between six and eight hours; some shows get less. Each production generally gets one hour to set up before each performance and 30 minutes to strike. 

Scroll through the gallery below to see additional images from NYMF:

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Luis Villabon directed and choreographed Night Tide, a send-up of the low budget 1961 horror movie starring Dennis Hopper. A theater veteran, Villabon worked with the young Night Tide team to jump start their production thanks to the resources provided by the organization.“It gave them some structure, organization, and a platform,” says Villabon. “They [NYMF] provided the board, they provided an A1, and those are huge advantages.” But the shows at the festival are still baptism by fire, even for an experienced hand like Villabon. “It was unfathomably nerve-wracking,” Villabon admits of the fast and furious design process. “I had never worked with any of the designers in the past. It was all about trust and faith. Originally, we had planned on using projections to create the settings. We unfortunately ran out of money and had to give up the vision of projections. That’s when our brilliant set designer came up with the idea of the rolling panels.”

Scenic designer David Starr created five painted, double-sided rolling panels used collectively and individually to create the boardwalk backdrop and flesh out other locations. Production designer Bill Smith, of Magic Ventures which fabricates illusions for magicians in Vegas, designed a singular piece that functioned as a mermaid tank, curiosity tank, and bed, plus he curated all of the props.

Although NYMF provides resources, it is up to the individual writing teams and productions to realize their vision, just as Night Tide was able to do creatively. “We never tell anybody strongly, ‘This is what you should do,’” says Markley. “We give them multiple valuable options to figure out how everybody works together on an interpersonal level and an artistic level. All we can do is set them up for success, and I think we’ve done an increasingly good job at that.”