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5 Questions with Dave Saxe, producing and artistic director of Nittany Theatre at the Barn

by on April 28, 2017 12:47 PM

While the Boal Barn Playhouse is one of the oldest arena barn theaters in the country, it’s been just three years since Dave Saxe took over as producing and artistic director of Nittany Theatre at the Barn. The third season began in late April with the first production of the 2017 season, Church Basement Ladies.

With six shows scheduled for this season — plus a unique contest festival in September — Saxe continues to have big plans for bringing summer stock theater to Happy Valley.

T&G: You’re starting your third season of Nittany Theatre at the Barn. Anything surprise you the most about what’s happened so far?

Saxe: As the oldest bank-barn theater in Pennsylvania, the barn is an amazing space — loaded with history and charm and full of challenges. What amazes me is how the barn itself responds those challenges. Hundreds of times over, for nearly 60 years every summer, our little barn in Central Pennsylvania magically transforms from one place to another. This season, the barn represents a rural Minnesota church, the next we’re in Tuna, Texas. From there, the barn’s transformed into a pirate ship sailing the Caribbean, then we’re in the world of Cervantes’s medieval Spanish highlands. We finish with a fun “adult” trip, escaping to a Canadian bar, then to a NYC stage with Mae West, and finally close the season with a First Amendment play. And all through those changes, the barn deftly shifts, taking audiences to places that only live theater may allow. Pretty special, huh? 

T&G: When you’re scheduling a season, what types of shows are you looking to do? And has your thinking changed this year compared to the first two years?

Saxe: We look for fun, exciting pieces with great potential. For the barn, while comedy is king — nothing tops a good laugh — we look for the new and different. Summer stock theater is an original American art form, and we’re one of the last survivors of that form. Of our first 19 productions within Happy Valley circles, we’ve offered five world premieres, nine regional premieres, three new-to-us shows, and one classic. That’s pretty amazing stuff, and a lot of variety.

T&G: What do you think are some of the highlights people can look forward to when it comes to this season?

Saxe: We have some truly fabulous talents in the stable. Starting with Alex Santoriello, (star and director of Treasure Island and Man of La Mancha). Alex is a true Broadway pro — actor and producer. We also have the fabulously talented teenager Hannah Richardson (Treasure Island), a nationally award-winning songwriter and performer. Another megastar is Shawna Harrington (Mae), one of Nashville’s top songwriters. In addition, as we’ve grown with high-quality productions, we have also established a solid “stable” of actors who have become audience favorites, and we think audiences will be delighted to see our resident actors change from character to character!

T&G: Can you talk about the Free Speech Contest Festival that’s happening in September and what will be taking place?

Saxe: This is a big one move for the barn, one with national implications. While there are many playwriting contests for theaters all over the United States, there is not even one devoted to specifically cultivating First Amendment themes. However, there is more to our nationally promoted play contest than exploring free speech in theater. Our contest is a targeted attempt to bring inclusion and diversity into American theater, namely, addressing the complete absence of conservative themes in American theater. That’s a tall order.

As New York Times writer Patricia Cohen put it, “… You can see a dozen or so overtly political [left/liberal] plays, about Iraq, Washington corruption, feminism, or immigration; what [you] won’t see are any with a conservative perspective. … Many [theater professionals] have been struck by the lack of plays that, for instance, question multiculturalism, gay marriage and abortion rights, or champion an unfettered free market, a strong military, and barriers to immigration. The problem, they say, is not that authors with those ideas cannot get their plays produced, but rather that they cannot be found.”

While it is a well-known fact that liberals dominate theater, the idea of our inclusive-diversity play contest came shortly after the hotly contested 2016 presidential election. Enjoying time off from what must have been an exhausting campaign, then Vice President elect Mike Pence went to see a Broadway show, the megahit Hamilton. As soon as Mr. Pence entered the theater, audience members reacted to his presence. Throughout this wonderfully clever musical about our founding fathers, Mr. Pence, an audience member, found himself the target of obvious and quite vocal postelection bitterness and resentment; the likes of which has never been seen on Broadway. Following the show, the actors of Hamilton took the very rare opportunity to “engage” Mr. Pence from the stage, lecturing him on the importance of diversity and inclusion. While a swirl of controversy emerged from all sides, debating the rights and wrongs of breaking theater traditions by singling out an audience member, days later, Mr. Pence diplomatically brushed it off as “the sound of freedom.”

In putting the Hamilton controversies into context with the lack of inclusion-diversity in American theater, the idea came to me that if conservative themes were missing, perhaps a national contest could make some dent on finding plays that brought greater inclusion and diversity into an American institution. I thought the idea timely, for at the very moment America itself was grappling with significant and substantive political-cultural change. Why not seek to mirror those changes in theater?

In thinking about the issue, I had earlier appealed to Alison Carey of the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which itself was in the final stages of producing 37 new plays representing “American history.” In that considerable national effort, Carey claimed to have specifically searched out conservative themes (and playwrights), but found none. That is, after a 10-year search, Carey failed to find even one conservative playwright? How was that possible?

While unsuccessful in her own national search, Ms. Carey was hopeful and encouraged me to continue my attempt to address the lack of inclusion-diversity for conservative themes and playwrights at the barn. Into this mix of ideas and attempts, the Charles Koch Foundation offered to provide significant funding for a national playwriting contest. This effort was not simply to cultivate conservative playwrights but rather the contest was to encourage playwrights of any political stripe to create works that offered themes and situations currently absent from contemporary American theater.

As we imagine our little barn a place for big things, we launched our modest contest with ads in the theater world’s biggest sources: the prestigious Dramatist Magazine and American Theatre. So far, thankfully, the results have been very impressive and more than encouraging, leading me to giddily predict that, “We are so gonna nail this!”

The winner of the playwriting contest will be announced July 4. The play will be read with high-production values during Constitution Week at the barn, September 19-21. In addition, we shall also “bus and truck” the play to be presented at two theaters within The Villages, Florida, in late October! With 120,000 residents, The Villages is America’s largest retirement community.

T&G: What are your hopes/plans for the future when it comes to Nittany Theatre at the Barn?

Saxe: The hope — and plan — is to create a viable and thriving professional regional theater right here in Centre County. We have the space, the aspiration, the drive, a dauntless-fabulous group of thespians, and a core audience that is growing! That said, the challenges and financial costs are considerable for a nonprofit 501c3 public charity with big plans. In a world of seemingly endless entertainment choices, live theater is a tough sell, especially in a barn without modern comforts of heating/cooling. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but sadly most Americans have never seen a live presentation of a play or musical. Our dream for the future, if we get this right is: “Put ’em in a seat, and we’ll hook ‘em for life!”

For more information on the Nittany Theatre at the Barn visit nittanytheatre.org.



David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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