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Annual New Works Festival nurtures new talent, gives older works new life

"My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding," by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, subverts the "new" part of the annual TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's New Works Festival just a bit.

The autobiographical musical, based on Hein's own mother's coming out, reclamation of her Jewish roots and subsequent marriage to a Wiccan partner, first came out, no pun intended, back in 2009. But since then, married Canadian couple Hein and Sankoff have become the toast of Broadway, thanks to their Tony and Drama Desk award-winning musical "Come from Away," about the hospitality of New Foundlanders to stranded travelers following 9/11. New Works Festival Director Giovanna Sardelli said that thanks to their recent success, interest in Hein and Sankoff's first musical was high, but that society has changed since it was first written and released. The piece, in its original form, was now dated. TheatreWorks decided that this year, the festival, which gives audiences a peek at works in progress, could offer the authors the chance to revise and resurrect their older work.

"That's not normally something we would do, but I realized the festival should at times give new life to a work, and that actually fits that mission," Sardelli said.

Hein and Sankoff are pleased their first show is getting a second chance. "There's a lot we've always wanted to revisit. The world shifts and we shift as writers, so it's just a gift to be able to revisit a piece," Hein said.

The show was originally written against the backdrop of the same-sex marriage movement, at a time in which Canada had legalized gay marriage but the U.S. had not.

"Initially it was this Canadian story, then it became an American story, now it's more about the same-sex rights movement that's expanding globally," Hein said. "I feel like we've improved as writers. This gives us a chance to go back and question every song and question every word," he said.

"Above all, it's a love story and a dual coming-of-age story," Sankoff said. And though the sweet, pop-rock musical comedy is based on their own lives, "We learned from 'Come from Away' that we aren't necessarily doing a documentary. We are trying to make a good piece of theater, to give ourselves permission to change things around," she said.

They said they appreciate TheatreWorks' dedication to nurturing the creative process. "They're so open to ideas, and we're especially impressed by the audience there. The audience really understand that creating a work is as much of the show as the show itself," Hein said. "Getting feedback from the audience is valuable too, especially with a piece that we've had to put on the shelf for so long." Plus, "As Canadians, coming to California is always a delight," he joked.

Sankoff and Hein will be portraying themselves in the show, for the first time in a while. The creative couple, who now have a 3-year-old daughter, are used to working closely in all areas of life.

"It's a challenge raising a child at the time you're raising new musicals. There's a lot about being married and being parents that prepares you for conflict resolution. We have a lot of tools under our belt," Hein said. "We don't talk about the show when we're hungry and tired and try not to in bed."

"I'm still trying to find that work life balance. There is no balance: We take it day by day and do the best we can," Sankoff added.

They're looking forward to giving their debut collaboration a new lease on life. As Sankoff put it, in regards to both "Come from Away" and "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding," "There's never a bad time to tell a story about love and kindness."

Sardelli said that one of the other plays featured, Kevin Rolston's play "Deal with the Dragon," described as a dark comedy/grown-up fairytale, has also been previously produced and is being revisited. Of course, the festival is not short on brand-new works. "There's something special about every show," she said.

Ramiz Monsef, who's worked with Sardelli frequently as an actor, will present his comedy "3 Farids." The play deals with racial stereotyping set against the backdrop of Hollywood absurdity. Three men of Middle Eastern descent, all named Farid, audition to play the same character, also named Farid. "Hilarity, hopefully, ensues," Monsef said. "It's a clown show, in that it's a heightened reality that gets weirder and weirder as the show goes on, much like living in Hollywood. The more you understand it and love it, the longer you stay here, the weirder it gets," he said. It's based on his own experiences trying to make it as an actor. "I would go into these auditions here and it's ... harrowing? Soul crushing, maybe?" laughed the Bay Area-raised, current Los Angeles resident. "Hollywood loves to put you in a box. It's less about substance than looking the part. You have to play a lot of mind games with yourself and not let that get to you. I'm classically trained, I've done Shakespeare, I've got range for days but Hollywood doesn't give a (expletive). They want you to get in your box and stay there."

Monsef cited The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce among his comedy inspirations.

"You can laugh and still be learning; you can laugh and still be making a point," he said. "I think comedy is powerful, it's subversive, and I think it's harder to do," he said. "I think people need a laugh right now."

Sardelli called Monsef's piece "a bold and funny experiment. I trust him as a writer," she said, adding that his is not the only festival entry involving clowns. The keynote speaker will be Cirque du Soleil star and literal clown-college director Jeff Raz.

Also featured will be the internet-inspired sketch comedy "Blogologues," "Tiny Houses," (directed by Sardelli) about the 2014 shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine, and the festival's second musical, "Past, Present, Future: The Shangri-Las," which chronicles the rise of the quintessential 1960s girl group (with such hits as "Leader of the Pack") and their mysterious disappearance from the limelight.

This year, the festival will also host an "open rehearsal" of Jeffrey Lo's play-in-progress, "Waiting for Next," at which the audience will get to watch the cast go through multiple versions of key scenes and offer feedback that will guide the team as they go forward with the piece.

That session sold out almost immediately, Sardelli said, to her delighted surprise. "It shows how curious people are about how a play gets made," she said. "They really do care."

What: New Works Festival 2017

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Aug. 11-20 (see website for detailed schedule)

Cost: Festival pass is $49-$65. Single tickets are $20.

Info: Go to New Works Festival

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Like this comment
Posted by ElaineB
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 10, 2017 at 5:32 pm

ElaineB is a registered user.

I am so looking forward to the New Works Festival. There is so much wonderful, creative energy.

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