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Penguin Repertory Puts Tried-and-True on Ice

STONY POINT, N.Y. — Lists of summer theatre offerings tend to feature many of the same plays and musicals over and over, whether recent Broadway hits or tried-and-true standards. But Penguin Repertory Company, in Stony Point, N.Y., stands out with its less-familiar fare.

This year, for instance, the theatre is producing two world premieres: Gino DiIorio and Nancy Bleemer's Centennial Casting (now running through July 23) and Charles Evered's Adopt a Sailor (Oct. 6-29). In addition, Penguin Rep will mount a play that had an Off-Broadway run in 2005 (Craig Wright's The Pavilion) and another that had an Off-Broadway run in 2003 (Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates). While a lineup like that might spell box-office trouble for some companies, it's meat and potatoes to Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep's founder and artistic director.

"I follow my gut instinct," explains Brancato, who recently directed Karoline Leach's Tryst, with Amelia Campbell and Maxwell Caulfield, at Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre. "If I'm not doing something I enjoy, believe me, it's not worth it."

Many of Penguin Rep's productions in its 29 seasons have been world premieres, U.S. premieres, or New York premieres, including Richard Vetere's One Shot, One Kill; Angelo Parra's The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith; Alan Brandt's 21⁄2 Jews; and Warren Leight's Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine. The theatre also commissioned Allan Knee's The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which was the basis for the Oscar-winning film Finding Neverland. Many well-known actors have worked at Penguin Rep through the years — Celeste Holm, Robert Klein, David Canary, Joy Behar, Charles Keating, Tovah Feldshuh, Barbara Feldon, Lou Liberatore, Mason Adams, and Joan Copeland among them.

So after nearly three decades as artistic director, when Brancato asserts that he has groomed his audience and his audience has groomed his theatre, he knows what he's talking about.

"They've come to expect different plays," he says. "A lot of my audience goes to Off-Broadway and they like provocative plays. Early on I did a couple of musicals and revues, and some of them told me they don't like that stuff."

It was while teaching at Rockland Community College in 1977 that Brancato first came up with the idea of Penguin Rep. At the time, he says, he was itching to direct professionally, so he surrounded himself with a group of people who, like him, wanted to develop new plays. Many of those people are still very much involved with the company, including executive director Andrew Horn and board of trustees member Fran Newman McCarthy. Brancato calls them stalwart fundraisers for the theatre.

One approach the company took to developing new plays was its "Play With Your Food" series, in which the audience eats a catered meal al fresco while actors perform in a reading, followed by a discussion with the artists. Centennial Casting, about a young actor who mistakes a metal-casting shop for the office of a casting director, was developed through the series last summer. The reading went so well, Brancato says, that he decided to mount a full production.

Working with Penguin Rep's literary manager, Staci Swedeen, Brancato reads agent-submitted scripts and scripts that arrive with a professional recommendation. Auditions are typically set up via agent submissions as well.

"If I were to do the tried-and-true, I may have a sure audience, but I wouldn't have a strong company," Brancato says. "Besides, if you ever have a doubt about what you're doing, get out."

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