Tribeca filmsters put on a show

By Alison Gregor

Move over Mammon, there’s a muse being celebrated in Tribeca, and her name is Thalia.

With the start of the Tribeca Theater Festival Oct. 19, two weeks of plays, staged readings, screenings and panel discussions about drama will bring a decidedly theatrical air to Lower Manhattan, an area often noted as the cradle of Wall St. but overlooked when it comes to its nearly 70 theater companies.

The festival was the vision of Jane Rosenthal – actor Robert DeNiro’s business partner and one of the founders of the Tribeca Film Festival – along with the Tribeca-based theater company, Drama Dept.

“We wanted to showcase this incredible cultural asset,” Rosenthal said at a press conference Wednesday. “Unique in its breadth, in its voice, in its pool of talent, the festival is first and foremost meant to be inclusive of all downtown theaters and will become more so as it grows in scope for years to come.”

While festival founders said they hope to forge a tradition that will attract theater-lovers and patrons, dramatists said they wholeheartedly support a new venue for drama.

The festival is “not only important to those of us who come downtown to see plays, it’s crucial to artists to have a place to work,” said award-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, one of nine dramatists featured in the festival.

Nine short premiere plays, collectively called “The Downtown Plays,” written by Wasserstein and other acclaimed contemporary playwrights, such as Jon Robin Baitz, David Henry Hwang, Neil LaBute, Kenneth Lonergan, Frank Pugliese, Paul Rudnick and Warren Leight, are the festival’s ongoing centerpiece.

Focusing on Downtown Manhattan, the works were written at the behest of dramatist Douglas Carter Beane, artistic director of Drama Dept., who also wrote one himself.

“That’s what Downtown is about,” said the artist, who wrote “Advice from a Caterpillar” and “As Bees in Honey Drown.” “It’s about going out, having dinner, seeing a show, going to a bar, fighting about the show you just saw and then holding hands and going home.”

The festival, sponsored by American Express, will kick off Monday with a staged reading of David Hare’s London hit “Stuff Happens,” a sardonic political play lampooning more than a handful of current U.S. government officials and world leaders. The title was taken from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s response to a reporter’s question about the looting of Baghdad after the American invasion of Iraq.

The free reading, the only North American pre-election showing of Hare’s work, will be staged by New York Theatre Workshop, “a safe home for theater artists,” said managing director Lynn Moffatt. “These are artists who want to explore collective history, and who need to respond to the events that shape our lives.”

Festival founder and actor Robert DeNiro said in characteristically laconic fashion that he wasn’t sure about the impact of dramatists and Hollywood celebrities on the public discourse, especially right before a presidential election, but that he did believe “people are entitled to express their opinion.”

He also said he hoped to bring new audiences to the theater with the festival.

Along those lines, celebrity hosts will be introducing to festival-goers many of the dramatic works, and at the same time, the many downtown theater companies. Hosts will include Billy Crudup, Isaac Mizrahi, Whoopi Goldberg, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Harvey Keitel, Martin Scorcese, Ben Stiller, Tony Danza, Christopher Walken, Anna Deavere Smith, Michael C. Hall, Ben Shankman, Kitty Carlisle Hart and Tovah Feldshuh, among others.

Besides these events, there also will be a reading of Carol Churchill’s surrealistic work “This is a Chair” and a panel discussion about playwright Tennessee Williams, featuring film heartthrob Ethan Hawke. There will be free readings and performances by companies such as Naked Angels, The Culture Project, National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped and New Federal Theatre.

In an event closed to the general public, six minority playwrights selected by a jury will read their un-produced works before agents, producers and theater company representatives.

As a spinoff of the Tribeca Film Festival, the theater festival will remain true to form and showcase some films – in this case, about drama. Featured will be “Waiting for Guffman,” “Broadway: The Golden Age, By the Legends Who Were There,” “All About Eve” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Playwrights said they were thrilled and grateful at the opportunity to participate in a new dramatic event in one of the world’s handful of theatrical hubs.

“Theater companies are a place where writers are supported and carried through the long arc of their careers, both the successes and the failures,” said Frank Pugliese, author of “Aven’u Boys” and “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers.” The festival “is really a great sign for the future of theater in the whole city.”

Theater and the performing arts are one of the biggest attractions of visitors to New York. The Tribeca Film Festival was one of many events that helped draw 38.7 million visitors to the city last year, which was more than the city received prior to Sept. 11, 2001, said Christyne Nicholas of NYC & Company, the city’s visitors’ bureau.

Thus, city officials are solidly behind the theater festival.

“We’re the financial center of the world, and we’re going to make sure Lower Manhattan stays the financial center of the world,” Gov. George Pataki said at Wednesday’s announcement. “But we’re also the center of creativity, whether it’s theater or film or art, and we’re just so proud of that. And now we will have a chance to showcase that.”

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