Andy’s Summer Playhouse takes a different approach

Asher Barney and Riley Dunham perform in a production of “Out There.”

Asher Barney and Riley Dunham perform in a production of “Out There.” —COURTESY PHOTO

”Waffle House,” with Asher Barney and Lucas Baker.

”Waffle House,” with Asher Barney and Lucas Baker. —COURTESY PHOTO

The cast of “The Things We Keep.”

The cast of “The Things We Keep.” —COURTESY PHOTO

By GAIL HOAR

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 05-29-2024 12:01 PM

While regional theaters throughout the United States are struggling to win back audiences lost to the pandemic, the seats at Andy’s Summer Playhouse at 582 Isaac Frye Highway in Wilton are filled for shows featuring actors are too young to vote and most of the tech team still too young to hold paying jobs.

“We’re different,” Artistic Director Jared Mezzocchi said. “Other theaters are trying to recapture the audiences and the way plays are produced as they were in 2019, before the pandemic. But things have changed and other theaters aren’t changing with the world that now exists. We’re experimenting with staging and using technology in different ways that enriches the theatrical experience. At the same time, we bring the cast and tech team into deciding how the production emerges.”

Mezzocchi added that Andy’s is “always looking at what moves people today and ways to integrate new technological into the theater experience. But those resources aren’t always tools and technology. They are also the kids who are part of Andy’s. You just need to listen and respect all voices, no matter their age. Andy’s kids’ voices, thoughts and insights, along with our team of writers and technical staff, who work hand-in-glove with our cast, are what makes what we are doing relevant, powerful and ultimately, successful.”

Successful to the point that Mezzocchi takes what emerges over a summer at Andy’s and uses it as a prototype when he works the rest of the year with professional actors, directors, artists, producers, designers and playwrights around the country.

“What’s happening at Andy’s is having an impact on how theater is envisioned nationally,” he said.

Andy’s participants work with creative artists in the theatrical world, due to Mezzocchi’s connections as a multimedia designer, director, writer and actor. Each season, he selects artists who are willing to immerse themselves with the young Andy’s cast as full collaborators in all aspects of each production. Artists invited to be part of Andy’s are writers who will develop the scripts for each play in collaboration with youth participants. The main requirement, other than having strong creative voices, is being willing to listen to the young cast, letting things evolve and collaborating as the script emerges.

“It’s not about the content. It’s always been about the process and kids in the room with the right tools. That’s when the unexpected happens,” Mezzochi said.

Andy’s ‘Test Kitchen’

Not all those signing up to be part of Andy’s Summer Playhouse’s 54th season are planning on having roles on stage. Instead, Andy’s also offers hands-on experiences in video/multimedia technology, set and costume design, lighting, sound and other behind-the-scenes activities.

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The tuition-free aspect of Andy’s comes from Mezzocchi’s desire to reach as many and as diverse a group of youths as possible. Andy’s has been tuition-free for four years, and he expects it to continue, along with the support of grants and other sponsorships, based upon Andy’s growing reputation in the theater world.

Mezzocchi is calling the upcoming 2024 season “The Test Kitchen,” where innovation and originality will be pushing new boundaries. There will be four main stage plays, beginning with a second 24 Hour Play Festival, that had its premier last season. Andy’s young artists will again be collaborating with Brookyn-based The 24 Hour Plays conceiving, writing, rehearsing and staging this year’s extravaganza, all within a one-day period. The plays that emerge this year will be staged July 13 at 7:30 p.m.

During the pandemic, Mezzocchi established the Digital Renaissance Project, and its ideas continue as part of Andy’s today. A second main stage production, “Dispatches from the Hilltop,” emerged from these sessions. Technology, innovation, creativity, artistry and community all will merge in this production that intends to push the limits of the theatrical experience in every way imaginable. Mezzocchi’s intent is to bring distant grandparents and friends into the Andy’s audience using live-streaming technology in the staging of “Dispatches,” which will run July 19 to 27.

Based upon the staging conceived in “Dispatches,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel and her organization Bard at the Gate will join Andy’s for a second production using global live-streaming. This as-yet-to-be-named piece, running Aug. 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m., will incorporate Andy’s young artists in both the production and the off-stage operation of the show.

The fourth main stage production this season, with the working title “A Very Puppet Musical,” is a tale of survival that will not only be live-streamed to a global audience, but most of the action takes place in a miniature puppet theater with a children’s choir singing the libretto. All the puppetry, managed by the cast, will be projected above the stage for better viewing and to enhance the streaming experience.

These main stage productions came about because of the several previous workshops and performance labs and Greenhouse productions that are part of the Andy’s experience. This year, there will be four performance labs and one Greenhouse production. The Greenhouse concept is sprouting an idea, trying it out and watching it evolve into a full performance in the future. This year, the Greenhouse will take on a conceptual puppetry and live music production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” to be staged Aug. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

This season’s the four performance labs each have different themes. First will be a cabaret performance troupe that rehearses for a week and puts on their two performances the evenings of July 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m. Mezzocchi chose this format believing that the musicality of a cabaret offers a safe place to share ideas, explore big feelings and connect with others.

Next up is Andy’s Mime Workshop, a four-day experience of telling a story without speech. Its on- stage production is scheduled for July 28 at 7:30 p.m. Andy’s Improve Troup will take the stage for three nights, July 26 to 28 at 7 p.m., after a week of workshopping.

The last performance lab, In Your Shoes: A Storytelling Lab will have no show. Instead it’s an experiential workshop where participants will listen to the stories and experiences of others and then tell them back, reflecting, examining and elaborating upon what they heard.

For information or to register, visit andyssummerplayhouse.org/enroll-now-2024.