By George Basler
The Chenango River Theatre is starting its 2022 season with a new producing artistic director who wants to bring a sense of adventure to the theater while building on its strong history.
“There is a temptation to play it safe (in a new job), but I don’t want to do that. What’s the fun in that?” said Zach Curtis, who is taking over from Bill Lelbach, who founded the Chenango County theater and ran it for 15 years.
Curtis, 49, was chosen to replace Lelbach after a nine-month national search. He is coming to the Greene theater after working more than 20 years as an actor, artistic director and producing artistic director, most recently at the Black Hills Community Theater in Rapid City, S.D., one of the largest non-profit arts organizations in South Dakota
During his career, Curtis has directed more than 100 professional productions across the Midwest and appeared in more than 125 shows. But the Chenango River Theatre is the first equity professional theater he’s run, and he’s looking forward to the challenge. “I’m pretty excited, because it’s a chance to do what I want to do without a committee,” he said.
Curtis’ adventurous spirit is on display with Chenango River’s first production, running from June 3 to June 26. The play, Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, focuses on the true 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition that set out to chart the course of the Colorado River.
The twist is that Backhaus’ play features an all-female cast that, according to the playwright’s requirements, should be made up of “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender fluid and/or non-gender conforming.”
Curtis said he picked the play because “I wanted to come out of the gate swinging” with a provocative play that will be unfamiliar to many audience members. “I enjoy nothing more than seeing a show for the first time,” he noted. His goal for the entire season is to present a mixture of known and lesser-known works that will be interesting enough that audience members will want to come to all four productions.
Shows that will follow Men on Boats are:
- I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, July 15-Aug. 7. The musical by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts is a comedy revue about dating, romance, marriage, lovers, husbands, wives and in-laws.
- Art by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, Aug. 26-Sept. 18. The play explores the complex layers of friendship and the world of modern art. It won the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play.
- Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oct. 7-Oct. 23. The play is an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Men on Boats is being directed by Kiara Pipino, assistant professor of acting, directing and movement at SUNY Oneonta. A native of Italy, Pipino has directed more than 27 productions and participated in and/or spoken at theater workshops and seminars around the world, including in Greece, Belgium and the Philippines. Her expertise in directing stage movement makes her the perfect person to direct Men on Boats, which includes elements of slapstick comedy, Curtis said.
Curtis’ resume includes nine seasons as the producing artistic director of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji, MN., and 10 seasons as artistic director at the Fifty Foot Penguin Theater in Minneapolis, named “Best Independent Theatre in the Twin Cities” by City Pages.
One reason he applied to the Chenango River Theatre is because he felt a sense of excitement surrounding the theater. “I was impressed by the fact that all four shows one season were ones I had never heard of before. That’s exciting and different,” he said.
Curtis credited Lelbach with getting audiences to the point that they were willing to come to shows they didn’t know much about, because they trusted the productions would be of good quality
Building on that tradition is his top priority. “I want every show, no matter what it is, to be good,” he said.
Curtis has other priorities as well. One of them is working for gender equity in casting. Historically, the theater has been dominated by male playwrights who have written plays with male characters as the focus, he said. This has led to “a lot of gender inequity,” he maintained.
“I would like to make it a 50-50 split. I want to focus on trying to find shows with female characters,” he said.
Along the same line, he wants Chenango River Theatre to encourage diversity both on, and off, the stage. There is the tendency in the theater to cast white actors in white roles, even in many plays the race of the character is irrelevant, he said.
“I want to make sure everyone is being seen,” Curtis concluded. “I want to make sure everyone is invited to the table.”
For other information on the upcoming season, visit the theater’s website, www.chenangorivertheatre.org
IF YOU GO: Men on Boats, the first production of Chenango River Theatre’s season, will be performed June 3-26 at the theater, 991 NY-12, Greene. Thursday-Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Single tickets are $27. The fastest way to purchase tickets on the theater’s website, which also lists prices for season tickets. For phone order, there is a 24-hour reservation line (607-656-8499). It may take two to three days to process phone orders. All performances begin on time with no late seating.