GUEST BLOG: TALES FROM A MUSICAL FESTIVAL CURATOR

As I type this, we are four days away from the 15th annual New York Musical Festival (NYMF). On July 9th, 30+ new musical productions, concerts, readings, and educational events will descend upon midtown Manhattan (West 42nd St between 9th and 11th Avenues, to be precise) and showcase their developmental work to a New York audience over the course of four weeks.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since NYMF is a 4-week summer festival, I often get the question, “So what do you do the rest of the year, when the Festival isn’t happening?” People are surprised to hear that the Festival is a full-time, year-around gig and planning for the next Festival begins mere weeks after the previous one has ended. Think of it as a regular theater season with all the programming condensed into 28 non-stop days. The Festival process for me as Producing Artistic Director begins around Labor Day each year when the submissions process for the Next Link Project opens. What is the Next Link Project, you may ask? The Next Link Project anchors the Festival – it’s our primary writer service program that, through a rigorous double-blind evaluation process, selects ten writing teams and their shows to present a production in the Festival. These Next Link teams receive administrative, creative, dramaturgical, and financial support, culminating in a subsidized production in the Festival. By “double-blind,” I mean there are two levels implemented to remove bias from the process: the first, authors’ names are removed from all their materials to maintain the integrity of the work; and secondly, readers’ names are not revealed to one another, so we can get an impartial evaluation from each reader on our Reading Committee (made up of dramaturgs, directors, literary managers, and other working theater professionals).

Next Link submissions close in early November and our reading committee furiously finishes screening (the first stage: evaluating a 15-page excerpt with demos) and reading (the second stage: evaluating the full materials) for another month, leading up to what we affectionately refer to as the Reader Smackdown.  This day-long event gives readers a chance to reveal themselves to one another and debate which shows should be shortlisted as finalists for Next Link. By the end, we typically have 40 shows for me to personally review and determine the top 20 or so finalists. Those shows then go on to be evaluated by our Grand Jury of fancy directors, actors, choreographers, and producers. With their input, we select the ten Next Link Projects in mid-late January! Phew.

But these ten Next Link Projects make up just about one-third of the Festival (and even less in previous years). So where do the other shows come from? Well, many new musicals that come through submissions are conceptually compelling but need time to focus on strengthening their storytelling and character development before they’re ready for production prime time – ten of these shows will eventually go on to be a part of our Developmental Reading Series, which is a barebones presentation in a rehearsal studio with actors on book at music stands (essentially a 29-hour AEA reading). We also choose a few shows – either through submissions or through our email solicitation – to participate as “Invited Productions.” To the outside eye, the Next Link Projects and Invited Productions are really the same and fall under the umbrella category “Productions” – they include all the same production elements (lights, sound, costumes, choreography)- but internally, Invited Productions don’t require the same level of support as Next Link (for example, an experienced producer may want to use the existing Festival structure to share their project with an audience). It’s important to note though that all productions must be considered within the context of the Festival and we recommend they lean in to being suggestive rather than emphasize big-budget Production Values (shows do share space and have limited tech time, after all – it’s a creative challenge). The 2018 Festival will have two Invited Productions along with our ten Next Link Projects.

Concerts and educational events round out the programming – concerts tend to follow a song cycle format and many of these are produced by us. In 2017, we began commissioning what we call “micro-musicals” (30 minutes or less) inspired by politically relevant prompts, which culminate in a concert series entitled How the Light Gets In: An Evening of New American Micro-Musical Works one evening of the Festival. This initiative was developed to create more space for democratic discourse in the Festival as well as create more opportunities for artists to access and participate in the Festival. It’s been a big goal of both mine and our Executive Director Dan Markley’s to remove as many barriers to entry as possible so we can consistently ensure that the most exciting talents have a place at NYMF – we are well on our way.

As a curator, I aim to make sure these 30+ shows showcase a wide range of stories, themes, structures, and musical styles. I’d like to believe there’s at least one show for every Festival goer to revel in, no matter his or her personal aesthetic. I also firmly believe that it’s my job to amplify artistic voices with meaningful stories to tell that have yet to be heard. This year, we will use the Festival’s platform to share stories centered around racial justice, immigration, queer and trans representation, mental illness, and other vital issues – musicals can be challenging, invigorating, and encourage empathy! Of course, we also have a musical about alien lizards that conspire for world domination through a beauty pageant. (Balance is important.)

To learn more about the 2018 Festival, visit www.nymf.org. Submissions for the 2019 Next Link will open on August 29, 2018.

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RACHEL SUSSMAN is an award-winning New York-based producer committed to nurturing accessible, inclusive work through creative collaboration.

Rachel is a co-founder of  The MITTEN Lab, an emerging theatre artist residency program in her native state of Michigan as well as The Indigo Theatre Project, a theatre company of passion and purpose dedicated to producing play readings that benefit related non-profit organizations, most recently, An American Daughter (starring Keri Russell and Hugh Dancy for She Should Run). She serves as the Producing Artistic Director for the New York Musical Festival (NYMF).

Rachel has worked with such companies as Second Stage Theatre, 321 Theatrical Management, RKO Stage Productions, Goodspeed Musicals’ Mercer Colony, The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Lincoln Center’s American Songbook, The Tony Awards, and CREATE-Ireland in Dublin, Ireland. Independent producing credits include:  the Obie award-winning production of The Woodsman (New World Stages/59E59), Don’t You F**king Say a Word (59E59), The Rug Dealer (Women’s Project Pipeline Festival), The Sweetest Life (New Victory), and Talk to me about Shame (FringeNYC, Overall Excellence Award). Upcoming: Eh Dah? (Next Door @ NYTW) and a new musical about the American women’s suffrage movement by Shaina Taub.

Rachel is a 2014-2016 Women’s Project Lab Time Warner Foundation Fellow, a trustee emeritus for The Awesome Foundation NYC, and a two-time finalist for the T Fellowship in Creative Producing. She sits on the Advisory Board for Strangemen & Co. and The Musical Theatre Factory as well as the Artist Board for Encores! Off-Center. She is a proud member of the Ghostlight Project Steering Committee and the Covenant House Broadway Sleep Out Executive Committee. Rachel is a graduate of the Commercial Theater Institute (Fred Vogel Scholarship) and a University Honors Scholar alumna of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
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The New York Musical Festival (NYMF) nurtures the creation, production, and public presentation of stylistically, thematically, and culturally diverse new musicals to ensure the future vitality of musical theater.

Now in its fifteenth year, the Festival is the premier musical theater event in the world. The preeminent site for launching new musicals and discovering new talent, the Festival provides an affordable platform for artists to mount professional productions that reach their peers, industry leaders, and musical theater fans. More than 90 Festival shows have gone on to productions on and Off-Broadway, in regional theaters in all 50 states, and in more than 24 countries worldwide. Festival alumni have received a wide array of awards including the Tony Award® and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2013, NYMF received a special Drama Desk Award in recognition of its work “creating and nurturing new musical theater, ensuring the future of this essential art form.”

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