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Performance in progress

New Works Festival supports, demystifies the creative process

Making art is a process. Plays, novels and paintings, dances and musical compositions: all of them take time -- sometimes a lot of time -- to create.

That's certainly been the case for lyricist and composer Andrew Lippa. The process of creating his latest musical began back in 2000, when one of his first productions, "The Wild Party," opened on Broadway. Lippa invited writer and cartoonist Jules Feiffer to come see the production, hoping that Feiffer would like the show and agree to work with him on a future collaboration. Lippa had a specific project in mind: a musical adaptation of Feiffer's illustrated novel, "The Man in the Ceiling."

Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple.

"The legend of 'The Man in the Ceiling' now reads kind of like a great Western," Lippa joked over the phone last week, explaining that Feiffer turned him down, having already agreed to develop the story into a musical with a different collaborator. "He said I could have a look at anything else he'd written," Lippa went on. "He sent me other work. Nothing grabbed me. I dropped it for a while. About a year later, I decided to call him to see if he was developing the musical yet. He wasn't. I called him once a year for five years. Every time, I asked if I could make the musical, and every time, he said no."

Eventually, Disney expressed interest in the work, and with the company's backing, Lippa and Feiffer finally began to collaborate. Yet that road turned out to be another dead end. Once again, the show was in limbo. Finally, a few years ago, Lippa brought Feiffer's book to his longtime friend and colleague, Jeffrey Seller. He read it, he loved it and he agreed to direct it.

This Sunday, Aug. 9, 15 years after Lippa first envisioned it, his musical version of "The Man in the Ceiling" will get its first staged reading in front of a live audience when TheatreWorks Silicon Valley brings it to Palo Alto for the 2015 New Works Festival.

Now in its 14th year, the eight-day festival is being held at the Lucie Stern Theatre and is expected to draw artists and audiences from across the country to witness works in progress and share feedback. Since its inception, the New Works Festival has served as the creative incubator for numerous successful productions, including the Tony Award-winning musical, "Memphis," and Rajiv Joseph's acclaimed 2011 play, "The North Pool."

This year, alongside "The Man in the Ceiling," the festival features George Brant's drama about the 1940s gospel circuit, "Marie and Rosetta"; a dark comedy from Lynn Rosen, "Man and Beast," about the perils of care-giving; "The There There," an epic romance from Jason Gray Platt; Suzanne Bradbeer's political drama, "Confederates," and a late night concert of works from a developing musical by indie rock duo, The Paper Raincoat.

While many theaters nationwide support the development of new plays, few include musicals, and still fewer include artists of Lippa's caliber. These days, Lippa is a TheatreWorks regular. He has considered the company a creative home since his first writers retreat in 2002 and has returned both to New Works and the main stage with works like "Asphalt Beach" and "A Little Princess." He has also become something of a star in the world of American musical theater.

With so many other projects and opportunities to follow, why did he continue to pursue "The Man in the Ceiling" for so many years?

"I just love these characters," Lippa explained. "This is the story of a boy who wants to express himself creatively and has to learn how to do that in an environment that is hostile to creativity. I also love Uncle Lester, who I happen to also play in the musical. He is the adult version of Jimmy."

In Feiffer's book, Lester is a composer of musicals that always seem to flop. Like his nephew, Jimmy, he yearns to be recognized for the work he loves.

"It's no secret that I am Uncle Lester," Lippa said. "I was a boy like Jimmy. This character is very close to who I am."

According to Feiffer, Lippa has turned out to be the perfect person to bring the novel to the stage. "The Man in the Ceiling," Feiffer explained, is about "what happens to innocence when life hits it and disappoints it. It's about the fun and joy of creation and the adventures and misadventures that go along with the creative process."

Lippa had originally planned to write the musical's book himself, but Feiffer wanted a more central role. "I wrote the story line and notes that essentially gave Andrew an excuse to fly, and fly he does," Feiffer said. "He captures so much of what I meant to be the spirit of the original book. It's the book, certainly. But it's so much more."

Feiffer's message that making art is a process of elation and despair, victories and failures -- and that such a process requires support -- isn't so far from the message of the New Works Festival itself.

As Lippa pointed out, "There is potential for provincialism when it comes to any insular development. When it comes to developing musicals in New York, you tend to get only the viewpoint of the people who also make musicals, as opposed to the viewpoint of the audience who's just coming to see what you've done." What New Works provides, Lippa said, is a chance to hear audience reactions in a safe environment and to use that feedback in the creative process.

The version of "The Man in the Ceiling" he'll be sharing in Palo Alto, Lippa noted, "is not ready for public scrutiny. We ask that audiences approach the work with generosity. We don't want opinions; we want reactions. I don't want people to get all Roman emperor on me -- like, thumbs up, thumbs down -- but I do want them to have honest reactions, like, 'I didn't get that part,' or 'I wasn't sympathetic with that character.'"

Getting this kind of feedback is what helps artists understand how their work is being received and how they may want to revise it, Lippa went on.

"The performing arts are not possible without an audience," he said, adding that New Works is a rare opportunity for audiences as well as for artists. "I just think it's a fantastic experience to be allowed into the process, when most of what audiences see are works that are closed, finished, wrapped up."

The director of New Works, Giovanna Sardelli, echoed that sentiment.

"With the plays, you get two presentations (at New Works) with rehearsal time in between, and with the musicals you get three, so you truly can experiment," Sardelli explained. "You can change your ending all three times, or if you want to go deeper into the story, you can play with movement. The artists actually make changes based on audience feedback from the first presentation."

That means the audience at New Works plays an important role in the development of live theater, and that's no small matter, she pointed out.

"What I love in each of these plays is that these artists are exploring the human condition," she said. "In each one of these works, they're guiding us toward better choices."

In order to foster conversations about the works in progress, festival organizers encourage audience members to stick around between performances. Gourmet food trucks will be on-site serving meals before and between performances. On Sunday, Aug. 16 at noon, there will be a panel discussion with the artists, in which audience members can hear directly from the playwrights and composers. Questions are encouraged.

In an era when the performing arts are increasingly rarefied and endangered, New Works offers the public a chance to get close to the heart of art-making, to experience the theater not as a place where polished works are presented, but as the site of the creative process. Even better: It's a chance to play a role in that process so that when "The Man in the Ceiling" hits Broadway, you can say, "Oh, yes. I worked on that show."

What: 2015 New Works Festival, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Saturday, Aug. 8 to Sunday, Aug. 16

Cost: $19 for single tickets, $49-$65 for a season pass

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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