She could be teaching Yalies how to perform in musicals or producing Emmy-winning television like the “9/11 Memorial from Ground Zero” or staging mammoth concerts, such as “Wall to Wall Sondheim.”
For the foreseeable future, Annette Jolles will be providing a stage for new works.
Jolles is the new artistic director at White Plains Performing Arts Center, part of a team hired last month to create a season of new plays and musicals at the City Center mall venue.
“I made a very conscious choice when this theater opportunity came up to not do some big TV projects and to come back to what I love, which is theater,” she says.
Truth be told, Jolles has never been too far from theater.
For five years, she has made weekly trips to Yale to teach musical-theater performance and direction.
For longer than that, Jolles has been developing new works with the rest of the new creative staff: executive director Laurence Holzman, literary manager Felicia Needleman and Holzman’s wife, Lara, managing director.
Jolles has directed musicals written by Laurence Holzman and Needleman, winners of the 2006 Kleban Award as most promising musical-theater librettists.
Together, they have presented festival productions, staged readings and workshops for potential investors.
They also invested in the Broadway run of “Looped,” the story of a disastrous Tallulah Bankhead sound-recording session that starred Valerie Harper, in a Tony-nominated performance.
Shaping a season of premieres represents the next phase of theatrical production, running shows several weeks in a state-of-the-art, 400-seat theater.
“There are a lot of festivals where you can do developmental work and you can do the readings,” Jolles says. “But it’s hard for people to get full productions of their works produced, especially in this economy. This is finding shows that deserve a home and are ready to have an audience, which is so exciting. ”
Two Holzman-Needleman musicals start the venture: “Wallenberg” opens Oct. 28; the Christmas-Hanukkah show “That Time of the Year” runs Dec. 2 through 19.
The rest of the season includes three other premieres:?the plays “The Passion of the Hausfrau,” by Nicole Chaison and Bess Welden, and “Renovations,” by Andrew Gerle; and a third musical, “Enchanted April,” based on the Elizabeth von Arnim novel.
Jolles says “Wallenberg” — a musical about Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is reported to have saved more than 100,000 Jews in World War II Hungary — demonstrates how she hopes to set WPPAC apart.
“It’s a large piece and a lot of theaters these days say ‘We can’t do anything that’s more than 5 or 7 people,’” she says.
“Wallenberg” has a cast of 26.
“Even though we know we have to make those realistic choices and balance a large show by following it with a smaller show, I still think it’s not shutting the door to the possibility of both,” she says. “If it’s big and has quality and we know it’s a piece of theater that should be done, it’s about being creative to get the funding and spend a little less than you would have spent at another location.”
The developments are the latest chapter at theater, which has been several teams and visions since its 2003 opening. For the past year or so, it has been home to a youth-theater and a series of Broadway-style concerts. Before that, producer Jack W. Batman ran nearly two seasons of quarter-million-dollar Broadway-caliber musicals that drew critical raves but hemorrhaged money. The cash-strapped City of White Plains cut its subsidy to the venue.
Jolles says she hopes to increase the theater’s visibilty, building on an existing subscriber base and exposing audiences to a breadth of work.
“It’s musicals and plays,” she says. “The five shows, in very different ways, all reflect different aspects of the human condition. Even if it’s not about you, there’s something in it that everyone, at the end of the season, says ‘Wow! That was kind of about me.’
“I like audiences to go out thinking. Sometimes, they’re going to be thinking ‘Oh my God. I could maybe change the world a little bit.’ And sometimes they’re going to go out thinking ‘I haven’t laughed that much in the longest time.’ I don’t think either one is not legitimate. I don’t everything has to be serious to be great theater. Sometimes entertainment is why we go to the theater.”
Laurence Holzman understands that some people might look at the season — which includes two Holzman-Needleman musicals — and wonder if the team is in it for the long haul. What happens if “Wallenberg” succeeds and moves to Broadway? Will they still be committed to new works in White Plains?
“We will still be here,” Holzman says, pausing before adding with a laugh, “because our other show, ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ is gonna open next season.”
Needleman steps on his laugh line.
“Of course our goal is to move it,” she says. “Our goal is to move everything forward in some way or another. But we will make that happen one way or another, to Broadway or elsewhere. We are doing so much crazy work now, that’ll just be one more positive thing we’ll be doing. And we won’t be doing it alone. We’ll have a production team.”
Holzman says location is on their side.
“One attraction of the theater — both selfish and not — is that if there are works that we think have the ability to move — our own and others — it’s very easy to get people up from New York, investors and producers. They can come here a lot easier than, say, Phoenix.”
Jolles is convinced what people see in White Plains will have an impact.
“We’re not all going to be Wallenbergs,” she says, “But if people leave the theater and go ‘You know what??I’m going to help that lady across the street.’ If we each did one-one-hundred-thousandth of what he did, we’d save a life.
“Laurence, Felicia and I have always said that Wallenberg to us is the kind of hero we want our kids to look up to. There are so many pop stars out there and so many scandalous-story-this and bad-story-that and people getting into trouble. When people say ‘Where are the heroes?’ he’s an ultimate hero. He’s someone who chose to go to a situation he didn’t have to go into and do what was right.
“I feel like we’re trying to put ourselves into this theater and do what is right, which is to give writers, directors and designers and actors a place in Westchester to have their voices heard on a regular basis.
“I want it to feel like it’s Westchester’s theater and I want people to know who I am and feel like they can come up to me and tell me, ‘That play really pissed me off.’ What I don’t want is for people to tell me that they were bored.“
After this first season, Jolles knows what she wants to hear from her audience.
“I hope they’ll say ‘I can’t wait to see what they do next year,’” she says.
Above, photo by Tania Savayan/The Journal News: Artistic Director Annette Jolles on the stage of the White Plains Performing Arts Center. Below, photo by Mark Vergari/The Journal News: Felicia Needleman, left, Laurence Holzman and Kathy Davisson at the White Plains Performing Arts Center.