WHAT Lab: Where Experimental Theater Thrives

Actors (from left) Kate Michaud, Dominic Spillane and Katherine Folk-Sullivan perform Nathan Leigh's
Courtesy WHAT - Actors (from left) Kate Michaud, Dominic Spillane and Katherine Folk-Sullivan perform Nathan Leigh's "Sealand" at a WHAT Lab reading in March.

For Nathan Leigh, the best thing about WHAT Lab is “getting to try out ideas that may or may not be totally insane, in an environment where people are willing to indulge in your insanity.”

Leigh has now had his insanity indulged twice in the Lab at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.

The Consequences, co-authored by Leigh and Kyle Jarrow, was the first script to be workshopped when WHAT Lab began three years ago.

What's WHAT?

'The Final Say' @ WHAT Lab

Saturday, April 14

7 to 9 PM

Wellfleet Harbor Actor's Theater
Julie Harris Stage
2357 Route 6, Wellfleet

Hear Meryl Cohen read her new play: The Final Say, a 2012 WHAT Lab selection. 

Free Admission.

“When [the reading] was over, people didn't want to leave,” recalls WHAT Lab's director, Dan Lombardo.

It was so well received that Lombardo, who also serves as WHAT’s Artistic Director, programmed The Consequences as part of the theater's season this summer. It will be WHAT's first company-produced musical.

Leigh's second indulgence happened earlier this spring with the reading of his musical Sealand, or The Glorious Tale of the Founding of the Great Nation of Sealand: A Metatheatrical Musical Odyssey Who's Title Is Probably Longer Than the Musical Itself; Sort of Like That Fiona Apple Album That Pretty Much Ended Her Career, I Forget What It's Called But You Know The One I'm Talking About: A True Story. Best described as the love child of Waiting for Guffman and Team America, it was directed by Kel Haney, who will return this summer to direct The Consequences.

Leigh's musical-in-progress is based on the true story of the micro-nation Sealand, with a mermaid, the Kraken, and pirates appearing “in costumes stolen from a local production of Pirates of Penzance” (according to stage direction). In the program notes, Leigh advises: “Imagine Lord of the Rings as performed by an inept community theatre troupe who are succeeding by way of Monty Python.”

That about sums it up.

Diamonds in the rough

Dozens of scripts are submitted to the Lab every year. When choosing which scripts will be workshopped, Lombardo looks for “work that is fresh, daring, intriguing, outside of my expectations, and that keeps me turning the pages as I read. With no commercial requirements or artistic restraints, we can take chances that we normally can't in our fully produced season.”

The WHAT Lab got its start in 2008 when Jeff Zinn (WHAT's Artistic Director at the time) offered free off-season space to playwrights and actors for new play development.

Scripts arrive in varying states of completeness, which means audiences never know what they'll find at a reading. Readings are generally done "on book," with no staging.

Some are very raw, while others are ready for production. Last season, Brenda Withers' hit play The Ding Dongs, or What is the Penalty in Portugal? was produced at WHAT's Harbor Stage after it received the Lab treatment in 2010.

The last WHAT Lab reading of the season takes place as part of the Wellfleet Blossoms Festival. The Final Say, by Meryl Cohen, is a play about plagiarism and protecting ones own story, with a fair amount of comedy and a wry perspective on the world of theater.

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