It didn’t take long for Ari Edelson to decide that Saratoga Springs would be the perfect new home for the Orchard Project.
A world-renowned “accelerator for new theater development,” the Orchard Project will be leaving its summer residence in the Catskills after eight years and move to Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs for five weeks: May 26-June 28.
“I’m happy to say it’s sort of a homecoming for me because that’s where my mother grew up and I spent a lot of time in Saratoga at my grandparents during the summers,” said Edelson, a director and producer in the New York City theater community who grew up in Westport, Connecticut.
“We started looking at a number of places upstate; Hudson, Saugerties, Oneonta, and over the course of our exploration we started having conversations with people in Saratoga, and it quickly become evident that Saratoga would be the perfect match for us.”
A graduate of Yale University and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Edelson decided the group’s home at Sugar Maples Resort in the Catskills was too small to handle the ever-increasing needs of the Orchard Project, which has served as a summer workshop home for more than 500 artists and 100 shows.
Included in that long list is the 2014 Tony Award winner for Best Play, “All the Way,” which starred “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson.
“Our goal is to be a place where theater companies and artists from around the world can unite and develop their work,” said Edelson.
“Our site in the Catskills was a great place, a place where some wonderful hardware was waiting for some software. But it just couldn’t expand with us. We’ve now accelerated more than 100 shows, and the people we developed relationships with want to come back. To do that we need to provide them with greater resources, and Saratoga was the place that had all the answers.”
Universal Preservation Hall is at 25 Washington St. in Saratoga Springs, not too far from Congress Park. An old church that was built in 1871, the structure was scheduled for demolition in 2003 before being saved by a group of concerned citizens. It is now home to several community events, including small musical concerts, corporate outings and weddings.
“This is a really big deal for us here at the hall, and we are thrilled that they’re going to be here,” said Teddy Foster, the volunteer president of the hall’s board of directors.
“We’ve worked hard to finish the restoration, it is still unfinished, but something like this will take us into the future and help us make this beautiful place the kind of cultural center we want it to be.”
The Orchard Project is an arm of The Exchange, a theater troupe in New York City that produces plays at various venues in the area.
“The Exchange has been around for 35 years, so while it may pre-date the Orchard Project and oversee it, the Orchard Project is the largest thing we do,” explained Edelson.
“We took over The Exchange because of the growth of the Orchard Project. Originally The Exchange was a theater company that produced only old Broadway classics. Now, we’ve helped develop many of the new plays you’ll see around the country, so we’re doing exactly the opposite of what it used to do.”
According to Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, drawing the Orchard Project to Saratoga Springs will be a boost to the entire area.
“It’s a great use for Preservation Hall, but they’re also going to be renting houses and other staging places around Skidmore College and Saratoga,” said Shimkus.
“Along with being a hotbed for thoroughbred racing and the springs, the community can play an even bigger role in the arts and our creative economy. Wouldn’t it be great if the next really big Broadway show came out of Saratoga Springs?”
Edelson said some of the workshops on occasion will invite the public in for a look at what they’re doing.
“We can split the performance space at Preservation Hall into two, and in one area we’re planning on having a cabaret,” he said. “The other space will be where people can develop their plays, and we are going to have some public sharings. At times the public will be able to come in and see, for free, how the show is getting developed.”
Designed by Massachusetts architect Elbridge Boyden, the building is an example of High Victorian Gothic architecture. Its steeple makes it the tallest structure in Saratoga Springs, and the tower contains a 3,000-pound bell from the Meneely Foundry in Troy.
“I know they had looked at a bunch of other places, but I knew the minute they walked in they fell in love with the place,” said Foster.
“It’s the kind of place that draws you in, and I could tell Ari loved it. So we hammered out an agreement right away.
“I think it’s terrific for them, and it’s terrific for downtown Saratoga Springs to have a group like them. We are a perfect fit.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected].