The Orchard Project Has Deep Saratoga Roots

Saratoga Springs might be the next off-off Broadway hotspot. No joke. That’s the vision of Ari Edelson, Artistic Director of New York City–based The Orchard Project, which Edelson describes as a “Yaddo for performance” that’s helped workshop, incubate and accelerate hundreds of plays and dramatic stories, including many that went on to off-Broadway and Broadway, winning Obies and Tonys along the way. For the last nine summers, Edelson has been bringing his artists and their creative output to the Spa City as a kind of creative testing ground for new works that will be produced across the country. 

“When I was growing up, my understanding of Saratoga was the racetrack and my grandparents’ house,” laughs Edelson, whose mother is from the city. “But it’s its own really wonderful mini-city. In terms of the quality of work that comes through town, it seems to only make the town more and more attractive.”

After earning a theater degree from Yale, Edelson directed off-Broadway, in London and in Tokyo. In 2008, he took over the renowned Jean Cocteau Repertory, and transformed it into The Orchard Project (OP). Since then, OP has helped 1,500 artists/creators and hundreds of successful productions, including Robert Schenkkan’s All The Way,which won Tonys for Best Play and Best Actor (for Bryan Cranston’s performance as President LBJ).

Esperanza Spalding and Howard Fishman at the old Putnam Den. (Photography by Julia Levy)

OP used to take its simmering summer performance pieces to Hunter in the Catskills. “But when it got big enough, we started looking at other places,” says Edelson, who made the switch to the Spa City in 2015. “I had a slight bias to Saratoga because of my personal history.” (Edelson’s grandfather ran a pharmacy on Broadway called Carroll Cut-Rite; Fred Menges of current downtown apothecary Menges & Curtis was his assistant.) Edelson also points to Saratoga’s “flexible creative infrastructure” with facilities such as UPH, SPAC and Caffè Lena, and the cultural life and “vibe” of the city as reasons for making it OP’s summer home. “There’s this sophisticated vocabulary in Saratoga with the Writers Institute,with SITI Company andYaddo,” says Edelson. “With all of this taking place in the area, everyone understands what it takes to make something.”

Since then, OP has brought some performing paragons to the Spa City, including Alan Cumming to UPH (before renovations were complete) for a comedic cabaret, and jazz master and bass prodigy Esperanza Spalding for a kickass show at the then-Putnam Den (in the space where Putnam Place is now). Most recently, Edelson points to Penelope, a rock opera retelling of the Odysseyfrom the perspective of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. With music and lyrics by Alex Bechtel, the musical was performed at Caffè Lena in 2022 and is currently running at DC’s Signature Theatre. “It’ll probably get ten productions around the country next year,” Edelson says. “It’ll be one of those shows that people will have seen everywhere.” 

The NYC-based nonprofit’s 2024 program includes more than 14 projects, culminating in a weekend of concerts, readings and showings July 12-14 in Saratoga. Pieces include a new musical adaptation of the 2012 film Safety Not Guaranteed, written by the rock band Guster and Nick Blaemire from Maestro, plus a new show featuring Ethan Slater of the new Wickedmovie and boyfriend of Ariana Grande. Edelson says, “We always pick six or seven works about which we say, ‘This would be really fun to share with folks in Saratoga.’”           

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