How a Summer Festival Is Shaping New York’s Theatrical Winter

How a Summer Festival Is Shaping New York’s Theatrical Winter

The spit-and-plywood sets we built when I was a general assistant at the Williamstown Theater Festival were designed to last only as long as the two-week productions.

Doing Tennessee Williams wasn’t, in those days, an opportunity to show off world-class décor or prepare for a splashy New York transfer; at most it was an acting exercise for B-list movie stars nostalgic for the stage. If the festival was a brainy step above what remained of the summer-stock circuit, offering the Greeks and Chekhov instead of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Mame,” it was hardly a theatrical hotbed except in the sense of older celebrities seeking humid flings with young wannabes.

In fact, from the time of its founding in 1954 through 1980, when I made my glorious debut flipping French toast for all-night crews turning over the stage from one show to another, the festival never sent a full production to Broadway. (Its first would be A.R. Gurney’s “Sweet Sue,” in 1987.) Not many wound up Off Broadway, either. The ethos in that tucked-away corner of northwestern Massachusetts was less about success than safety; it was a place to experiment fearlessly, ringed by mountains 160 miles from Times Square.

I saw that ethos in action, briefly. In the one millisecond before I became a gofer non grata, I assisted the film director John Badham as he prepared a new version of the Broadway hit “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Staging it at Williamstown, he told me, was a way of testing the material quietly before he filmed it with Richard Dreyfuss the following year.

“If it’s a mess up here,” he said, “no one will know.”

Cut to today. Now everyone in the theater knows what’s happening in Williamstown. Though the festival season is still just eight weeks long, usually featuring seven shows in two- or three-week runs, those shows turn up with astonishing regularity on New York stages.

This season alone, three recent Williamstown hits will appear on Broadway. A revival of Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo,” led by Marisa Tomei as the potboiler’s passionate widow, and Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside,” a psychological thriller in which Mary-Louise Parker plays a creative writing professor, both open next month; Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons,” about an older couple considering divorce, opens in January.

Four other productions that debuted at the festival are part of the current Off Broadway season. Halley Feiffer’s Chekhov mash-up “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscowjust finished its run at MCC Theater, where Theresa Rebeck’s foodie comedy “Seared” opens in October. At Playwrights Horizons, “Unknown Soldier,” a chamber musical by Daniel Goldstein and Michael Friedman, begins performances in February; Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul,” about a former translator for the American military, starts in March.

Seven transfers in one season puts Williamstown at the top of the list of New York stage feeders; no single theater, let alone one that’s lit only 50 days a year, comes close. And yet the achievement does not mean that the festival has strayed as far from its original vision as that might suggest.

“We’re not chasing Broadway,” Mandy Greenfield, Williamstown’s artistic director, told me recently, as the 2019 season — her fifth — was wrapping up. “We’re chasing a way of working.”

Indeed, only one of the festival’s New York transfers this season began with a post-Williamstown future in mind; “Grand Horizons” was from the start a commission with Second Stage. The other six all came across Ms. Greenfield’s desk — and went through long periods of development and readings — with no other theaters or commercial producers attached.

The upside of that approach sounds a lot like what I used to hear in 1980: “You can throw artistic spaghetti at the wall and the consequence of failure is very low,” Ms. Greenfield said. What’s new is the corollary: “But the consequence of success is extraordinarily high.”

The reason for that change has partly to do with the theatrical environment surrounding the festival. As the road tryout system that once helped shows refine themselves en route to New York began to collapse, some producers looked to regional theaters to take up the slack. But year-round regional theaters, needing reliable product, can straitjacket artists looking to stretch.

When Williams College, which is separate from the festival but integral to it, opened the Class of ’62 Center for Theater and Dance in 2005, part of the answer fell into place. The handsome $52 million complex features Broadway-style technical capabilities while still being small enough — the Mainstage seats about 500 and the Nikos stage about 200 — to sell respectably, even when the work gets adventurous.

The reputation for top-notch production values, paired with the remote location and intrepid audiences, did not go unnoticed. Over the past 15 years, the festival began to attract more and more writers, directors and actors who wanted to throw that “artistic spaghetti” at the walls but had no objection if some of those walls turned out to include hidden side doors to Broadway.

Perhaps as a result, the quality has generally been high; I’ve seen at least one or two shows in each of the last few seasons that were way too good not to find bigger audiences. Aside from those already announced, I won’t be surprised if the bio-musical “Lempicka,” which had its world premiere at Williamstown last year, and Adam Bock’s Before the Meeting,” staged there this August, make the same leap soon.

Which doesn’t mean that Williamstown has turned itself into a New York-facing theater that lives off a reputation for out-of-town tryouts. For one thing, it reaps very little financial benefit from shows it helps create but turns over to other producers. For another, those producers are, in most cases, not-for-profits just like the festival. Of this season’s transfers, only “The Sound Inside” is a commercial project.

Still, if Williamstown’s programming is, as Ms. Greenfield says, “not reverse-engineered by someone else” but emerges from a purely artistic agenda, there remains a secret ingredient that helps make that agenda possible.

I refer to the apprentices — and interns and non-Equity company and seasonal staff and other species of underpaid (or even unpaid) underlings. Part of what produces the Williamstown magic is the chemistry of their ambition, which pays a lot of bills. Even now, that midnight French toast doesn’t flip itself.

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