Berkshire theaters commission plays, bringing the results to the stage in 2016
Illustration by Gayle Kabaker
A digital community wants to know why one of its own has committed suicide. The brilliant son of a black mother and a white father has vanished. A woman with a spinal injury faces her estranged husband. A reclusive writer confronts what he has lost—and gained—by holding onto his art.
Berkshire theaters are putting more energy into new work this summer. With growing programs to support new writers, they are making the region a place to share and test what emerges, and even to launch them into a wider world. Many plays and musicals have premiered locally and have gone on to Off-Broadway runs, including Freud’s Last Session and Burnt Part Boys from Barrington Stage Company, Souvenir from Berkshire Theatre Group, and The Visit at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Many more have traveled to theaters across the country.
In the last few years, the focus has deepened. More than simply finding new plays, Berkshire theaters are commissioning them and encouraging writers. New play initiatives and residency programs have taken off. And the results are coming to the stage.
Writers in Williamstown
The Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) has focused more intently on new work since Mandy Greenfield took the lead as artistic director in 2014, and audiences can see the results this summer. Later this month on the Nikos Stage, emerging playwright Joe Tracz and veteran composer Craig Carnelia are debuting Poster Boy, based on the actual suicide of a gay college student, Tyler Clementi.
“It’s urgent,” Greenfield says, “a true combination of dramatic writing and primary sources from actual events—court depositions, articles, online material.”
And it’s a musical.
“Contemporary musical theater is fearless, smart,” she says, and it can move in dark and complicated territory. “If the first era of musicals were a celebration, this era with Fun Home and Hamilton can celebrate without being afraid to wade into the harder aspects of being alive now.”
Williamstown Theatre Festival held a development workshop for Poster Boy last summer as the festival launched a new play initiative, giving writers time and space to work. A board member built a cabin and donated it as a retreat, Greenfield says. This summer, WTF will have six writers in the retreat and a playwright-in-residence, and their reading series will present new work informally.
“We will have workshops and development all over the festival and around town,” says Greenfield. She has a longstanding commitment to new writers from her time with the Manhattan Theatre Club, where she oversaw programming at two Off-Broadway theaters and one on Broadway. “My career has been working on new plays,” she says. That’s what’s exciting about being in the theater” —making something for the first time, building around a writer’s vision and bringing it to life.
This summer on the Nikos Stage, The Cost of Living by Martyna Majok invokes human experiences rarely seen in theater, Greenfield says, and fights through conflict with beauty and humor. A truck driver reconnects with his estranged wife when she becomes wheelchair-bound after an accident, and a Ph.D. student from a privileged family hires a caregiver because he has cerebral palsy.
“She asks what it means to have, to lack, to want,” Greenfield says, “what it means to have resources, to be seen or not seen by others.”
At Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, artistic director Julianne Boyd has two commissioned works and a new musical this summer. More theaters are commissioning work, she says. Beyond finding new pieces in workshops and staged readings, theaters are supporting writers as they write.
Barrington Stage’s first Main Stage performance for the season, American Son, has already won the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for a full-length unproduced play. The theater commissioned American Son a year ago from Christopher Demos-Brown, an award-winning Miami playwright, co-founder of Zoetic Stage, and a civil trial attorney.
In the play, Demos-Brown explores the pressures of growing up biracial. When a brilliant 18-year-old has gotten into West Point, his white father separates from his black mother and washes his hands of the family. And then the parents are called into a police station because their son has vanished.
Boyd is directing the play with Tamara Tunie as Kendra Ellis-Connor and Michael Hayden (see photo left) as Scott Connor, both veterans of film, television, and theater on and Off-Broadway. Tunie found it exciting to work with Demos-Brown as he fine-tuned pressures and perspectives. The play takes on a powerfully relevant national conversation, she says, through a couple as they face tensions and reveal biases they have never shown or seen in themselves before.
“Kendra grew up in Liberty City, in Miami,” Tunie says. “It’s an impoverished area, and she is self-created. She is a professor, a Ph.D., intelligent, driven, and articulate.” She met Scott Connor at a party 20 years ago. He is an FBI agent from a conservative, military family, an upper middle-class world of lawyers and business people.
The characters of Kendra and Scott compel Hayden as well. He says they are “two people in extraordinary circumstances, in this night, in this room, and struggling to connect. He sees life as more linear, black and white,” Hayden says. “He wanted his son to grow up in a more privileged world. He fell in love with this extraordinary woman.”
The two have been married for more than 18 years and separated for four months. And they have come from different places. Brought together on one particular night, under pressure, they examine their lives together, their son, and thoughts and feelings they have never talked about openly.
“All of us have our biases and prejudices,” Tunie says. “Some of us can recognize and manage and contain them, and some people don’t. They’re driven into your mind, images you see on television, seeping into your consciousness until you say something and realize: That’s not what I meant.”
People make assumptions about others, Hayden agrees, based on where someone lives, on the music they listen to, on the way they talk. American Son has brought him enlightening moments. “It’s humbling to be part of a play exploring issues I should be aware of, but I don’t have to be—so I wasn’t. No one in my family and none of my friends have dated someone of another race, and I haven’t. I had not thought deeply about a young man or woman growing up biracial.”
Jamal, the boy in the play who is missing, is a bright and thoughtful young man. He has graduated from a private school and is heading toward a prestigious college, Tunie says, and he is feeling the strain of his parents’ separation.
“He’s a great kid,” she says, “at a pivotal point in his life.”
Hayden reflects on his own children. “Young men and women need to rebel,” he says, “to explore who they are and what their voice is, and it can be messy. One moment you have a child, and the next, someone desperately wanting to be an adult.”
The two actors feel people in the U.S. today need to understand Jamal and the pressures he lives with as he is caught between worlds.
Boyd believes this, too, so strongly that she will carry the conversation beyond the play. Barrington Stage will hold a free symposium on “Race, Bias and Culture in Present-day America.” The event grew out of talks she had with local leaders, and the stage group held a reading last summer and invited the black community in Pittsfield to listen.
“It was so powerful, they couldn’t move,” Boyd says. “The main thing, they said, is people need to see this play.”
The Stone Witch
“It’s important to nurture new voices and pay attention to how writers are looking at the world,” Kate Maguire says. As artistic director for Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, she stages a world premiere almost every year. As culture changes, she says, contemporary writers give a close and honest look at living in this country now.
This month, Shem Bitterman’s The Stone Witch presents film and TV icon Judd Hirsch, known for his leading role in the sitcom “Taxi,” as a veteran children’s-book author sweating over an assignment. He looks back over his career and weighs his life in his illustrations. Confronting a young writer sent to work with him, he asks what he has or has not done by holding onto his artistic core. The best and hardest parts of his life emerge in his drawings and onstage.
Berkshire Theatre Group will continue searching for new writers, Maguire says, and hold readings over the summer as she, like Boyd and Greenfield, brings new work to her main stage.
Williamstown is bringing Australian playwright Boo Killebrew’s Romance Novels for Dummies—a new comedy following a young widow from the South who comes to Brooklyn with her daughter to start again. Greenfield finds the writing warm, sensitive to pain, and deeply comic. Like Boyd and Maguire, Greenfield finds strength in contemporary work and enjoys watching it emerge on her stages. “All we can do is make work that connects, with integrity,” she says. “What happens from there is the luck of the stars aligning.”
Photo by John Stanmeyer
Barrington Stage Company
American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown, Jun 17 through Jul 9, 2016
Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
Free symposium, “Race, Bias and Culture in Present-day America,” Jul 2 and 3
Berkshire Theatre Group
The Stone Witch by Shem Bitterman, Jul 20-Aug 20, 2016
Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 East Main St., Stockbridge
Williamstown Theatre Festival
The Cost of Living by Martyna Majok, through July 10; Romance Novels for Dummies by Boo Killebrew, Jul 20-31; Poster Boy by Joe Tracz and Craig Carnelia, Jul 27-Aug 7; 2016
‘62 Center, 1000 Main St., Williamstown
Shakespeare & Company
Although not premieres, there are five contemporary works this season. See Shake & Co. Delivers.