Williamstown Theatre Festival provides a platform for playwrights
Playwright Halley Feiffer, far left, on stage a few years ago with Jessica Hecht and Eric Bogosian in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of "Legacy".
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
One morning as Halley Feiffer sat in Tunnel City Coffee on Spring Street and wrote, re-imagining Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, an actor sat down nearby. She asked him to read a scene with her. It was the first time she had shown the script to anyone.
“He just started laughing,” she says, “and I knew I was onto something. You can’t do that in New York or in L.A., but in Williamstown you can.”
Harrison David Rivers recalls a summer day when he talked with members of the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) about violence in the national headlines, and read scenes he was writing out of his own sadness and anger. “It gave us a moment to breathe and cry and be together,” he says.
Rivers has won numerous awards and has written at least 11 plays, with commissions and productions from New York to San Francisco. Feiffer is a Theater World Award–winner and an actor on and off Broadway and in film. Both she and Rivers are coming back this summer with work they developed at Williamstown Theatre Festival—Feiffer as a commissioned writer in 2015 and Rivers as a playwright-in-residence the following year.
“There’s a different energy about working on a new play than on a classic,” Rivers says. “Anything can change. The playwright is there and scribbling furiously. Classics are also exciting, but there’s something about a play being written in the room. The energy of the festival becomes what to rewrite before the preview tomorrow.”
WTF has a unique range and depth in its programs to support playwrights and new work. Along with its commission program and writing residency, it holds readings of new work during the Fridays@3 Reading Series beginning July 7, which will move to the Clark Art Institute this summer, and has one of the few director-fellowship programs in the country, says artistic director Mandy Greenfield.
The festival will produce a substantial core of new works this season: The Roommate on the Mainstage and all four plays on the Nikos Stage have come through WTF programs. Rivers’s When Storms Are Born runs July 12 to 23, and Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow opens July 26.
Feiffer’s play is the first in WTF’s New Play and Musical Commissioning Program that the festival will fully stage. Many theaters commission new work, Greenfield says, but what WTF does that is wholly unique is support a play, from first glimmering idea to performance, with hands-on development and resources—housing, actors, writers, and directors.
Feiffer turned to The Three Sisters because she loves the play—which she finds painful, funny, and contemporary—but productions never felt accurate to her experience of it. In high-school, she performed in it with a close friend. “It cracked our brains open,” she says, “because this was our relationship. ‘I’m always belittling you. You’re passive-aggressive to me.’ This is us.”
She was inspired to begin her re-creation at WTF, she says, when Greenfield invited her to write whatever she wanted. Feiffer has come through other residencies, but this one is different for two reasons: “The first is Mandy herself. She is a strong, brilliant, charismatic artist with a vision, who also happens to be a woman, and she empowers other artists. She nurtures and pushes you at once.
“The other thing is Williamstown itself.”
In her three-week residency, Feiffer could meditate or write in a cabin on the hillside, or polish her script at a picnic table, or talk with close friends and writers she got to know.
Rivers agrees: “Everyone was friendly and warm. Actors and directors are excited to be there, and you can approach everyone anywhere—walking to rehearsal, at a bar, at dinner—and talk about art and life together.”
The festival draws a mix of people: pros at the top of the industry, actors on and off Broadway, emerging artists getting glimpses of what a career might look like, and students. As playwright-in-residence, Rivers talked with all of them. His was a staff position for the full ten-week summer—half for his own writing (such as new plays When Storms Are Born and The Bitter Earth) and half on the WTF literary staff, leading talks before and after shows, interviewing artists, and working with acting apprentices.
He finds Williamstown to be a calming and magical place. But as Rivers wrote and walked and worked there, frightening things were happening in the world outside. He needed to talk about them, he says, and WTF gave him the space.
Rivers talked about young men dying and how people look at black bodies. Greenfield and the staff understood that everyone was grappling with this hard time, he says, “and there was an incredible moment when we all came together. It felt necessary.”
Greenfield vividly remembers Rivers reading from his new work. Last summer was a complicated and fraught time in the U.S., she says, with gun violence toward black men.
“And that’s why you have a playwright in residence,” says Greenfield. “That’s the whole point—to have a living, breathing artist responding to the world, and to let that breathe and let the festival respond.”
Meet the Playwrights
Harrison David Rivers and Halley Feiffer will bring new works to WTF’s Nikos Stage this summer.