Williamstown Theatre Festival is a star attraction

 
LA Times | Travel
 

When the Williamstown Theatre Festival opened in the summer of 1955, there was deep concern about allowing pretty young actresses in shorts on the campus of then all-male Williams College. Nevertheless, locals got permission to use the school's Adams Memorial Theater and, in the old \"I've got a ...


By Susan Spano // 07.06.09
 

When the Williamstown Theatre Festival opened in the summer of 1955, there was deep concern about allowing pretty young actresses in shorts on the campus of then all-male Williams College. Nevertheless, locals got permission to use the school's Adams Memorial Theater and, in the old "I've got a barn, let's put on a show" spirit, raised $9,000 for the first season, which included "Picnic," by William Inge and "The Rainmaker," by Richard N. Nash.

Since then, the festival has created a preeminent place for itself among American regional theaters, offering as good a reason to visit the northern Berkshire Mountains town as the fall colors.

The theater won a Tony Award in 2002 for outstanding regional theater and moved into a stunning new building, the college's '62 Center, three years later. It has premiered dozens of productions that have gone on to Broadway and showcased many of America's best playwrights, directors, designers and actors, including Mary Tyler Moore, Austin Pendleton, Dianne Wiest, Joanne Woodward, Christopher Reeve (who started there as a teenage apprentice in 1968), Sigourney Weaver, Kate Burton, Blythe Danner and her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow.

The list of stars who have worked there -- and have given their monikers to sandwiches at Pappa Charlie's Deli on Spring Street -- could go on and on. But another name, not as well-known outside theatrical circles, has to be included: Nikos Psacharopoulos, the artistic director for more than 30 years until his death in 1989.

It was Psacharopoulos who established the festival's ongoing relationship with the Yale School of Drama, where he taught, attracted bright lights from stage and screen and established ancillary programs, including an experimental theater series produced on what is now called the Nikos Stage.

Nikos' main stage seasons were highlighted by fresh takes on the classics, from Shakespeare to Tom Stoppard. Psacharopoulos' especially rich last decade brought the theater wide acclaim for, among other productions, an ambitious two-night cycle of excerpts from dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in 1981 and a massive Tennessee Williams sampler, which the playwright attended in 1982.

As the theater's fame grew, celebrities began knocking on the door. Bianca Jagger turned up in a play in 1984, and Rob Lowe appeared in a 1987 production of "The Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov. Psacharopoulos is said to have turned down a young Meryl Streep for an earlier production of the Chekhov classic, casting instead Blythe Danner in the role of Masha.

Kate Burton, who has been part of the festival for 29 years, said in an e-mail, "My favorite shows there would have to be 'The Three Sisters,' 'Counsellor at Law,' 'The Rivals' and 'The Corn is Green.' They embody what is great about summer theater, particularly about [Williamstown]: great stories, great directors, huge amount of characters and lots of laughter and pathos."

Apart from Psacharopoulos' magnetism and the beauty of summer in the Berkshire Mountains, stage and screen stars were drawn to the theater because they could live like ordinary people in Williamstown, hanging out at Pappa Charlie's and taking their kids to the local swimming hole. The paparazzi stayed away for the most part, and townspeople left them alone.

"It's still bad form to bother them," festival trustee Michele Moeller Chandler told me last month over coffee in Williamstown.

That said, Chandler mentioned that star sightings are common at Mezze restaurant, Tunnel City Coffee, Pappa Charlie's -- and onstage, of course. This summer's season features comedian Nate Corddry and Debra Jo Rupp (from TV's "That '70s Show") in Sam Shepard's "True West," Marian Seldes and Ed Herrmann in the 1920s farce "The Torch-Bearers," and Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays in Simon Gray's "Quartermaine's Terms."

For info: Williamstown Theatre Festival, (413) 597-3400, www.wtfestival.org.