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Williamstown Theatre Festival Presents Play Shaped By, Starring Locals

Josh Landes
The cast of "Taiga In The Berkshires" rehearses at the Heritage Room of the Williams Inn.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Community Works project is bringing Berkshire locals together with theater professionals for a main stage event opening Sunday.

In the Heritage Room of the Williams Inn, the cast of “Taiga In The Berkshires” is running through one of the play’s numbers before its world premiere Sunday. It’s a new work, written by Obie award-winning playwright Lucy Thurber specifically for this season of the Williamstown Theater Festival’s Community Works project.

“Williamstown Theatre Festival is in its 64th year, and it is greatly known in the American theater community as being a place where there is a high standard of excellence, where actors and designers and directors at the top of their game come," said Associate Artistic Director Laura Savia. “And we are trying to now bring that same sort of rigor and standard of excellence that we do in our mainstage work to the work that we’re doing here with folks who are our neighbors.”

Partnering with 12 local organizations, the festival is carrying out workshops on theater year-round throughout the county.

“And those range from Williamstown Youth Center, which serves, of course, children, to programs for senior citizens like OSHER Lifelong Learning institute in Pittsfield,” said Savia.

Community Works was initiated in 2015 by Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield, who told Savia she wanted to redefine the festival’s relationship with its home.

“Williamstown Theatre Festival belongs to the Berkshires," Savia told WAMC. "Not just inviting the Berkshires area to come participate as audience members, but to actually get involved in the art making itself.”

The summer portion of Community Works is the culmination of the year-round trainings, bringing upwards of a hundred locals — many of them first-time actors — into the festival for an original production. With the support of theater professionals, a work written by Thurber drawn from the stories of the participants is brought to life.

“I really love working with non-professional actors," said director Lee Overtree. He’s best known for his work with Story Pirates, an arts education program based in New York and Los Angeles that brings stories written by kids to the stage, mounting professional productions around their work.

“I really enjoy working with people whose approach to theater is fresh, and my approach with them is — I can’t say that I have anything super profound to say about it, besides that I treat them like they’re professionals, and when you treat someone like they’re an expert, they usually turn out to be one,” Overtree told WAMC.

“The ordinary person responds to this because they recognize that — they can feel it, hey, this is sounding good, this is something I couldn’t do, now I can do it," said Barbara Mahoney. She's a cast member from Pittsfield. After teaching 7th grade for 25 years in Cleveland, she moved to the Berkshires in 1997 to run a bed and breakfast in Lee with her husband for 11 years. He died in 2010. Now retired, Mahoney heard about Community Works through the Osher Lifelong Learning Center at Berkshire Community College. This is her third year performing in the project.

“We have different racial groups, we have different ethnic groups, we have LGBTQ, we have age from 92 to — there’s a woman who’s 92 — to the youngest is 5," said Mahoney. "Teenagers — it’s across class lines, it’s across educational lines, and to me, that’s what a community is all about.”

“The process is only like a month, and we’re literally like family," said Carter Marks, 11, from Lee. Over the course of that month, she says rehearsals in the Heritage Room with the cast of around 80 have become something larger than just the production.

“The room — that room, like… over there, is my safe place, kind of. It’s just like — I’m really comfortable in there. Everybody is comfortable, basically,” Marks told WAMC.

She says Overtree’s directorial approach set the tone.

“He says, ‘Be you,’ kind of," she said. "And like, ‘You don’t have to hide anything.’ ‘Just be you,’ kind of.”

“I think theater naturally does that, because you literally have to grab the hand of someone," said Hayley Sherwood. "Someone is telling you how to do that and why, and it has to do with something that — there’s a story, right? Hovering above us, that we’re all in service to.”

Sherwood is the Community Works associate. This is her second year with project, working with partner programs and encouraging and supporting the participants on a daily basis. As the project enters its third year, she says she’s seen it grow.

“We’ve increased our partnerships, and we’ve had a really good return rate. We have a lot of people who have been in the show now for three years," Sherwood told WAMC. "It has become part of their summers. They are shaping their vacation time around it. They are adjusting their schedules.”

Mahoney sees no end in sight for her involvement with Community Works.

“Everybody’s really kind and fun, and having little children there — it’s just a wonderful experience,” she told WAMC.

“Taiga In The Berkshires” debuts Sunday at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For more about Community Works, its partner programs, and the play itself, click here.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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