"There are three companies in residence here right now," says Byam Stevens, sitting in his tiny office at the Chester Theatre Company. When I visited recently, the first show of the season, Animals Out of Paper, was nearing the end of its run; the next production, The Swan, was poised to begin tech and dress rehearsals; and the third show, Running, was in its first rehearsal week.
The hullabaloo of a summer theater schedule is nothing new for Stevens. He's in his fifteenth season as artistic director of the company, which was founded in 1991 by Vincent Dowling as the Miniature Theatre of Chester—an identity that still sticks in many people's minds, to the continued frustration of the now-not-so-new management. Another perennial challenge is the theater's location, in the tiny hilltown of Chester, situated halfway between the Valley and the Berkshires and drawing equally from both regions. "Everybody seems to basically drive about 40 minutes to get here," Stevens observes, although the opportunity to draw from two audience bases is also a plus.
The company's new managing director, Todd Trebour, is grappling with the challenge of Chester's relative isolation—though it's just down the road from Jacob's Pillow. That, and the fact that after 23 seasons and a widespread reputation for staging literate, engaging plays and attracting topnotch professional actors, the company still isn't on a lot of theatergoers' radar. Part of his strategy is to work with the Chester community itself to make the town and the theater more of a summertime destination. "This town is idiosyncratic," he says, "a historic railroad town with a unique theater, and it's really beautiful."
The company performs in the Chester Town Hall's intimate auditorium, but rehearsals are held in the Littleville Elementary School in Huntington, the next town over. Here, on the day of my visit, The Swan and Running are rehearsing simultaneously in borrowed classrooms.
Daniel Elihu Kramer, who teaches at Smith College, finds "a kind of artistic home" during the summer in Chester, where he's a resident director and artistic associate. A student of Kramer's at Smith is his assistant stage manager this season, "so I don't feel the teaching ever stops." In fact, he tells me, the company is increasingly thinking of itself as "a teaching theater," and that includes an ongoing mission of educating the audience. That goal is evident in the discussions Stevens conducts after every performance, when he and the audience dig into the play's themes and message as well as its physical style: how do the set and sound design, the lighting and the actors' movements help illuminate the work?
Today Kramer is reworking an early scene in The Swan, a quirky romantic fantasy about a woman whose "depth of longing," as the director puts it, lures a swan into her life. (The play is, among other things, a riff on the Greek myth of the maiden Leda seduced by Zeus in the guise of a swan.) After crashing into her window, the bird transforms into a just-born man-child who both palliates and complicates her longings.
In this scene, Dora (Tracy Liz Miller) has put the swan, injured in the window collision, in a bed beside her fridge, and is trying to explain its appearance to her boyfriend Kevin (Jacob H. Knoll), who's suspicious—and married. As they work through the scene's successive moments of discovery, tension and confrontation, I chat with Joel Ripka, who plays the swan. He has become a Chester regular, after starring in the groundbreaking Nibroc Trilogy in 2010 and as Hamlet in Wittenberg last year.
"I love the atmosphere up here," he says, referring to both the hilltown air and the company's aesthetic. "There's a spirit about the place, a really great collaborative energy." He's also grateful for the variety of work he gets to do here. After quite a cerebral part last season and a very talkative one in Nibroc, "this one is less intellectual, more physical, an outside-in approach."
Across the hall in the third-grade classroom, Ron Bashford is directing Jay Stratton and Melissa Hurst in the first scene of Running, by Arlene Hutton, the author of Nibroc. Like that play, this one brings together two strangers at a turning point in each one's life. Emily is running from a bad marriage and Steven is running in tomorrow's New York marathon—at least, he's planning on it, till this old friend of his wife's shows up in crisis. The evening turns into an all-night marathon of conversation and revelation. The premise is one that raises romantic-comedy kinds of expectations, but Bashford, who's coming off his second year on the Amherst College faculty, says the playwright "knows what the usual clichés are, and she knows how to create an expectation, but she's not doing it to give us the usual payoff. She's doing it to answer deeper questions." The season's theme is Uncommon Love Stories, but none of the plays has a conventional happy or sad love-story ending.
Today's rehearsal follows several days of "table work" in which the director and cast looked closely at the script and began to tease out themes, motivations and relationships. Now the two actors are testing those discoveries "on their feet"—or more accurately, seated side by side on a couch looking at a paper scroll that charts all the people who lived in Steven's apartment when it was a kind of student crash pad. Bashford observes the actors as they try different approaches to the characters' tentative verbal and physical interactions—a playful poke, a nervous gesture, a sudden rise from the couch to create some distance. The director tells me later that he sees his role at this stage as giving his actors the freedom to experiment: "They're trusting their impulses, and I'm just watching to see if they're believable with the text."
During a break I renew an acquaintance with Stratton, who's also worked here before, most recently in last year's record-breaking hit, Pride@Prejudice. He works regularly at large repertory theaters across the country, performing "the old stories" of the classic repertory, but is drawn to Chester because "the stories at this theater are right now. This is the lowest-paying job I'll take all year," he confides, "and it's also the most edgy job I'll take all year. I can take bigger risks here, and that's exciting for an actor."
Later, in his office around the corner from the theater, Stevens reflects on the fact that, alone among the region's summer theaters, a majority of the season's plays—three out of four—are by women. "I did not go out looking for plays by women," he explains. "I read a bunch of plays and I liked them and three of them happened to be by women. Two of them also happen to be by people from the subcontinent"—Animals Out of Paper, by Rajiv Joseph, and Dipika Guha's The Betrothed, which will end the season.
"We're doing theater we can be proud of, and people are responding," Stevens continues. His audience, from both east and west, is steadily growing and some shows are selling out. He cites the 17 plays that have transferred to New York or regional theaters, including Pride@Prejudice, which plays at Albany's Capital Repertory Theatre this fall. "That statistic talks about the quality of work we're doing."
The Swan plays through July 29 and Running runs Aug. 1-12 at Chester Theatre Company, Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Rd., Chester. (413) 354-7771, chestertheatre.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.