WILLIAMSTOWN — One by one, adults of all ages came to the Harper Center recently to participate in a workshop for the Williamstown Theatre Festival's community engagement project: "Orpheus in the Berkshires.''

Laura Savia, the Williamstown Theatre Festival associate director who is helming "Orpheus in the Berkshires," conducted the workshop. With Savia were the choreographers for the show, Rick and Jeffrey Kuperman.

We're looking for 75 Berkshire residents to join 25 professional theater artists on stage in 'Orpheus in the Berkshires,' " Savia said when we spoke at the Harper Center. "We have already had workshops at Berkshire Community College, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Soldier On."

But not everyone who would like to take part in putting on the show, wants to act. People who are interested in painting, costumes and other behind the scenes activities have been coming to Savia.

"We're glad to have them participate," she said. "The spirit of this new initiative is to make the show, in all its phases, accessible to residents of the Berkshires."

Penned by Obie-Award winning playwright Lucy Thurber, "Orpheus in the Berkshires" is a new spin on the Orpheus myth. The play centers around the youth of a town getting too caught up in ambrosia, which leads to a chain of devastating consequences.

"Orpheus in the Berkshires" will be presented at Greylock WORKS from July 14-17 free of charge.


At the workshop held at the Harper Center, Savia asked participants to express in one word what they were feeling as they embarked on this new experience. Answers included uncertain, curious, excited, grateful, confused.

Reiko Yamada, a retired Williams College professor who now works for Hospice, said "clean— like a clean slate. I am looking for something new to do."

Marge Wylde, a retiree, thought it would be fun, she said. "And a couple of people I know were going to go to the workshop."

The physical activity began with Rick telling participants to march forward, slide backward, stamp their feet, turn in a circle. ... Some people did so boldly, some did so hesitantly.

And when Rick was talking about different styles of dance, a senior citizen interjected: "You're not going to ask us to break dance are you?" The choreographer replied reassuringly "No, I just used that as an example. This is not "A Chorus Line," he added, referring to the Broadway musical about the difficulties dancers face when auditioning.

At one point, attendees were instructed to work as 'duets"— one person in each duet use her hands as a magnet to control her partner's movements. Instead attendees pushed away their partners.

"Magnets draw things to them," Savia said, as she demonstrated with a choreographer. (As an observer I wondered why the obvious had eluded the attendees.)

Later, Emma, the youngest in the group, stood in the center of a circle formed by her co-participants . Responding to Reiko's hand motions, Emma gave the illusion of being a sculpture. "We can use that in the play," Savia said and then added as she smiled, "You are helping us do our homework."

Emma also pretended to be the teenage character Orpheus in a scene of the show that takes place in Hades. At the workshop that called for Emma struggling to release herself from a parachute. Her co- participants hindered and helped her, using hand motions.

All the attendees were asked to read dialogue from the script, meant to be delivered by Orpheus, her mother and her grandmother.

About seven weeks before rehearsals were to begin, Savia said, "Through auditions and through our workshops, we have 20 individuals confirmed to take part in the performance, plus two dance troupes and multiple bands from Rock On.

"The most gratifying aspect of this work is watching people blossom," she said. "Even the shyest participants seem to shed their inhibitions and discover new ways of moving, of thinking, and of expressing themselves."

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown.