GREAT BARRINGTON -- William Coe Bigelow, otherwise known as "Bill," has made a career out of telling other people’s stories on hit TV shows like "Murder, She Wrote," "Grimm," "Sliders," and his movie "Boat Trip" starring Cuba Gooding Jr. So when it came time to tell his own story -- a courageous tale of fatherhood, relationships and a decision no parent wants to ever make -- Bigelow dove into unfamiliar territory and wrote his first stage play, "Leap Year."
"I had this idea and I didn’t see it as anything other than a play," Bigelow said. "Although it’s a real-life experience, it’s not a documentary."
The story, Bill’s story, begins on Feb. 29, 1988, with the main character, Rob (Bigelow’s version of himself, played by Dave Demke in Shakespeare & Company’s world premiere production opening Saturday night at Bard College at Simon’s Rock), arriving at his home in Los Angeles in bliss having just witnessed the birth of his second son.
The happy event takes a dark and very real turn, however, when Rob’s wife, Lisa, calls to tell him that the doctors think their son may have Down syndrome.
From there, Bigelow takes the audience back and forth through time, as Rob, Lisa, their friends and their family wrestle with what to do.
The production is directed by Stephen Rothman, returning to Shakespeare & Company for a second season after having directed "Parasite Drag" last year. The show is scheduled to run through Sept. 1.
When Bigelow started searching for someone to put his life on stage, he turned to his friend, Shakespeare & Company artistic director Tony Simotes, who introduced him to Rothman.
Any doubt that Bigelow had about trusting someone with his experiences vanished instantly as the two became fast friends.
Rothman said he knew he couldn’t take anything lightly because these were real events that happened and the decisions surrounding them affected real people.
"I loved the courage (Bigelow) had in putting in the (darker) thoughts people have when facing decisions like this that people don’t really share," Rothman said. "I was in tears at the end because of what the story evokes."
Bigelow, who arrived in the Berkshires roughly a week ago to meet the cast and crew, said he was astonished by how they’ve taken his words, his experiences and brought them to life on stage.
"It’s like I’m seeing my memories," he said during an interview at Simon’s Rock’s Daniel Arts Center, where his play is being staged..
When he first saw Karen Beaumont, who plays Rob’s mother, Dottie, Bigelow said he cried and had to embrace her, because she embodied his mother the way she was before she died.
"It brought me back to that time Š my mother’s come back to life," he said. "It’s an out of body experience, but in a good way."
Demke and Beaumont said that after meeting Bigelow and being able to pick his brain about who the characters are, all nervousness and doubt melted away.
"I have the luxury of asking the person whose story it is if my character would or wouldn’t do something," Demke said. "This script makes you aware of the biggest things in your life Š those one, two, maybe three moments that defined who you are, who you were and we have to draw on those but also make sure we’re not telling our story, we’re telling theirs."
Demke said that Rothman’s directing style and willingness to allow the actors to arrive at their character’s decisions helped him let go.
"You can’t control emotion, you can only invite it," Demke said. "I can’t imitate this character or just put on a suit of clothes and be him."
In sharing his real-life story, Bigelow says he wants to share with audiences a truth he learned along his journey.
"There’s time everyone will face the darkness, be consumed by it and think there’s no way out, there’s no light at the end, but there is," Bigelow said. "No matter how bad things may seem there is always light at the end, you just might not see it yet."
As for conquering his first stage play, Bigelow said he’s never felt more respected and wonderful about a project. It’s also sparked a fire in him to write more plays. He’s just finished two and is working on another.
"I can go back to telling the character-driven stories," he said.