What's ahead for Chester Theatre Company

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CHESTER — Chester Theatre Company's producing artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer wants the theater to take audiences where they've never been.

If Kramer learned anything from 2016, his first season at the helm of the theater company in the hills of Hampden County, it is that CTC's audiences are willing to take the journey.

"I learned how open our audience is to new experiences," Kramer said in an email.

He learned even more this summer when he took a big risk midway through the season by changing the configuration of the 126-seat performance space at Chester Town Hall from a traditional stage-facing proscenium arrangement to a four-sided theater-in-the-square. He presented as the first offering "Every Brilliant Thing," a one-actor play that depends on active audience involvement. Kramer kept the configuration for "Folk," which wraps up CTC's 2017 season with its final performance Sunday afternoon.

"I had thought of 'Every Brilliant Thing' as a risk for us," Kramer said in the email, "and, in fact, audiences were enormously receptive and enthusiastic. I probably shouldn't have been surprised by this but it was discovery for me.

"More than anything, I heard how welcoming it felt, and that the theater felt bigger — though we sat the same number.

"I think we gained a lot from it — most obviously in 'Every Brilliant Thing,' but also in 'Folk,' in our ability to feel invited into (the) room, and into the characters' lives.

"It's new for audience members to have such differing perspectives, literally, on the action. We can improve a few sightlines, and continue working to make sure everyone can hear very clearly. We certainly won't stop being a proscenium theater, but I love knowing we have this option available."

Kramer says he is pleased, overall, with how this season played out.

"Our range of plays, styles, and stories felt on target," he said in the email. "We had two New England premieres [Dominique Morriseau's 'Skeleton Crew' and Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe's 'Every Brilliant Thing'] and a U.S. premiere ['Folk']."

"We had a great mix of new and returning artists — both of which feel important for us. We also had great post-show events — talkbacks, panels, cast conversations — which is an important part of who we are, as well."

If there is a disappointment it is that "Skeleton Crew," about four black workers in an automobile stamping plant in Detroit that is rumored to be closing, didn't generate the audience numbers Kramer had hoped it would.

"I wish more people had seen [it]," Kramer said in his email. "I didn't do as good a job as I need to at helping people know why they would want to come to it.

"Generally, we had great second-week audiences as word of mouth about our shows got out, and we're trying to figure out how to front-load our audiences more."

Kramer assumed leadership of CTC in September 2015 after Byam Stevens, the theater's producing artistic director for 17 seasons, stepped down to pursue other interests.

Kramer, who heads the drama department at Smith College in Northampton, was no stranger to Chester. He had directed there and served four seasons under Stevens as associate artistic director.

His main goal, he said in an interview earlier this summer at CTC's Main Street offices, is to "move forward from the theater Byam turned us into."

Chester Theatre Company already has moved well beyond the foundation laid down by the late Vincent Dowling, who established The Miniature Theatre of Chester in 1990 and served as its artistic director until Stevens was hired in 1998. In 2006, Stevens changed the company's name to Chester Theatre Company.

The company took a big financial hit in 2008, Kramer said, and while CTC has recovered, finances remain the central concern.

"Because of the economy, we took a big hit in 2008," Kramer said in the interview. "My sense is that we took a bigger wallop by percentage than other theaters because our budget is so small"; this year is roughly $313,000 up from last year's $300,000, according to Kramer.

"The real financial next step for us is how we meet this year's budget, stabilize our finances and then build for the future," Kramer said

Building for the future is paramount, Kramer says. "Our fund-raising here has tended to be about meeting the year's budget. We really need to be planning ahead."

Kramer has been doing a lot of looking ahead since he took over. He wants to reach out to audiences more by sharing more of the theater-making process; "create more events," he says, "that invite our audiences to see us at work, see the projects we are developing for the future."

He wants to reach out more to the immediate Chester community by offering special Chester resident "rush" tickets; housing Chester actors, directors, designers, interns in the village; developing space in Chester as a retreat for playwrights. He's considering ways to connect CTC with the theater department at Smith.

He is trying to define his role as producing artistic director and what that means in terms of his working relationships with the directors and designers. He has a "conscious desire to expand the diversity of the stories we tell and the people who tell them," he said in the interview.

It's a big bucket list and that's only a sampling.

Kramer says he is, for the most part, pleased with how this season has played out..

"I felt we were often working pretty close to our artistic peak," he said in the email.

"Sometimes I think of our work as being like a high caliber gymnast or diver. The only chance they have at winning is to try performing to the very limit of their abilities. They risk the possibility of failure, in the hope of achieving something special. We took those chances this summer, and more often than not I — and audiences — felt we accomplished the difficult feats we attempted."

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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