WTF's "Orpheus in the Berkshires" taps magic in the hills
WILLIAMSTOWN — Orpheus, the Greek singer who walked into the underworld, is walking into an old mill town on a summer night. But she is a new Orpheus. She is a woman with a strong alto voice and a fall of braids down her back.
When she and her mother and grandmother sit on their porch with Mount Greylock behind them, they may hear pan pipes or a naiad splashing in Hoxie Brook.
"There is magic in the hills," said playwright Lucy Thurber. "This place is magic."
Thurber has created a new play for Williamstown Theatre Festival's annual free performance, which begins tonight and runs through Sunday, directed by WTF's associate director, Laura Savia.
And the story took root here.
When Mandy Greenfield took over as artistic director of WTF in 2014, she was mindful of the fact that she was a newcomer to the Berkshires.
She knew Thurber and Savia, she said in an interview with them on the Williams College campus. Then they were working together on a performance in Brooklyn involving the boxing community around a local gym. That show moved Greenfield as a performance, as a story and as a work that brought theater and local people together.
She wanted to create a play drawn from the Berkshires — bringing local actors and musicians and WTF actors together on stage. So she invited Thurber to come home.
Thurber grew up in Huntington and Northampton and has won an Obie for a play cycle, "The Hill Town Plays," set on her old ground.
"I've wanted to do something like this since I was 10 years old," she said.
She and Savia have come to the Berkshires regularly for a year, getting to know people. They have held acting and writing workshops with the Williamstown Council on Aging and the Williamstown Youth Center, Soldier On veterans, the Rock On Indy Band Fest, students at Berkshire Community College, the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute and many more.
"Lucy wrote the play after two rounds of workshops and listening," Savia said.
"I take very seriously the job of being accurate," Thurber said, "the trust we were given and the ways people spoke to us. This is all fiction."
But it is rooted in tensions here — lack of work, the way the country is changing, the challenges of caring for families — and one immediate, recurring pain.
"There's a story we were told over and over by people we met," Savia said. "The opioid addiction crisis here. We're learning this story is happening now."
Thurber's Orpheus looks after her younger sister, mother and grandmother. She is a young woman with a gift, pushing the limits as teenagers do.
"She stumbles into some gigantic gods-made circumstances," Thurber said. "She is faced with the possibility of saving people she loves. It's a hero's tale with music and dance — original music, rock and Prince covers."
In the original myths, Orpheus appears in many stories, Savia said. Thurber has drawn from many, in a journey with gods and mortals and monsters.
They have cast a local actor and musician, Christine Bile, as Orpheus. Thurber wrote the role with her in mind.
"Everyone we met talked about her," Savia said.
Bile is a junior faculty member of Rock On. Thurber and Savia met her and listened to her music; she plays guitar, composes and sings her own songs.
"We decided we wanted to empower her as the center of this story," Savia said. "She is someone who from a young age has put good into the world with her music."
Musicians from the community will also perform, from Rock On in Pittsfield and the Common Folk Artists Collective in North Adams to the MCLA alumni of the dance troupe Dysfunkcrew.
Savia has held rehearsals with up to 75 people, from children to grandmothers, for more than a month.
"It's a three-ring-circus style of rehearsal," she said. "It's a beautiful way to spend a summer."
The company will perform in Greylock Works, in the former Cariddi Mill. Savia said that many people in the cast have connections to the place. One actor will wear the hard hat his stepfather wore for 21 years.
"To reclaim the space with a story born from the community feels miraculous," she said. "When the mills closed, they left scar tissue."
The chance to lead a change matters to Thurber and Greenfield too.
Thurber can already see a movement growing in the local community; the theater festival, as WTF actors and apprentices meet the "Orpheus" crew; and she hopes it may influence the national theater community, as this partnership goes on.
"I feel useful," she said.
This kind of community-based work is one of the great loves of her life.
"It's something I've been proud to be a part of," she said. "It's one of the things I'm proudest of in my adult life."