Like many other Chester Theatre Company regulars, John Bechtold remembers making the drive down to the eastern edge of the Berkshires and only staying for the plays.
"I attended Chester shows for a bunch of years, and once in a while, I'd wander down to the town myself and maybe have dinner at the Common Table before or after," he said. "Then, I would leave and that was pretty much it."
Now, Bechtold returns to Chester with more than a quick visit. His newest work, "Gem of the Valley" is an "immersive theater experience" that pays tribute to not only the town but also Chester Theatre Company's 30th anniversary. Equipped with headphones playing a narrative soundtrack, audience members will walk the streets of Chester and enjoy the performances of a 20-person cast along the way on Saturday, July 19, and Sunday, July 20.
Observing that Chester, a town with 1,300 residents, can sometimes be a "stop-by experience," Bechtold centers his work on "celebrating and being interested in what it is [like] to miss something because you didn't look closely enough. To run by something too fast. And something theater does — I think very capably — is slow us down and imply to us that everything we're seeing is intentional in some way."
In its one-hour duration, audience members will be transported to the Chester Railroad Station and make their way through Main Street, finishing at the main stage of Chester Theater Company on Middlefield Road.
"As someone that grew up in a very small town in upstate New York ... I think I just have a real affinity and interest in towns as characters," Bechtold said of his decision to use the town as his stage. "And I think a smaller town still is on a scale where that identity that it has is very discernible. Cities that are bigger tend to be more protean, they shift and change and small towns do so at a slower pace quite often and therefore, they have this kind of long run of people and stories and accumulated history that piles up, as well as just sometimes a sense of isolation."
Notably, Bechtold emphasizes that the play is as much site-specific as it is audience-specific. Visitors "involve themselves as main characters and they will come to a different understanding of their role in [the play] by the end," according to Bechtold.
And in this way, "Gem in the Valley" becomes a different play depending on where home is for visitors.
"For a group of people coming from the immediate area, I'd hope it's a chance for them to re-see a place that they have gotten to know well and re-lens their experience," Bechtold said. "The things they've walked by a thousand times, they get to see it again for the first time. For audience members that are coming from further afield, that maybe have only attended a Chester Theatre Production but haven't gone by the town, that seems to go completely past what [Chester Theatre Company co-founder] Vincent Dowling clearly seemed to want, which was his famous quote that 'every town should have a professional theater.' I think the idea is not just coming to the theater for a stop-by experience and then you're out of this place, but to take it in the context in which this theater is being made."
With the focus on an experiential theater format, Bechtold remains tight-lipped about the plot and genre. He draws inspiration from disparate sources, ranging from poet T.S. Eliot to Zen philosopher Alan Watts, hoping to inspire the audience to "experience the entire world around them as an aesthetic experience and not a navigational one as we so often do in our regular lives."
"Theater is always a mix of the planned and the unpredictable, and this kind of work may tip the scales just a bit more toward the unpredictable," said Daniel Elihu Kramer, producing artistic director for Chester Theatre "... I think `Gem of the Valley' is both a terrific adventure, and a tribute to the openness of our audiences, our artists, and our town."