CHESTER — Works by MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker; Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph; and Loy A. Webb and Peter Sinn Nachtrieb are on tap this summer at Chester Theatre Company.
The season, which runs June 22 through Aug. 20 at Town Hall Theatre, is the first for husband-and-wife duo James Barry and Tara Franklin as co-producing artistic directors of the 33-year-old theater. They succeed Daniel Elihu Kramer who stepped down as artistic director at the end of the 2022 season after seven years at the helm.
The couple’s maiden season includes Nachtrieb’s “The Making of a Great Moment” (June 22-July 2), which finds a Vancouver acting couple touring the world by bicycle and performing their 4-hour show in a steadily declining, obstacle-filled effort to bring humanity together through the power of theater; Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” (July 6-16) about two Imperial Guards who are given an impossible task while standing watch at the Taj Mahal; Webb’s “The Light” (July 27-Aug. 6), a two-character drama in which an engagement celebration goes horribly awry when accusations from the past resurface; and Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” (Aug. 10-20), set in a creative drama class for adults in a small town in Vermont. Kramer will return to Chester to direct this play.
Also on the schedule is a workshop presentation of “Unreconciled” (July 20, 21), a play in development by Jay Sefton and Mark Basquill, based on the true story of a boy with ambitions of becoming an actor and a priest who takes advantage of the boy’s interest to abuse him.
The season is bookended by what Barry and Franklin describe as “love letters to theater plays.”
The opener, Barry said, is a “love letter to the art of theater and those who devote their life to it, no matter what the obstacles.” Baker’s play talks about “the importance of theater and how it can lead to self-discovery.”
The middle plays, Barry and Franklin said during a joint interview at a coffeehouse in Lee, are about where society is now.
“We want to have a strong opening gambit; bring everyone along on a journey; have a satisfying ending,” Barry said.
Running a theater company is a big step for Barry and for Franklin, whose lives in theater have been largely performance-oriented.
Barry has extensive acting credits in New York, regional theaters and national touring companies. His acting credits at Chester over the past 12 seasons include “Wittenberg,” “Arms On Fire,” “Sister Play,” “The Aliens,” “The Night Alive,” “Title and Deed,” “Tiny Beautiful Things” and last season’s “Pass Over.” He’s also directed “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Working: A Musical” at Berkshire Theatre Group and “Forever Plaid” last summer at Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, N.Y. And, last year, he received an MFA in playwriting from Smith College.
“I felt the degree would bring me closer to the heart of page-to-stage; theater as a holistic experience,” he said.
A theater professional for the better part of 20 years, Franklin does bring some administrative experience to her new role at Chester. In the four years leading her move into the theater’s artistic leadership, the Berkshire County native was the theater company’s associate artistic director and director of education. Prior to Chester, she ran the apprenticeship program at Berkshire Theatre Group. As an actor, she’s performed in New York, Chicago and a variety of regional theaters. Her Berkshires credits include performances with Berkshire Theatre Group and at CTC, where she appeared in “To the Moon and Back,” “On the Exhale,” “Sister Play,” “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” “Tiny Beautiful Things” and “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.”
Still, the twosome readily acknowledge that running a theater with a roughly $700,000 budget involves a whole new set of skills.
“There is no handbook for this,” Barry said, acknowledging that he and his wife just ”threw our hats in the ring when we heard Daniel was stepping down.”
The couple have formulated what they consider a reasonable division of responsibilities. Franklin is handling the theater’s operations. Barry has taken the lead on staffing; maintaining personal contacts with onstage and offstage artists.
The two agreed early on that they would not work together on the same production. Barry is directing the season opener and “Unreconciled.” Franklin will act in the last show of the season in a cast that will include returning CTC veteran Joel Ripka and, in her CTC debut, Corinna May, who has performed often at Berkshire Theatre Group, Shakespeare & Company and Great Barrington Public Theatre.
“We felt it made sense right now to make sure one of us is always present (to manage the company) rather than be in the same rehearsal room,” Barry said.
Franklin and Barry’s lives have revolved around theater, not only onstage but off as well. They met at a cast party they attended with their then respective significant others. “It grew from there,” Franklin said with a laugh. They will be celebrating their 14th wedding anniversary in the fall.
“We go home at the end of the day; make dinner; talk about what we’re doing here,” Franklin said. “We share the same aesthetic about what theater means to us. It means so much to have a partner in this; built-in support.”
They live in Williamstown with their son, Sam, a sixth grader at Williamstown Elementary School and he is showing early interest in theater and, from his father, rock music.
Franklin and Barry are not anticipating making dramatic changes at Chester. They intend to build on the foundation created by Kramer and his predecessor, Byam Stevens.
“We’re still keeping the sensibility of choosing plays that challenge our artists, our audiences,” Franklin said.
“We want to spark conversations (about) our humanity,” Barry said.
They are considering establishing a playwright residency program and expanding production opportunities for the theater’s interns. In addition to development of new work, Barry and Franklin are interested in looking at “forgotten classics,” rarely produced plays from the latter half of the 20th century that deserve a fresh look.
They will continue CTC’s popular annual March trip to London — Sam will be joining them this year — and another theater trip in the fall to an as-yet-undecided North American city.
At present, the biggest challenge is bringing people back to the theater now that COVID has subsided. “People have been frustrated with having to comply with COVID procedures,” Barry said. This summer, two performances in each show’s run will be mask-mandated. The other performances will be mask recommended but optional.
It’s a formidable challenge but the couple say they have the things in place that will help them succeed — a management structure Franklin credits marketing and development manager Angela Combest for putting in place; a board that trusted the couple enough to hand them the keys rather than launch a national search and bring in someone who, Barry said, “might change the theater’s spark;” a reliable roster of designers who have worked with CTC over the years; and Kramer, who has offered to give them some tips every now and then.
“We’ve made things work in our lives together,” Franklin said. “We’re not afraid to go into experiences that are unknown. We trust each other.”
“Tara and I love this theater so much,” her husband said. “We want to do right by our audiences. I know we can make this work.”