Call it a marriage of convenience — with the coronavirus pandemic as matchmaker.
Having had to cancel Chester Theatre Company’s 2020 season at Town Hall Theatre because of COVID-19 restrictions, producing artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer realized the only way the theater could salvage a 2021 season was to go outdoors. Canceling 2021 was not an option. So, unable to find a suitable location in Chester, Kramer reached out; looked west to the Berkshires.
“We began calling places, other cultural venues that we might use,” Kramer said. “It all came down to the tent.”
He found what he was looking for at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield. Chester@Hancock begins Wednesday (June 16) evening at 7:30 with the Massachusetts premiere of Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Eno’s “Title and Deed.” (Press opening is Thursday evening)
“Title and Deed,” a one-actor play starring James Barry and directed by Keira Naughton, runs through June 27. It will be followed, in turn, by “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess, July 14-25, and Nia Vardalos” “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Aug. 18-25, directed by Kramer and featuring Tara Franklin.
Hancock Shaker Village director and CEO Jennifer Trainer Thompson sees Chester@Hancock as a perfect fit. For one thing, she said, plays were very much within the Shaker community’s lifestyle. “Shaker girls would put on plays, and celebrate holidays such as Fourth of July and Halloween with gusto. We do too,” she said.
The theater company’s presence blends in with a pattern of live-performance collaborations “from a new dance work about Black Shakers by Reggie Wilson in collaboration with Jacob’s Pillow to new work shown two summers ago with the Berkshire Opera Company,” Thompson said. “We seek connections to provide access through programs, exhibitions, and even our landscape.”
Besides, Thompson said, bringing Chester Theatre Company to Hancock Shaker Village “seemed … perfect … for a year when the world’s best stage might just be one that overlooks the fields and pastures of Richmond.” (Thompson stopped short of guaranteeing that Hancock’s cows wouldn’t moo occasionally. “I hope that lends to the charm,” she said lightly)
“Jennifer and I have been in conversation over the years about producing something at Hancock,” Kramer said. “This [2021 season] is what made it through to the end.”
The two view Chester@Hancock as an ideal opportunity to expand audiences.
“My great hope,” Kramer said, “is that people who may have heard of us but haven’t found us will [see us at Hancock and] come to Chester next summer.”
“In terms of programming, we welcome people to experience the Village through whatever path feels comfortable,” Thompson said. “The Shakers’ village was a community, and we try to be so, too.”
It’s a small season — three plays; seven actors total (“we go from one character to two to four,” Kramer said) — in a large space; a 6,000-square-foot tent that typically is used for weddings at Hancock, which is why there will be no Saturday performances of “Title and Deed” and “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
The tent has a pole that is directly in front of the center of the stage. “For some plays that will be fine,” Kramer said.
The actors will be mic’d and the social-distanced seating configuration will be changed for each performance, Kramer said, “because people will be seated with the members of their party.”
The season-opener, “Title and Deed,” is a roughly one-hour one-character play featuring a man who has come to us from some unknown place, a wanderer living in exile who speaks to us directly about home, about time, about place.
“It’s … about someone trying to make a connection,” Kramer said. “A one-person play felt the right way for us to come back. This play in particular felt like a strengthening to come back with after so much separation.”
“Title and Deed” premiered in New York in 2012 at Pershing Square Signature Center. Eno has written some new lines for this production in recognition of its outdoor setting in a tent on the Hancock Shaker Village grounds.
Kramer thought the play was “amazing,” when he read it. “I right away thought of James, who has never before done a one-man show.”
As luck would have it, Naughton, who directed “Curve of Departure” at Chester in 2019, pitched “Title and Deed” to Kramer during a discussion of possible shows for her to direct.
Kramer planned to produce “The Niceties” last summer. It’s a play about a Black college student at a liberal arts college who is challenged by a white professor about her paper on the effect of slavery on the American Revolution.
“We felt it was a play we had to do,” Kramer said. “After the shooting of George Floyd in 2020, you couldn’t walk away from doing this play in 2021. [Among other things] it is about two people who are finding it incredibly difficult to reach across a divide.”
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column, “Tiny Beautiful Things” unfolds within the framework of four people writing to each other via computer.
“It’s gorgeous,” Kramer said. “It’s about how, in the most difficult times, we sustain each other.”
In terms of the plays he has chosen, Kramer considers Chester@Hancock schedule characteristic of Chester Theatre Company’s work.
“First,” he said, “there’s plenty to talk about on the drive home from each play … . These are three contemporary plays that audiences here probably haven’t had a chance to see before.”
In addition, the plays “offer striking characters, and the mix of emotional engagement, intellectual provocation, and striking language that I think audiences look to us for. They ask questions more than they prescribe answers.
“Some plays,” Kramer said, “are windows, some are mirrors. Mirrors let us see ourselves more fully; windows make us see others more fully.”