WILLIAMSTOWN —Berkshire County native Caroline Fairweather didn't harbor hopes of infiltrating Williams College's "Purple Bubble."
"At first, I was vehemently against it. I did not want to go because there's this sort of divide where I don't think people think Williams is for locals because ... the endowment is so big, and it seems sort of separate [from the rest of the county]," the Pittsfield native said over coffee at The Williams Bookstore last Thursday morning.
With numerous experiences on Berkshires stages under her belt since she debuted at a Berkshire Theatre Group community production in elementary school, Fairweather was set on leaving the county after high school to attend a conservatory for musical theater. But a half-day early on during her senior year at Taconic High School afforded her the time to check out Williams, just in case.
"I was like, OK, I'm going to go tour and just get it out of my system. It was pretty terrifying because I just drove up here in my crappy pickup truck from high school. ... And then there were all these kids there with their parents from Chicago and Hawaii, and they were like, 'I'm going to Brown after this.' It was just really terrifying. And then I toured, and I was like, crap, I really like it," Fairweather recalled.
When she was admitted to Williams and offered financial aid, "I just couldn't say no," she said.
Her change in college plans did not diminish her theatrical ambitions, though. Now a sophomore, the theater and political science double major has performed in productions at school and throughout the Berkshires during the past couple of years. And on Friday night, the 19-year-old will make her directorial debut at Pittsfield's Whitney Center for the Arts, bringing a cast of 10 Williams students and one Pittsfield High School junior, Brianna Nicola, to perform "Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens." Musical director is Jack Romans.
Inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology," the musical's monologues (written by Bill Russell) document the stories of characters who have died from AIDS; the songs (music by Janet Hood, lyrics by Russell) convey friends' and family members' sentiments as they cope with those losses. The play often functions as a charity show, and this occasion will be no different, with ticket revenue being contributed to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
This production won't feature the traditional one-cast-member-to-each-character ratio, however; 32 characters simply require too many actors to fit in the Whitney's space, according to Fairweather.
"Something that has been a challenge for the actors in rehearsal is making each character different," she said before noting that the actors' morphing roles has "been really beautiful and amazing to watch because they're so good at it."
Actors and singers have been rehearsing separately, but they will be on stage together, with chairs set up at the back of the stage and music stands to the front.
"Because we're playing with the idea that the actors are all people who have passed on and are retelling their story of their life, and then all of the characters that are singers are their friends and family members that are still alive, [we are] playing with never having them directly interact and always be[ing] on different planes in that way," Fairweather said.
She began working on the project after searching for numbers to sing in voice lessons or auditions. She found "My Brother Lived in San Francisco," a song in "Elegies," and quickly began researching the rest of the soundtrack and reading the play's script.
"Everything about the structure of it and the casting possibilities and the fact that it was also a musical, I just thought it would be perfect to do with a bunch of Williams students, with a bunch of friends," she said.
She was nervous about being the director.
"I have always been afraid of generating my own content because I've acted for so long, and I always felt scared to write or direct or anything because it's very easy to just follow instructions. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that, but I didn't have to make any huge decisions as an actress," Fairweather said.
Whitney Center for the Arts director of performing arts Monica Bliss didn't have any reservations when Fairweather pitched the project. "She is a remarkable talent," said Bliss, who first encountered Fairweather when she was acting in Berkshire Children's Theater with Bliss' daughter.
"She's a good friend and a formidable creative genius," said Nick Dehn, a Williams senior from Wilton, Conn., who will be singing in the play
Still, the musical hasn't been easy to direct.
"It's really strange with 'Elegies' because the songs are so light and celebratory and positive, and then you get these monologues that are about this very heavy subject matter, so a lot of what we're dealing with in rehearsals is sort of finding the beauty and light in all of this," Fairweather said. "I would say 'Elegies' isn't as much about a disease as it is just about human kindness and the ability to overcome in the face of these horrible circumstances."
Fairweather has performed at the Whitney before in a cabaret setting and is excited by the venue's upcoming productions and programming, which kicks off in earnest in February.
"I really admire the theater community in the Berkshires because it at once has professional caliber performances and is also accessible to community members," she said, "which I think is really important because if you shut out the people you're creating theater for, then why even do it in the first place?"
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.