Thinking outside the box is second nature to Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield.
It should come as no surprise, then, that for its 2021 season, Greenfield is bringing the Festival out of its boxes — the indoor Main Stage and the Nikos Stage at Williams College’s ’62 Center for Theater and Dance — into the expanse of the outdoors.
In a shorter-than-usual COVID-19-shaped season that begins July 6 and ends Aug. 8, the Festival will be producing theater on the front lawn of the ’62 Center; a variety of locations around Williamstown; and the reflecting pool at the Clark Art Institute.
“I decided last August that [irrespective of how much COVID-19 might be under control] we would be outdoors this summer,” Greenfield said in a phone interview. “Everyone told me I was out of my mind; that everything would be OK by this summer.”
Greenfield heard the same sentiments about COVID and the summer of 2020 mid-March last year when the pandemic was raging and theaters everywhere were shutting down. Rather than cancel Williamstown’s season, she decided to pivot from stage to audio. She contacted Kate Navin, head of theater and scripted content at Audible and artistic producer of Audible Theater. They recorded six of the 2020 season’s seven shows — “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Photograph 51,” “Animals,” “Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Row” — for Audible. A seventh show, “Paradise Blue,” had its world premiere at Williamstown in 2015 and was revived for Audible as a replacement for “Cult of Love.”
Her gamble paid off. Williamstown Theatre Festival on Audible has reached “new and different audiences; millions,” Greenfield said; far in excess of the 40,000 or so people who reliably come to Williamstown each summer.
“We’ve found new and extremely different worldwide audiences,” Greenfield said. “We are drawing an audience through Audible we could never reach in Williamstown.”
The 2021 season — which was announced earlier this month — opens July 6-25 with a world premiere — “Nine Solo Plays by Black Playwrights,” three shows of three 30-minute solo performances written by Black playwrights for actors of color. Director-playwright Robert O’Hara is guest curator. Wardell Julius Clark, Candis C. Jones, and Awoye Timpo are directing.
Williamstown is the setting for “Alien/Nation” (July 20-Aug. 8), a world premiere immersive site-specific performance — inspired by real events that took place in Western Massachusetts in 1969 — that can be experienced by foot or by car. The presentation is a collaboration between The Forest of Arden theater company and writers Jen Silverman and Eric Berryman. The actors are from The Forest of Arden company and the Festival’s Community Works program. Two-time Tony Award nominee Michael Arden (best direction of a musical — “Spring Awakening,” 2016; and “Once on This Island,” 2018) will direct.
“Row,” which has just been released on Audible, will have its shot at a live world premiere July 13 through Aug. 8 when it is performed at the Clark Art Institute’s reflecting pool. The musical by Daniel Goldstein (book) and Dawn Landes (music and lyrics) is inspired by “A Pearl in the Storm” by Tori Murden McClure, the first woman and first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, which she did in 1999. Tyne Rafaeli is directing. Grace McLean is featured as McClure.
The way Greenfield sees it, the 2021 season “embraces the power and beauty of the place,” with work that is “bold, fearless, creative;” devised and performed by artists who cover a wide spectrum from relative newcomers to the Festival to veterans.
“In many ways,” Greenfield said, “the season will feel very familiar. We have a number of artists with whom we have worked over the years; artists who are known and beloved;” artists who, Greenfield said, “are working under unbelievable COVID protection.”
Audiences also will be under strict COVID-19 guidelines (available online at wtfestival.org). So will staffers.
The Festival may not have been operating at full tilt last summer, but its creative impulses were hardly dormant. Greenfield spent the summer in Williamstown with staff, with members of the Williamstown community, with artists “who joined us,” she said, “for a low-key artists’ retreat.
“There was something so powerful and healing about this place and our theater artists.” It seemed to Greenfield then that an outdoor season now was only natural.
The season arrives just as theater — which has been largely virtual through the months of the pandemic — is coming back to life. Greenfield believes that the absence of theater through this long period is causing artists, audiences, theater people to reassess what theater is; how and why theater gets made; what theater means to us and why theater matters.
Greenfield has no illusions about what it will take to pull this 2021 season off. She is built to make it work, she says.
“This will be an intense undertaking,” she said, “something never done before.”
The key to success, she said, will be “the audience’s heartbeat; the audience’s sense of adventure.”
The Festival staff and artists are eager; particularly the actors.
“Actors are made to receive responses from people in real time,” Greenfield said. “Everyone coming to Williamstown this summer is so fiercely wanting of that connection.
“They, we, are all longing to get back to the community.”