There's a little bit of everyone's story in new Community Works show at Williamstown Theatre Festival
WILLIAMSTOWN — In the past, the productions of Williamstown Theatre Festival's Community Works program have tapped into fantastical, featuring tales of mythical beasts, banshees and Greek gods. This season, the program's new production, "Summer's Soldier," is a bit more rooted in reality, reminding audiences that there are ghosts and demons in our lives that can both enlighten and haunt us in a very real way.
"Summer's Soldier," a family-friendly musical production, will make its world premiere on the Main Stage Sunday through Wednesday, with 7 p.m. shows on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, and a 2 p.m. performance on Tuesday. The cast includes 79 Berkshire area community members, as well as festival apprentices and non-Equity members, collectively spanning between the ages of 6 and 93 years old. Performances, through the program's many underwriters and benefactors, are free and open to all, but reservations are required.
"Summer's Soldier," like all of the Community Works productions, has a Berkshires backdrop. The tale centers around seventh grader Sam, (portrayed by 12-year-old Lee resident, Carter Marks), a bright, observant and compassionate character, who has become withdrawn since her dad died while serving in the military. As the small town gossip circulates about Sam's change in demeanor, her mother and her aunt try everything to get her to open up.
It isn't until taking part in one of the favorite pastimes of summer in the Berkshires, telling ghost stories around the fire in the woods with her friends, that Sam's spirit begins to change, with the help of a ghost materialized.
That's the magic of Community Works, that it creates something original that people from all walks of life could relate to. Sam's story could be anyone's story and, in a lot of ways, the story and setting and characters in "Summer's Soldier" are a bit of everyone's story, because of the creative process that leads to the script writing.
"Community Works is this program that just takes people from every kind of lifestyle and makes them into one great family," Marks told The Eagle. "No matter what you do in the show, you really feel a part of it. I just feel so loved here."
A year-round program
In the off season, Williamstown Theatre Festival associate artistic director Laura Savia coordinates and teaches theater workshops, usually with another guest artist, for members of Community Works' 11 partner agencies, including local schools and groups like Soldier On and the brain injury services division of Berkshire County Arc.
Savia also works with a creative team, a mix of local performing arts professionals as well as national theater artists, to devise the script, lyrics, music and choreography. A dossier of ideas, writing, music and movements that develop in the workshop are then presented to this leadership team, which then works to incorporate some of these elements into the summer production.
This year's production presented some happily received creative challenges to the team.
For playwright Boo Killebrew ("Romance Novels for Dummies"), "Summer's Soldier" is her first musical.
"I like a challenge, to take on the impossible" Killebrew said. "This production is so inclusive, so special. I feel really honored to be here."
She said she particularly likes seeing all the parts come together during rehearsals. "I really do feel this is theater at its finest. It's an art form that does ask for conversation, and the conversations you see happening here are incredible," she said.
Where local artists shine
The musical is directed by Jenna Worsham ("The Parisian Woman"), with music by Heather Christian (Community Works' "Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires"), lyrics by Lucy Thurber ("Killers and Other Family"), and additional music and lyrics by Christine Bile.
Bile was scouted to play the title character in the first Community Works production, "Orpheus in the Berkshires," staged in 2016. Though she is a singer-songwriter, she's not a theater professional or musical lyricist by trade. In fact, she's currently working as an emergency room caseworker at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany, N.Y.
Bile noted that she sees a little bit of herself in the lyrics she wrote for a number called, "Sam's Song": "They say I'm a girl of few words / But I got a lot on my mind / Gotta keep my eyes and ears wide open / All the time / Few words are powerful / And I try to lead / Even though not everyone / Can see it in me."Being able to perform and write for Community Works, Bile said, "I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to make this leaping step. Being around professionals and normal people from all walks of life working together — it pushed me to do better."
Another team of locals contributing their time and talents to Community Works are Becky Ahamad and Michael Obasohan, both alumni of the program, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, and the local dance troupe, dysFUNK Crew. Born and raised in the Berkshires, Ahamad is the co-director and a faculty member of Berkshire Dance Theatre. Obasohan works at Berkshire Community College as an academic counselor for TRIO (Talent, Resources, Initiative, Opportunity) Student Support Services, established to assist first-generation, low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities to find college success.
Together, they take a diverse cast of all body types and abilities, tailor the movements to the individuals, and weave them into stage-filling scenes. While both come from a hip-hop background of dance, Ahamad said she's been incorporating a modern lyrical style, "which I'm finding I really love." Various gestures and motions become part of a refrain to emphasize moments of strength, and of grief.
"I'm not only teaching them movement, I'm actually learning from everybody here," she said.
Obasohan grew up in the Boston's South End where he got his first taste of community theater and the diverse range of people that gravitate to it. He said he hopes Williamstown Theatre Festival continues to support the program's growth, while maintaining its accessibility and emphasis on inclusion.
"We in the Berkshires, there's talent here," Obasohan said. "This is a real opportunity to be able to be on stage and share a passion on stage with others and grow."
A new challenge
Growth is an underscored focus of Community Works now, says Savia. But to do so, the program needs to garner a new wave of support. It has relied on nearly a dozen underwriters up until this point. But this year alone, the program added a new play writing workshop with Thurber and, through a one-time grant offered through the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, offered transportation through the Pittsfield-based Rose & Cole's Transport Co-op, as well as transportation sites in smaller communities like Windsor and Cheshire.
"We're making a commitment to overcoming the transportation barriers that are so prevalent in the Berkshires," Savia said. "We want Community Works to continue to be a transformational program in this area, but we need new and major support in order to be able to deliver."
The goal of the program she said, will not be to raise revenue, but to raise visibility and opportunity for local people to stay engaged and have access to the arts.
"For me," said Savia, "Community Works is a place that brings people together in an intimate, long-term way. It's the only place I know that I can go and be in a room with so many different kinds of people working together to make something beautiful and make something excellent. The Community Works rehearsal room is what humanity should look like."
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