hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

News & Issues July 2024

 

Intimate spaces, innovative shows

Region’s small theaters blaze a path through post-pandemic upheaval

 

Courtesy of Adams Theater

Courtesy of Adams Theater

 

By KATE ABBOTT
Contributing writer

ANCRAM, N.Y.


“And there are drums on the mountain …”
On a July night, Martha Redbone will come to the banks of the Sankhenak river to compose music drawn up from her own folk, blues, gospel and Native roots.


“Oftentimes we don’t get to hear the viewpoints of elders and their role in the world we live in today,” she said, talking with Ancram Center for the Arts co-founders Jeffrey Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi.


“The piece we’re developing will be based on intimate conversations with elders who have been in my life for decades, family members and advisers I have longtime personal relationships with,” Redbone explained.


She will turn their stories into songs, working with her husband and longtime creative partner, Aaron Whitby, and in partnership with The Civilians, a Brooklyn theater company that works with artists in field research and in-depth residencies.


As the summer season warms, theater artists are gathering across the region. In the aftermath of the pandemic’s long shutdown, local theaters have re-emerged, and new work is taking root in smaller, innovative and flexible spaces.


Jay Sefton opens a full production of his one-man show, “Unreconciled,” at the Chester Theatre in Chester, Mass., and Fern Katz and Ricardo Paz fuse contemporary dance with Chinese pole acrobatics at Adams Theater in the northern Berkshires.


Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon are coming alive in the voice of a Nashville singer-songwriter as “The King’s Wife” comes to the Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls, exploring the bond between the first two wives of Henry VIII.


And Jessica Frances Dukes, known for her acclaimed multi-season television role on “Ozark” and her Broadway debut in “Trouble In Mind,” performs her own show, “Worth: An Intimate Exhibition,” an investigation of value and the art and artist, also at the Adirondack festival.
At Bennington Theater, director Kevin Carlon, who took the reins a year and a half ago, met the summer solstice with Pamuya, an Inuit musical group holding tones of soul and R&B, and the theater moves into contemporary comedy in July.

 

Finding a way forward
Across the country, many traditional theater organizations are still rebuilding after two or three seasons of closed spaces, dispersed audiences and other changes set in motion by the pandemic. Some are cutting back deeply on their programming, and some are redesigning their core economic structures.


Locally, some are navigating changes of leadership, as Williamstown Theatre Festival, Barrington Stage and WAM Theatre turn to new artistic directors, and Hubbard Hall also is in transition. Some, like Oldcastle in Bennington, Vt., have dissolved their troupes and passed into new hands.


But directors of a few of the region’s smaller theaters and performance spaces seem to be finding their footing after the disruptions of the pandemic. They are discovering and creating a landscape of new partnerships, growing a community of theater makers with a focus on supporting new work and widening their audiences.


“There are the people who live in the region, who live within 50 miles of the Ancram arts center,” Ricciardi said, “and then there are the artists who come through our doors, and they’re part of our community too. And so, in the same way that we support the community by providing free workshops and storytelling and all that kind of thing, we want to nurture the artists -- because we’re nothing without them.


“We want to give our local community and our audience a connection to the world. And we also have a commitment to hiring and working with and supporting local artists. We can provide an opportunity to artists living in our region. And we’re proud to be an incubator for the economy.”
Different kinds of work can connect with different people at different times, he and Mousseau said. Audiences may find one kind of pleasure in coming to an evening of brilliant comedy and another from an evening of storytelling or a love story, and yet another from deeply timely conversation that rides the current of events.


Yina Moore also has found momentum in variety. Since she took over the Adams Theater in 2021, Moore says she has seen clear signs of transformation in her former mill town. She has brought regular programming to the theater for the first time in generations -- with a vigor the town has seldom seen since the cinema that originally occupied the space closed in 1967.
“A photographer came in to take pictures of the Neil Young tribute band Harvest and Rust, one of our best-attended performances in the spring,” Moore recalled. “And he captured a picture of the front when the marquee light is up and every single parking spot is filled.


“I was very touched to see that photo, because I heard people walking the door saying, ‘I can’t believe you can find a parking spot in Adams -- that never happens.’ But now, with our seasons introduced, it has happened over and over again.”

 

Small space, powerful story
In their own rural town, James Barry and Tara Franklin, co-artistic directors at Chester Theatre Company, have seen contemporary theater speak to current issues that have drawn strong responses from audiences.


In July, as Franklin closes out her season-opening performance in “The Thin Place,” Barry will direct Jay Sefton in “Unreconciled,” in which Sefton tells his own story of the abuse he suffered as a boy from a Catholic priest.


Sefton performs every character in the show, moving in subtle shifts of body and voice. He plays many roles in his hometown, his school, the working class Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up -- and the church where he performed as Jesus in a passion play when he was 13.
Barry speaks with admiration of Sefton’s courage in telling this story, the strength of his writing and his skill in characterization. Sefton, he said, can become his father with a shift of weight and the rhythm of his voice:
I was a working man trying not to hurt anybody and maybe to do a little good in the world. I graduated from Monsignor Bonner High School in 1963. Joey and JJ graduated from Bonner too. I always liked that, the thought of me and my boys all walking the same halls, sitting in the same desks that smelled like the inside of a pencil sharpener. I joined the Army and went to Korea just before Vietnam. And for most of the next 40 years of my life, while I was alive, I was a claims adjuster for Keystone Triple A.


“The play is about such real, immediate things,” Barry said, “and he creates these kinds of expression. … He can speak with the dead, and it all just works. He can make time leaps. His external events and his personal mission are so sincere, he can bring speculative fantasy to correct or support our perceptions.”


It is a testament, he said, to Sefton’s courage and willingness to face the depth of events that had a devastating effect on his life and many people’s lives. Sefton moves fluidly from one character to another, without costumes or props: He becomes the lawyers for the Catholic Church who try to prevent him from speaking out, or a classmate who gave him a warning he did not at first understand.


It’s an intense work, Barry said, and Sefton carries the importance of the message: He wants people who have gone through what he has gone through to feel seen and heard and advocated for.

 

In the space of the town hall, Barry said, people listen, sitting close to the performer, and when Sefton workshopped “Unreconciled” at Chester last summer, the audience responded strongly to the pain and the humanity he invokes. Sefton also is a licensed mental health practitioner, and his profession gives him tools in writing and performing and talking about his experiences.
As it confronts violence, Barry added, the play also sends a love letter to working class families and a recognition of challenges they face. He hears Sefton’s father, working weekends, wanting more for his son when he does not have the resources or the time.


Barry has had time to come to know the story intimately as he and Sefton have worked together. They met through Leonard Berkman, a professor of theater at Smith College, as Sefton was working on the script, and after last summer’s workshop the play returns now in a full production, with scenery and projections by Tony-nominated Off Broadway and international designer Nick Hussong.


In Chester, “Unreconciled” is joining a summer of new work -- two world premieres and an American premiere – as well as a performance from 2019. Barry said he and Franklin have made contemporary voices a priority since they became artistic co-directors at Chester in the fall of 2022.


They have taken in hand a long-running institution. Chester Theatre Company has performed at the Chester Town Hall for 34 years and was founded by Vincent Dowling, former artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Barry and Franklin have known the theater for a generation as actors.
Chester is designed for intimate spaces and small casts, Barry said. For each season, they have the resources to bring in 12 actors, spread among four or five performances.


While many theaters across the country have traditionally relied on a core of theater-loving subscribers who could come to many shows in a season, the experience in Chester and Ancram suggests a shift to a different model. Barry and Franklin say they have seen single-ticket sales on the rise, and they are working to broaden their audiences by making people feel involved and included.


Though Chester’s audience includes a longtime loyal base, Barry said they are also working to reach out within the community. Chester Theatre offers $10 tickets for townspeople. This summer, the theater will hold a benefit for the local fire department, donating proceeds from the Aug. 1 performance.

 

Courtesy of Adams Theater

After decades in which it was mostly dormant, Adams Theater now regularly draws crowds to downtown Adams, Mass. Since reopening in 2021, it has been building a diverse array of programming including music, dance, theater, comedy and multimedia arts. Courtesy of Adams Theater

 

Reviving a dormant hub
In the northern Berkshires, Moore has been learning on the ground since she came to Adams Theater in 2021.


She said she first came north from New York as an architecture consultant with Tom Krens, the former Guggenheim Museum director who in 2017 had proposed creation of an extreme model railroad and contemporary architecture museum in North Adams. That project was still in the incubation stage, Moore said, and Krens needed someone who understood the technology of 3D printing, urban planning, design and prototype making. She worked with him for 18 months while her family was still based in the city.


“But it was the pandemic that made my family take up a house in North Adams,” she said. “That’s when I really started to discover the beauty, and then all these different projects in the Berkshires. To find an unfinished building, a deteriorated building, and fix it and bringing new life to it -- that sounds like a dream project for an architect.”


She has found challenges in reviving a performance space in a small, rural town where the economy swings seasonally even in mild winters. But she continues to expand the scope of her revitalization efforts — she bought the former Topia Inn in Adams in early 2023, in partnership with an old friend, Kate Chen, and Chen’s husband, Dimitrios Kolaxis -- and she sees the theater’s future bound up with the success of the community.


Although flexible work situations accelerated in the pandemic, and virtual, remote or hybrid interactions have helped to bring theater artists to more rural communities, many people also have been called back to the office.


“People came out here then and attracted artists,” she said. “But do we have the right infrastructure for people to stay here and keep coming here? I think that’s the bigger question.
“Are we still going to have an influx of creative professionals who come here wanting to invest, not only in property but also in a small business to start life and family here? I don’t know. I think in order to have more of the critical mass to be here, we need to have new things to offer.”
She has continued to grow the programming at Adams Theater, in part through a growing network of local partnerships in many media —comedian Charlie Nadler, the dance community of Berkshire Pulse, the Floating Tower artist residency in North Adams. Amy Brentano at The Foundry in West Stockbridge has introduced her to the award-winning music duo Arkai, and they are bringing the musicians to both venues in July, and also the theater artists of the Voloz Collective in August. Moore also is exploring collaborations with Great Barrington Public Theater.

 

Creative links in a rural town
At the newly renamed Ancram Center for the Arts, Mousseau and Ricciardi say they have seen growth in their theater community since they came to town in 2016, and again since the end of the pandemic.


In their August play, “Constellations,” they have cast a local couple, two New York actor-artists who moved to Sharon, Conn., around the time of the pandemic and are now fully ensconced and living and working locally.


Ancram has grown its programming steadily, Mousseau said, even from last summer to this one, with new Play Lab residencies and partnerships with The Civilians, the Brooklyn theater group that works “at the intersection of the theatrical and the real,” and with Robert Lyons, the former artistic director of the New Ohio Theatre, who now lives in Pine Plains. (New Ohio, a pillar of New York City’s independent theater scene for 30 years, shut down last summer.)


“Jeff and I lived in Hudson for a long time before Ancram Art,” Ricciardi said. “We’ve been working in theater for years – Jeff’s trained as a director, I’m trained as an actor, and I’m also a teacher.”


So they were aware of the former Ancram Opera House, he said, and when the building became available in 2015, they came to it make their creative home.


“We both come from a small-theater background,” Ricciardi said. “Intimacy has always been important to both of us in terms of the kind of theater we want to make. And so this seemed like the perfect opportunity and the perfect space for us to live and work.”


“Centuries,” a new blend of theater and music scheduled to premiere in October, has grown here from scratch. The artists came together at Ancram during Covid, and some of the songs that they created then may end up in this new piece that they’re developing. They follow a family in a small Ohio town across generations, Mousseau said, beginning in the 1970s. The landscape changes with the creep of suburban sprawl, as climate change affects culture and the natural world.
Stories of family and land carry through this season’s shows, he said, with a July performance by Rizo, a New York nightclub musician and vocalist who has performed with Moby, Reggie Watts and Yo-Yo Ma and earned comparisons to Edith Piaf.


She grew up in Oregon, came to New York and found herself back home again, and on this summer night she is trying to make sense of that trajectory of her life and what it’s like to return to a place, Mousseau said.


Sometimes a theme will emerge organically for a season. Mousseau said he and Ricciardi had not set out to build this season’s shows around “the idea of home.” But they are very aware of their relationships as a theater in a rural community.


Ricciardi described a sense of pleasure when he hears audiences leave surprised by a performance they have just seen, the nature and the caliber of the work that they’re seeing, the artistry involved and the artists making the work.


At the same time, he knows different work may appeal to different people. Their local storytelling program may draw a different crowd from a concert or a two-person play.


“We want our doors to be open for everyone,” Ricciardi said. “We think about that, ways in which that we can include people. … We try and make as much as free as possible. We had 90 events last year, and half of them were free.”


He coordinates performances open to local storytellers, “Real People, Real Stories,” in June and Crystal Radio readings of fiction in July, and he finds power in the informality and immediacy of these shows. He talks with local people who volunteer to be part of these evenings, helping them to choose the stories they want to tell and to find their rhythm and focus.


Ricciardi remembers a woman who came to him with an idea for a story about how she let her dog ride in the car, looking out the window. But the story she told ended up being about her struggles as her husband died of brain cancer.


“When she was driving between work at Bard College and feeding her dogs,” he said, “and then going to Albany Medical Center, eating her peanut butter and jelly in the car because that’s the only time she could eat, she would imagine driving cross country with her dog.”


People have deep and powerful stories to share, he said, and some people want to get together and listen to people tell stories, even if they might feel intimidated by seeing a play.
“The reality is,” he said, “a person getting up on a stage, telling a story, is theater.”