Ever since the concept of color blind casting became a topic of discussion several decades ago, America’s theatre community has done a lot of talking about diversity. Progress has been made on several fronts, most noticeable here in the Berkshires by the fact that all of our resident professional theatre companies have women in leadership roles. We have seen women taking on other creative roles, as playwrights and directors, and even in the design of sets, sound and lighting.
The very term of “diversity” means different things to different people. For many theatre people, it is more about a variety of offerings during the season than making sure that women and minorities have equal opportunity both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. The Williamstown Theatre Festival has made great strides in terms of that, perhaps more so than other regional theatre companies across the country. Its current leader is Mandy Greenfield, the seventh in a long line of distinguished artistic directors during the WTF’s six decades run here in the Berkshires. Before assuming the leadership of the Festival in 2015, she spent a decade developing new work at the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club.
Recently the WTF announced their playwrights in residence for the summer with both gender and multiculturalism clearly represented: Jiehae Park is their 2016 L. Arnold Weissberger New Play Award recipient. Jiehae will also receive The Jay Harris Commission to write a new play, a prize worth $10,000. Greenfield has also announced that the 2016 New Play Commissioning Program. Recipients are Melissa James Gibson (in a co-commission with Second Stage Theatre), Matthew Lopez, and Lucy Thurber. Additionally, Harrison David Rivers will serve as the Festival’s 2016 Playwright-in-Residence.
It is easy to see that there is excellent diversity here with a Latino, Asian and African American playwright included. Additionly, Lucy Thurber, Matthew Lopez and Harrison David Rivers are all part of the LGBT community, and Thurber’s “Dyke Dramas” The Hill Town Plays are suggestive of her tough road to adulthood and acceptance.
Mandy Greenfield talks about diversity
Diversity often raises live theatre, dance and music above the mundane, and Mandy Greenfield is very much in the middle of the struggle to make sure the entire spectrum of jobs in the creative arts has opportunities for all.
Diversity is important, says Greenfield, “But I start with excellence. Here at Williamstown we read a lot of plays, and I try to find ones that connect with audiences and which are wrestling with some piece of our culture, our society, our experience – as Americans and citizens of this globe. Diversity can be a lot of things, but for me it begins with excellence. We live in an incredibly diverse country, and the artists should represent the place in which we live. That’s the purpose of theatre, to hold the mirror up and reflect something about the human experience. That’s my objective.
“What’s difficult is to get what’s on the stage to talk to what’s not on that stage. With that in mind, you come up with a robustly diverse set of programming which also has – first and foremost – excellence,” said Greenfield.
Moving beyond the plays to the diversity of the people who put them on, she continued by focusing on their training programs: “We run one of the most important professional training programs in the country. Our Apprentice Program and our Non-Equity Company and our Internship Program (info) brings together the best and brightest young theatre people. I feel an obligation that this group of people is also representative of the world we’re living in. It’s important that they are in an environment that says there is a place for everyone. Theatre is a place where excellence reigns, there are no shortcuts.”
It seems that Williamstown has more women writers and directors on its 2016 schedule than any other company in the region. “I’m beaming, you”re making me proud…” Greenfield smiled, and it certainly sets the pace for the whole country which is still wrestling with the equality issue. Of course, this is what should be happening. And Greenfield is taking it to some new places: “In 2015 we launched a new play commissioning program which was supported by some generous funders and began the search. “Lucy Thurber is a remarkable writer, and along with Matthew Lopez, Jiehae Park and Harrison David Rivers are our 2016 residents. Each of them will spend time up at the festival, as well as having access to support during their residencies. We want the Williamstown community to embrace writers with the same enthusiasm they have always extended to the actors and directors. With the residency we can embed the playwright in the lifeblood of the theatre festival from opening night until we pack up to go home. Playwrights not only are commissioned to write something for WTF, but they participate on the staff level in the day to day operation of the festival.
“For me this is how you create theatre, to have real deep connective tissue with the world we are living with. There is no better way to do that than to have a living, breathing writer working alongside our actors, directors and technicians. As they see what is created this summer, they will be thinking about what could well be on our stages in the summers to come. Meantime, there are play readings, there are workshops, so there may be new opportunities for them, we are still working on the developmental aspects.”
As previously announced, the 2016 summer season, running from June 28 – August 21, 2016, begins on the Main Stage with a production of Tennessee Williams’ Tony Award-winning play The Rose Tattoo (June 28 – July 17), directed by Obie Award winner Trip Cullman and featuring Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei; continues with the world premiere of Boo Killebrew’s comedy Romance Novels For Dummies (July 20– July 31), directed by Tony Award nominee Moritz von Stuelpnagel; and closes with Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter (August 3 – August 21), directed by Evan Cabnet.
The Nikos Stage season kicks-off June 29 with the world premiere of Martyna Majok’s play Cost of Living (June 29 – July 10), directed by Obie Award winner Jo Bonney; and also includes the world premiere sci-fi comedy thriller The Chinese Room (July 13 – July 23) by Michael West, directed by Obie Award winner James Macdonald; the world premiere musical Poster Boy (July 28 – August 7), with music and lyrics by Tony Award-nominated Craig Carnelia and book by Joe Tracz, movement by Danny Mefford, and direction by Olivier Award nominee Stafford Arima; and closes out the summer with the American premiere of And No More Shall We Part (August 10 – August 21), by Tom Holloway, directed by Obie Award winner Anne Kauffman, and featuring Tony and Emmy Award nominee Alfred Molina and Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominee Jane Kaczmarek.