Brooklyn goes to Williamstown
An Interview with Mandy Greenfield, Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Longtime Brooklyn Heights Resident
For the past 60 years, devoted theatre-goers have been making the hajj to the Mecca of summer theatre, the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The festival is located in Williamstown in the Berkshires on the stunning campus of Williams College. Each season, the Festival assembles actors, playwrights, designers and directors for productions of classic works and new plays.
In 2013, Mandy Greenfield, formerly the artistic producer of the Manhattan Theatre Club (and longtime Brooklyn Heights resident), was hired to become artistic director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF). Greenfield, who has lived in the Heights since 2004, oversees the selection of plays and musicals for the two performance spaces at WTF: the Main Stage and the Nikos Stage, named in honor of the co-founder of WTF, Yale Drama School Professor Nikos Psacharopoulos. It was his decision to make sure that WTF wouldn’t be a typical summer stock theatre, but rather a festival unafraid to mount serious and challenging plays by Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Schiller, Arthur Miller, Tenessee Williams and Tom Stoppard, in addition to offering a welcome mat to new playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Marcia Norman, Christopher Durang, A.R. Gurney and Richard Nelson.
Among the notable actors who have traveled to Williamstown to act in the works on the two stages are Blythe Danner, Frank Langella, Sigourney Weaver, Bradley Cooper, Christopher Walken, Gwyneth Paltrow, Calista Flockhart, Nathan Lane, Richard Chamberlain and Brooklyn’s own Marisa Tomei and Paul Giamatti.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival is arguably the most respected and illustrious American theatre event of the summer. Or, for that matter, of any season.
While dividing her professional life between Manhattan, where WTF has their New York offices, and Williamstown, Greenfield’s domestic life is firmly rooted in Brooklyn — a borough that, as the Brooklyn Eagle learned in a recent telephone interview, Greenfield adores. Her passion for and commitment to WTF were also readily apparent.
Brooklyn Eagle: What drew you and your family to move to Brooklyn?
Mandy Greenfield: What didn’t draw us?! Mom and Pop shops, great restaurants (Noodle Pudding is our favorite), all the history, especially in the Heights. The WTF’s offices are in Times Square, so during the day I get my Manhattan fix. But there is something so magical and rejuvenating about returning to Brooklyn every night. I feel like the whole borough is truly our playground. We regularly take advantage of all it has to offer, from something as simple as going to Brooklyn Bridge Park to taking in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Plus the delight of constantly discovering new galleries, restaurants, performance spaces, neighborhoods.
Eagle: Now that you’ve been at WTF for almost three years, what do you find to be the major differences between your previous gig and this one?
MG: At WTF, actors, playwrights [and] directors can take big risks without worrying about box office receipts, critics’ approval or “difficult” subject matter. Artists, both new and established, are free to do it, try it, if necessary, fix it, without the stress and anxiety of a Broadway or even Off-Broadway production.
Eagle: In looking at this summer’s line-up, I notice you’re still, as you did at Manhattan Theatre Club, championing new plays, while also showcasing revivals. Tough balancing act?
MG: Very tough. I don’t want to come into the season with any pre-conceived ratio of old and new. My principal criterion is what can we present that allows our audience to make sense of the times we’re living in, whether in new plays or classics? For example, this season, on the main stage, we open with Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” (June 28 to July 17), with Marisa Tomei starring and Trip Cullman directing. Next will be the world premiere of Boo Killebrew’s “Romance Novels for Dummies” (July 20 – 31), with Moritz von Stuelpnagel directing. Following that will be Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” (August 3 -21), which Evan Cabnet will direct.
Eagle: What do you have planned for the Nikos Stage?
MG: We begin the Nikos Stage season with the world premiere of Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living” (June 29 – July 10). Next is the world premiere of Michael West’s “The Chinese Room” (July 13 – 23). Following that, the world premiere of Craig Carnelia and Joe Tracz’s “Poster Boy” (July 28 – August 7).
This musical explores the effects of cyber-bullying in the gay community and was inspired by the 2010 suicide of college student Tyler Clementi. It is a perfect example of taking big risks and allowing our audiences the opportunity to make sense of where we are, both good and bad, as a nation of inclusion and tolerance. Finally, the season closes with the American premiere of Tom Holloway’s “And No More Shall We Part” (Aug. 10 – 21).
Eagle: So five premieres and two revivals….
MG: Yes, exactly the kind of balance I’m striving for. Plus, we have an exciting mix of actors — in addition to Marisa in “Tattoo,” Michael Stuhlbarg stars in “The Chinese Room;” Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek in “And No More Shall We Part;” Rebecca Naomi Jones (yet another Brooklyn resident) and Wendell Pierce in “Cost of Living;” Grace Gummer, Will Pullen, Deborah Rush and Kate Walsh in “An American Daughter.” I could go on … the casts of “Romance Novels for Dummies,” “The Chinese Room” [and] “Poster Boy” are also all exceptionally gifted actors.
Eagle: That’s quite a line-up…
MG: This season’s seven plays reflect that balance I was talking about. And what’s so amazing, and refreshing, is that our audience is as fearless as the material we chose. They are adventurous and hungry for quality, no matter how challenging the subject matter. You know, there’s no guarantee that all of the shows will be good all of the time. But the intention to be good is always there.
Eagle: Since last year was the centennial of the birth of Arthur Miller (one of Brooklyn’s greatest theatrical lions), was there any thought of including a Miller play?
MG: I love Arthur Miller. But the past season on Broadway had so many dynamic, innovative, important Miller revivals, in particular Ivo van Hove’s take on both “A View from the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” that I felt there was nothing fresh we could add to the mix. Which is not to say WTF hasn’t done a lot of Miller in the past or that we won’t be doing more in the future.
Eagle: What factors do you consider when deciding what revivals to present?
MG: I look for an adaptation that reveals something fresh and timely about the text, some quality that makes the plays as original and exciting as when they were first performed. New avenues into the text, new ideas about casting.
For example, last season, Gordon Edelstein cast Audra McDonald in O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” It could be that an actor’s DNA fuses to a role, making us see that character in a new light. To once again cite Ivo’s reimagining of “A View from the Bridge,” look at Mark Strong’s Eddie Carbone. I’d read and seen “A View from the Bridge” many, many times, but Strong’s no-holds-barred performance made me feel like I was seeing the play for the first time.
Eagle: I agree. While watching the play, I totally forgot that Strong is English; he had me convinced he was an Italian-American from Red Hook. Which leads us back to Brooklyn and my last question: Since you live in the borough, do you get the impression that WTF is attracting a lot of Brooklynites? Williamsburg to Williamstown, so to speak?
MG: Oh my goodness, yes! So many Brooklynites have second homes in the Berkshires or upstate New York, plus there are so many Brooklynites on the faculties at Williams, Bennington, Amherst, et cetera. We love having Brooklynites descend on us. Please keep them coming!
For more information on this summer’s WTF schedule of plays, and to purchase tickets, go to wtfestival.org.
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