A Summer Camp for Actors

NEWSDAY

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, this bucolic, historic New England town spends three-quarters of its year as the home of small, prestigious Williams College. The other months it's a mecca for theater lovers--audiences, students, theater professionals and an increasing influx of movie, television and Broadway stars downright giddy to be recharging their professional batteries up here in the fresh Berkshire air.

Now in its 44th summer of operation, with 11 shows that will open and close before Labor Day, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has become one of the--if not the--primo summer theaters in the country, its reputation riding not only on the variety and professional quality of its productions, but also on the buzz surrounding the celebrities who act in them.

Want to see, up close and personal, Gwyneth Paltrow, hot actress of the moment and winner of this year's best actress Oscar? In a matter of days she'll be moving into rental digs here to begin rehearsals for Shakespeare's comedy "As You Like It," in which, as in "Shakespeare in Love," she's playing a cross-dresser.

Chances are poor to none that you can catch Paltrow on the stage of the Greek-columned Adams Theatre (Aug. 4-15); performances have been sold out practically since the moment the casting was announced, and even the waiting list is closed. But you might be able to glimpse her strolling along the village's tree-lined streets or on a break at one of the local eateries.

Just the other evening, for instance, there was Ethan Hawke, pre-performance, supping in a booth with two fellow cast members from "Camino Real," the surrealistic Tennessee Williams play that launched the season. Hawke--whose character, Kilroy, a boxer, says he has "a heart the size of a baby's head"--was waxing about his own wee offspring and "my old lady" (Uma Thurman to you, pal). She's tied up shooting a movie--"a real drag," he later complains. Otherwise, the whole family would be here, enjoying the Berkshires' version of star-filled nights.

Hope Davis and Blair Brown, also starring in "Camino," walk their dogs on the campus. (Davis' Wheaton terrier, Charlie, has even appeared on stage, but only during a rehearsal.) "It's a little like going back to college," says Davis, a familiar face at Williamstown, who's best known for her film work, including "The Daytrippers," set on Long Island.

"A summer camp for actors" is the description favored by Richard Kind, who's spending his hiatus from "Spin City" doing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (through Sunday). " 'Spin City' is my waiter's job," he continues, only half joking. "This is food for the soul."

Schwimmer in Play About Jazz Musicians

David Schwimmer, a.k.a. Ross on "Friends," has arrived for his role in "Glimmer Brothers" (Wednesday through July 25), the premiere of a new play by this year's Tony winner Warren Leight. Like "Side Man," Leight's Broadway show, "Glimmer Brothers" is about jazz musicians, and launching it on its maiden voyage at Williamstown, the playwright says, is "like working with a pickup band. I knew I'd have very good musicians, but I had no idea who they'd be." John Spencer ("L.A. Law") is also in the cast, which, Leight promises, will make a "field trip" into Manhattan to a jazz club during the rehearsal period.

James Naughton, who's such a regular here (this will be his 12th summer) that the locals hail him as "Jimmy," will be coming up late this month to direct Arthur Miller's "The Price" (Aug. 18-29) with Harris Yulin. It's quite possible that Naughton, winner of two Tonys for musical roles and the recent star of a hit one-man musical pastiche, also will be singing in the festival's weekend cabaret.

Stand-up comic Lewis Black, sporting a number of hats up here--acting in "Camino" and working with the apprentices--is the cabaret's ongoing host. Last weekend he segued between the post-performance appearances of Brown, Hawke, Kind and Kate Burton, who'd just finished starring in Frank McGuinness' "The Factory Girls," the season's opener on the Nikos Stage. (The smaller, 96-seat theater is named for the festival's first artistic director, Nikos Psacharopoulos; the 550-seat Adams is named for John Quincy. This is, after all, Massachusetts.)

Bebe Neuwirth has been around for weeks, rehearsing "The Taming of the Shrew" (running now through Sunday), directed by and co-starring Roger Rees, who was last seen in New York in the Classic Stage Company's off-Broadway production of "The Misanthrope," co-starring Uma Thurman. Barry Edelstein, CSC's artistic director, will be directing "As You Like It." Yes, the festival has its own brand of nepotism.

But enough stargazing. Michael Ritchie, the festival's producer (and husband, incidentally, of Kate Burton), would prefer to talk about the artistic lure of Williamstown.

A tall, slender fellow with a stylish brush haircut who prefers to conduct interviews outside in the sunshine so he can chomp on a fat cigar, Ritchie, a Worcester, Mass., native, has headed the festival since 1996, after a long career as a stage manager in New York.

Having distinguished himself in his first season by presenting the American premiere of an Arthur Miller play, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," several years before the playwright's work was "rediscovered" by Broadway, Ritchie appears to know virtually everyone in the theater world.

The festival was an established success before him, but, as he says, "there are curves in the life of any institution, waves of success and attention," and right now he appears to be happily--and a bit cockily--riding the crest of a giant one.

Why did Paltrow--"with the pick of any movie she wanted," as Ritchie says--agree to spend a chunk of her summer at Williamstown? Director Edelstein has a simple explanation: "What actors want to do is act."

It is, of course, a bit more complicated. Paltrow, the daughter of Blythe Danner, one of the festival's longtime leading actresses (she last appeared in 1996, her 19th season), "grew up here," Ritchie says, and has played parts in past seasons, though not since her movie career took off. "For the last two or three years, she's been talking about coming back." Given a choice of possible productions, she'd agreed to play Rosalind before she won the Oscar. Ritchie recalls watching the ceremony and realizing that "Gwyneth had an international reputation that was going to bring new and added attention to us."

Whatever the Allure, It's Not the Salary

Even before the sprawling, rarely produced "Camino Real" landed on the schedule at Williamstown, director Nicholas Martin had been talking to Hawke, whom he'd directed off-Broadway, about starring in a production. "I'm very project-oriented," says Hawke, who points out that this is his first return to the stage "since I fell in love and had a baby."

"It's a show that's not often done because of its scale," Ritchie says of "Camino," which received glowing reviews from the critics before closing last weekend. "Large productions are one of the things we can do well here."

Union rules and restrictions often prohibit productions of such size in New York. The pay scale at Williamstown, where the entire season's budget is about $2 million, is lower in all departments. "Salary is definitely not the draw at all," Ritchie says with a dry laugh.

There are all sorts of reasons theater folk are drawn to Williamstown, including the chance of a break from the intensity of professional theater. "We have barbecues just like the suburbs; the dogs can play outside," exclaims Brown, who was finishing up a long run in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret" when director Martin, an old friend, called to ask her to play Marguerite, the aging courtesan.

Mind you, it's not that it isn't serious theater they're doing up here. "This is definitely not theater in a barn," says Grayson Meritt, a stage manager for New York productions in the winter who likes to return to Williamstown because "things are much more relaxed than in a union house. You can be more hands-on. It's fun to get your chops back."

"It's a regular hotbed of creativity," Ritchie says. "You're mixing with all these different people, including kids starting their careers, who bring an energy you don't get anywhere else. I found out about that when I came here [originally as a stage manager], and it surprised me what it meant to me."

Kind, who got in the door via Eric Stoltz, a friend of both his and Ritchie's, called up the producer and said, "I don't want a vanity role, but I don't want to be a spear carrier, either." The festival, Kind says, "gives you the opportunity to stretch. It's so different from the things I do the rest of the year."

On "Spin City," the actor plays the mayor's nebbishy press secretary, Paul; up here he's tackling his second blustery, bombastic role of the Player in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Joanne Woodward directed him last year in Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife." "When you hear who's around, you think, 'Oh my God, these are people who affected my acting as a kid!' "

'A lot of our first choices can say yes [to invitations to take part in the Williamstown season] because we only ask for a five-week commitment [vs. six months for a Broadway show]: three-week rehearsal, two-week run," Ritchie says. Yet quality doesn't suffer, he believes, "because there are less distractions up here. You can focus better than in the city."

In the winter, Ritchie has an office in New York, where he lives with Burton and their two children. They have a summer home here, just across the state line in Vermont.

The six people who work on the festival during the winter quickly multiply to 500--including apprentices, who pay to participate, and interns, who work without salary. (Christopher Reeve got his start as a Williamstown apprentice.)

Activities are spread throughout the town. The festival's sound department is headquartered in one of the dorms; its scenery shop is in the next town east, North Adams, where, at the recently opened contemporary arts center, MASS MoCA, the festival will be presenting a musical, "Quark Victory," later this month (July 22-31), starring Karen Ziemba and Tony winner Wilson Heredia ("Rent").

Rehearsals take place in a number of venues, including, the other day, "Glimmer" in the gym of Southward Elementary School and "Rosencrantz" in the basement of St. John's Episcopal Church. These two plays, both productions on the Nikos Stage, illustrate the range of material presented at Williamstown.

"Glimmer" is part of the festival's mission to develop new work with the possibility of moving it elsewhere, although "we shy away from being a pass-through house for someone else's production," Ritchie explains. "We want to do a production well enough that someone will come along and give it a longer life."

Works in Progress Challenge Writers, Actors

Also being given world premieres this summer are John Guare's "Chaucer in Rome" and Kenneth Lonergan's "The Waverly Gallery" (starring Eileen Heckart). Two of last season's new plays resurfaced off-Broadway in New York this year with the same directors: "Far East" by A.R. Gurney and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" by Paul Rudnick. (A 1997 main stage revival of "The Rain Maker" will be done on Broadway this fall, also with the same director, Scott Ellis.)

Leight's play is "really a first draft," the playwright says. He recalls warning Schwimmer, "You may be going out before an audience with a scene I wrote five minutes earlier, and you'll have egg on your face." Actors either love this or hate it; he said it was exactly what he wanted. Two days into rehearsal, Leight says he'd "already made about 50 changes"--including one suggested by Schwimmer.

Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz," of course, is by now virtually a chestnut, the most daunting thing about it the sheer bulk of lines to be mastered. Christopher Evan Welch and Jefferson Mays, both established New York actors, play the title roles (Mays a replacement for Stoltz, who withdrew because of a film). "I was up here two summers ago in a less demanding role," Welch says, "and this time there's not nearly as much time to play. I like it better."

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* For tickets to productions, call the festival box office: (413) 597-3399.

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