Williamstown Theatre Festival navigates a summer of changes

Eliana Mabe sits backstage with the cast of Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench, on a summer morning, talking with the director and the actors. She has found it powerful, she said, to meet Ji-young Yoo, Erin Rae Li, Emma Galbraith, Shirley Chen and Albert Park, to see an entirely Asian and Pacific Islander cast shaping a new play, and to observe inside the rehearsal space as they created the work together.

“It’s a sacred and vulnerable space,” she said.

She has had two weeks to see the inner workings as the show evolves, and she has learned from close contact with the whole ecosystem of the theater, she said — how the director can be flexible and communicate with the cast and the design team, and how the lighting influences the actors in their expression.

‘I’ve been hearing about some of the culture, good and bad,and I’ve been hearing it with fresh ears.’ — Eliana Mabe

She spoke from Wiliamstown in the midst of a rotation in stage management, shadowing production manager Tia Harewood-Millington. This summer, Mabe is one of 20 students, 10 from williams College and 10 from across the country, Williamstown Theatre Festival’s new theater intensive training program — and she has chosen to come, knowing the festival has gone through turmoil in the past year.

“I’ve been hearing about some of the culture, good and bad,” she said, “and I’ve been hearing it with fresh ears.”

Shirley Chen and Emma Galbraith share a moment of care and sadness in Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench. Press photo courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Shirley Chen and Emma Galbraith share a moment of care and sadness in Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench. Press photo courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival

Revealing the fault lines

The festival has re-created their training program in the wake of a year and more of upheaval — and substantially changed the theater’s infrastructure and community. Mabe is watching behind the scenes as WTF tries to transform from the inside.

These shifts have come in response to a movement that has gained momentum in the past year and more. In February 2021, a collective of festival alumni wrote an open letter, including the voices of more than 75 apprentices and interns, designers and staff from many parts of the festival, raising awareness of a systematic set of concerns — concerns the festival has acknowledged as real.

The '62 Center for Theatre and Dance lights up on a summer night at Williams College in Williamstown.
Williams College

The '62 Center for Theatre and Dance lights up on a summer night at Williams College in Williamstown.

The letter opens open with the festival’s economic structure and its effects on health and safety.

“WTF simply would not function without relying on young, mostly unpaid, untrained laborers to push their bodies through intense physical stress for an unsafe number of hours,” they wrote.

Citing their own experiences, the alums said the festival had for years exploited intern labor to maintain its ambitious production schedule, and they pointed to a series of cases in which interns suffered workplace injuries through exhaustion and a lack of training and protective equipment.

Beyond concerns for physical health, they described systematic faults in the culture built around this economic structure — a culture that tolerated repeated incidents of classism, racism and sexism and misuse of authority and gave no meaningful process for reporting or dealing with them.

‘WTF simply would not function without relying on young, mostly unpaid, untrained laborers to push their bodies through intense physical stress for an unsafe number of hours.’ — Open letter from festival alums

To the world outside the festival, their perspective became more visible last summer. In August 2021, a tech crew walked off an outdoor set, protesting unsafe conditions during a thunderstorm.

In September 2021 the Los Angeles Times wrote an expansive story, talking with 25 current and former festival staffers, department heads, apprentices and interns, according to their coverage — the Times concluded that the festival as it then stood was running as “a development program that exposes artists-in-training to repeated safety hazards and a toxic work culture under the guise of prestige.”

Charting a year of change

The festival has responded. In October, a month after the Times story, Mandy Greenfield resigned, ending seven years as festival director, and Jenny Gersten, who led the festival from 2010 to 2014, has stepped back in as interim artistic director.

Kiena Williams performs in Most Happy in Concert at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF
Photo by Emilio Madrid

Kiena Williams performs in Most Happy in Concert at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF

In the months since, Gersten said, WTF has made some clear changes and large-scale decisions.

Some changes are clearly visible from the outside. This July and August, the festival has come into a newly stripped down season, moving from the seven plays they have performed for decades down to three.

They have ended both the internship and apprenticeship programs, and they have disbanded the scene shop entirely.

The students in this summer’s training program have food and housing covered, and they are paid … a stipend of $2500 from the festival.

In the practical day-to-day and in the climate of the organization, she said, she and the festival have been considering the question of how to change a community’s culture.

In the past, the festival would have grown from about 12 year-round staff into a corps of 75 apprentices and 100 interns in Williamstown now, at the height of summer, and some 600 people involved, with summer staff, directors, playwrights and actors — this summer, she reckons she has 140 staff and 150 artists in her busiest weeks here and about 300 people in all, including actors and students and the Fridays@3 reading series.

Re-shaping internship and apprenticeship

From Mabe’s point of view, those changes have real daily implications. The students in this summer’s training program have food and housing covered, she said, and they are paid. According to the theater, the interns each have a stipend of $2500 from the festival.

Mabe spends no more than 46 hours a week involved in the work of the program, in academic study with guest artists, observing Festival staff and actors at work and watching plays — the students have free admission at WTF and an exhange with Berkshire theaters.

Ji-young Yoo and Shirley Chen siton a hotel bed, smiling, in Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench. Press photo courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Ji-young Yoo and Shirley Chen siton a hotel bed, smiling, in Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench. Press photo courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival

“I’ve been part of other festivals,” she said, “but nothing to this extent.”

In the past, according to the L.A. Times coverage, interns and apprentices have paid as much as $4000 for the summer, and according to the open letter, they have paid for their own housing and meals on top. They wrote of crowd-sourcing or taking on debt, believing they would receive professional advancement and contacts in the field, and found that they were isolated and exhausted, made to work menial jobs around the clock, and often injured.

In contrast, Mabe said she has found this summer’s training program focused on creative work, academic courses and practical hands-on experience. This summer, the festival has partnered with Williams College and the Williams Theatre Lab and shared their program for study.

Maya Lagerstam performs in Most Happy in Concert, sitting in the light on a shadowed stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF
Photo by Emilio Madrid

Maya Lagerstam performs in Most Happy in Concert, sitting in the light on a shadowed stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF

Accountability on the ground

Mabe spoke warmly of mentors — Veshonte Brown, manager of the professional training program this summer, and Ann Marie Dorr, Ann Marie Dorr, the Summer Intensive Training Program Director for Williams College. Mabe has felt their presence, as advisors and mentors to the students and fellows.

In her experiences so far this summer, she said, the festival has worked for her and her cohort, in being a supportive team.

“In my opinion, especially as a woman of color, it’s important for me to feel safe and to feel — to know — that what my artistry is doing is making a difference, and all my abilities are appreciated. I can feel there’s been a lot of change (here). I’ve felt valued here — that I’m meant to be here. People are excited we’re a part of the program, and we’re meant to learn.”

‘I’ve felt valued here — that I’m meant to be here. People are excited we’re a part of the program, and we’re meant to learn.’ — Eliana Mabe

Brown shared her own commitment to forming and keeping a space where students like Mabe can feel and be seen, heard and free to explore.

She agreed bluntly, from her experiences here, that the festival needed change. Originally from Mississippi, she first came to WTF in 2018 as a graphic design intern. Speaking as someone who did not grow up priveleged, and who came here as an intern 2000 miles from home, she said, she found that first summer an extremely lonely process, and she has thought often and carefully about how to change that experience for interns this year.

She made professional connections here in her first summer, she said, and she has kept them. But she she would not have come back again without the support of Black Theatre United of New York.

Cindy De La Cruz performs as a young woman returning to the Dominican Republic in Border of Lights by Guadalís Del Carmen.
Photo by Joseph O'Malley and R. Masseo Davis

Cindy De La Cruz performs as a young woman returning to the Dominican Republic in Border of Lights by Guadalís Del Carmen in summer 2021. Photo courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival.

BTU partnered with WTF in summer 2021 to create a BIPOC cohort of 10 theatre artists, and Brown returned as a member. She values the group of theater makers she worked with here last summer, she said, and their time here working with guest artists and devised community theatre.

“You can’t expect people who have been burned to believe you’re changing,” she said, “but I like to give organizations a chance — if there’s someone holding them accountable.”

Black Theatre United has paused their relationship with the theater, Gersten said, taking time to observe the theater’s changes this year.

And this year, Brown has come back as summer seasonal staff, working to create the kind of experience she had hoped for here.

“As an intern, I didn’t have this,” she said, “and I wish I did.”

Taking steps toward change

Brown made the choice to return with careful thought. Some people who knew the festival from the inside called her on that decision, she said — you heard all the stuff.

“I lived it,” she said. “And I believe it’s possible to change, or I wouldn’t be here. I hate the phrase ‘change happens slowly’ — that’s from people who think change is theoretical. … I’ve been a Black woman in theater since I was eight. The theoretical is very real to me.”

Change comes from people on the ground, she said. And it may not begin with long-held beliefs or with theater as a whole, but with a chance to build something practical, visible, that has a real effect on the lives of 20 emerging theatre artists right now, and to stand up for them.

“They didn’t sign up to be the answer to all the festival’s problems,” she said. “They’re the proof of the festival’s mission. This program is new. These 20 people are willing to be the first, and they deserve that, to be separate from the festival’s history. WTF doesn’t get to do that, but they do.”

Williamstown Theatre Festival launches its summer season.
Williamstown Theatre Festival / Photo by Taylor Edelle Stuart

Williamstown Theatre Festival launches its summer season.

Re-building a community of trust

Gersten spoke to the work she and the festival have begun to address that history. To think with them through questions of equity and accountability, the festival has brought in consultants, artEquity, a California nonprofit focused on art and activism, equity and diversity in arts and culture, and K+KReset, New York a human resources firm focused on social responsitility and co-founded by nationally respected BIPOC entrepreneurs.

“They have been active with every cast and creative company,” Gersten said, “to meet with every team and with festival staff and the summer intensive students,” to let them know how they can be in communication, to be supported and heard.

“One of the first things they said is, we won’t take this job unless we can hold you accountable,” she said. “Trust takes time, and you have to rebuild it.”

‘It’s a process, a lifelong practice, as an individual and as an organization,” she said. “… I’ve done a lot of listening, a lot of asking questions and observing.’ — Danielle King, director of organizational culture

In line with these efforts, his winter, WTF created a new full-time position — Danielle King came on full-time in March as the festival’s producer of shows and director of organizational culture, and she spoke from Williamstown two weeks into the festival’s summer season.

She acknowledged the need to be intentional and honest about the knowledge, the time and rigor that cultural change involves.

“It’s a process, a lifelong practice, as an individual and as an organization,” she said. “… I’ve done a lot of listening, a lot of asking questions and observing.”

She has chiefly met with people involved in the festival now, she said, rather than alums from the past.

‘So much can happen in collaboration and creativity and growth when artists earlier in their careers can work alongside established artists …’ — Veshonte Brown, manager of the professional training program

She feels a communal energy here, as the summer takes hold, that she wants to encourage and preserve — power that can only exist in these residencies, when makers come together and make theater, in a flexible place outside the city and the academic world (though they may share resources).

“So much can happen in collaboration and creativity and growth when artists earlier in their careers can work alongside established artists,” she said, “(and I see that idea) influencing the future of the festival — how to make sure that’s an experience everyone can have.”

Teaching performance in a contemporary world

Brown is doing that work on the ground with the training program, she said, the work of standing up for the group of students and creating with them a space of integrity and responsibility and care.

They have created a community agreement from the beginning, she said. Every person in the space makes a commitment to hold themselves accountable, and ways to re-evaluate and respond to concerns.

“The festival as a whole is making it a practice to do that,” she said.

‘They’ll say ‘I’m an actor, a writer or a stage director … You’re a maker. And before all other things, makers are collaborators.’ — Veshonte Brown

She wants to create spaces where making is not lonely, because they are making something together, and they will treat everyone with respect. And she wants to help them learn the discipline to make art.

“… I said on the first day, you will never feel unsafe here,” she said.

But they will have space to explore unfamiliar ground, to experiment, she said. And they will work together. In the final weeks of the summer, in August, they will create a final project, to make something that feels wholly theirs.

The cast and team for Harrison David Rivers' new play, We Are Continuous, meet at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF
Photo by Jackson Miles

The cast and team for Harrison David Rivers' new play, We Are Continuous, meet at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF

“These are theater makers,” she said. “We talked about this on the first day.”

In the theater world, people increasingly have many more than one field— since the 2010s, she said, theater has moved away from expecting artists to hold only one title or teaching them only one skill.

“They’ll say ‘I’m an actor, a writer or a stage director,” she said. “… You’re a maker. And before all other things, makers are collaborators.”

Seeing theater from backstage

Mabe agrees — she sees students now involved in many different parts of theater work; they re multi-hyphenated and excited to take on many roles. She has experience as a director and as a playwright, she said, and she has been looking for resources beyond her college, because her college has taken them away.

She is a rising senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., involved in music theater — and at the end of her Sophomore year, the college suddenly shut down their entire theatre departent. Though she has switched to a film major, she leads the student-run Theater Guild, and she is teaching and directing children’s theater in her community.

This summer, she said, she has enjoyed learning behind the scenes. Through the Williams Theatre Lab, the students have spent their afternoons in workshops and courses with professors and visiting artists.

Emma Galbraith, Ji-young Yoo and Shirley Chen perform in Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench. Press photo courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Emma Galbraith, Ji-young Yoo and Shirley Chen perform in Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench. Press photo courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival

She had just finished a week of acting with Marc Gomes, awardwinning actor and assistant professor of acting at Ithaca College.

“We wrote and performed monologs,” she said, “and we each got 10 to 15 minutes of individual work, which is rare, to work with a pro there to explain and explore.”

She was looking forward to a week of playwrighting and time with Natalie Robin,
Program Director of Theater Design and Technology in at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, on lighting design in musical theater.

Sharing in a vulnerable space

Many of her favorite parts of theater are moments the audience never gets to see, Mabe said — the in-depth conversations between an actor and the charactor they are thingking their way through, or between the director and the playwright’s work.

“Art is so human,” she said. “So much thought and emotional and physical labor goes into what we do — and it’s even more important now to make these spaces safe and open, because the work we do now can change us … It’s important that we are nurturing ourselves. It’s important that (well) is full before we pour it out.”

“… Rhodes is a PWI (predominently white institution) — I’ve been in those spaces as a minority and as a woman, where I will have to think about whether I feel safe. There’s a lot of that inherent in the system of theater — there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, and I hope all theaters are taking a lookcat who’s on the staff, (who has power,) what stories we tell and whose stories they are.”

‘Art is so human — so much thought and emotional and physical labor goes into what we do — and it’s even more important now to make these spaces safe and open, because the work we do now can change us.’ — Eliana Mabe

She recalls vividly in her early college courses, realizing that the field she had come into with passion, the art and system she wanted to make a life in was flawed, through centuries, in ways that have silenced women and people of color.

She wants to do the work now, she said, as an artist, as a BIPOC artist, so that future generations of students don’t have to discover that at 18 — so they can come into the field free to stretch themselves, to be curious, to ask life-changing questions, to transform.

Breaking down barriers in the field

Brown spoke with commitment to doing that work here, for Mabe and her colleagues.
As a professional in the field with a Masters Degree, Brown has grown resources through persistence and time, and she works now to share knowledge, to bring emerging artists into conversations with estalished professionals — and with each other.

The cast and team for Harrison David Rivers' new play, We Are Continuous, meet at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF
Photo by Jackson Miles

The cast and team for Harrison David Rivers' new play, We Are Continuous, meet at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF

When a student wants to meet a Tony awardwinning director, she will reach out to make that happen, she said, and she thinks staying up late talking with their fellow students on summer nights can matter as much or more. Making contact in the theater world can take many forms.

“People would say ‘it’s who you know,’ and I hated it,” she said. “I’m from the South. I hadn’t been to New York, and it seemed like a phrase justifying barriers to this art. (Now) I think people misuse it. ‘I like directing, and I’m just starting out now and don’t have many credits, but I have a friend who writes’ … that’s what it means.”

So she wants to encourage the artists here this summer, to stand up for them and see them emerging into the field in the future.

“You can spend your whole life sowing seeds,” Brown said, “and one day you’ll reap them.” A new generation will take that harvest and sow it again. “We’re sowing new seeds now.”

The cast and team for Harrison David Rivers' new play, We Are Continuous, meet at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF
Photo by Jackson Miles

The cast and team for Harrison David Rivers' new play, We Are Continuous, meet at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Press photo courtesy of WTF

Re-imagining storytelling in community

Mabe too has seen the power of theater makers creating spaces for themselves. She thinks of the friendship and energy in the original cast of Hamilton.

“You can feel that magic,” she said, “the love they have for one another and the powerhouse that is Lin-Manuel Miranda, that passion and wanting to leave that mark on history. … People will find a way to make shows for anyone who will listen … it’s part of the tenacity and drive to do what we love.”

“The power that holds to change people’s minds is what I love, or at least to think — to bring a story to you that you wouldn’t know otherwise.”

She looked back to the rapport and confidence she felt in relearsals of Man of God.

“That’s the kind of piece I want to be a part of,” she said. “This is my summer … and I hope (the festival will) have me back. I hope the next time, I’m working on a show.”

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