Breakfast with The Eagle: A tale of two cities for one artistic director
"Mornings are usually spent getting Eli (his just-turned-16-year-old son) ready for school. Adele (Mattern, his wife of 26 years) and I usually have 20 minutes to walk Pearl (their London terrier) and get on with our day, " he said, nursing a first cup of coffee in a roomy booth by a window at Sylvester's on Pleasant Street in the heart of downtown Northampton.
This day, however, was a touch freer than most. Eli was already at Northampton High School, where he is a sophomore and, Kramer says, "does a lot of film and music." Adele, a self-employed clothing designer and product development consultant, was in Mumbai, India, where she spends six weeks a year with a non-profit called MarketPlace Handwork of India and an artisan group called Adive Pure Nature. And Kramer was free of his class load at Smith College, where he has been a member of the theater department faculty for nine years; chair for four of the last five.
The waitress had just taken the order: two eggs over easy, turkey sausage, toast and fresh fruit cup for Kramer; a lox omelet with greens for his breakfast companion.
"At home, I usually have yogurt with honey for breakfast," Kramer said, "and coffee if Adele is home and making some."
Dinner, he said, becomes the meal of the day; the time when the family, including Pearl, can gather and spend time.
He paused for a moment to glance out the window and then around the spacious dining room, which was busy, but neither noisy nor choked with customers.
"I kind of feel like half of Northampton shows up here," he said, taking a sip of coffee as the waitress returned with a cup of coffee for his interviewer. "On a less cold day, I would have ridden my bike here."
He lives only a mile and a half away.
Northampton is home community for Kramer and his family. In fact, his life over the nine years since he came to teach at Smith has been something of a tale of two home communities — Northampton and Chester.
"It feels like I have two homes," Kramer said. "I feel very fortunate. I get to be at Smith. My family and I get to live in Northampton. I also get to do this kind of work in Chester, where there is a whole other community."
The road to home has not been straight.
In 1988, Kramer entered Yale School of Drama, from which he has an MFA (he has a BA from Haverford College, outside Philadelphia). He and Adele had only just met— she was designing costumes for a show he was working on in Philadelphia. "It was attraction at first sight," Kramer said with an affectionate smile of recollection.
They married three years later, after Kramer graduated Yale, and moved to New York, where he worked in theater and Adele went to work for some major women's wear manufacturers.
In 1998, coming off what Kramer calls a "frustrating job situation," he gave away his theater books and went to law school.
"That lasted four days," he said. He worked with education non-profits for a while but, he said, it became increasingly clear that "theater was more satisfying than anything I knew."
They moved to Boston and then, in 2006, he took a job at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Eli was 4 and Kramer began looking for a more accommodating area in which to thrive; to raise a family. Northampton, the opening at Smith, beckoned. So, in 2009, they made the move.
"It really is a perfect location here," Kramer said, pausing for a moment while the waitress delivered the breakfast orders and refilled the coffees, "between the Berkshires and Boston and proximity to New York."
He teaches directing, acting, a core course for theater majors and, soon, a new course in verbatim and documentary theater. He also occasionally directs a theater department production — this year, Sarah DeLappe's"The Wolves" just before heading off on Chester Theatre's annual week-long March London theater trip. He also is on the film and media faculty. He has a short film to his credit and is hoping one day to make a full-length film.
It was not long after Kramer and his family moved to Northampton in the summer of 2009 that he met Byam Stevens, who was then artistic director at Chester. They met at Stevens' invitation in Chester, sitting on the porch of the old house at the top of Main Street that houses CTC's offices, talking art, life and Chester Theatre Company. The following summer, Kramer directed Chester's production of "Gulf View Drive," the last of the plays in Arlene Hutton's "Nibroc Trilogy." Two years later, in 2012, Kramer was named associate artistic director at CTC. He succeeded Stevens as artistic director at the end of the 2015 season, when Stevens stepped down to pursue other interests after 17 years at the helm.
"I was 52 when I took the job," Kramer said, declining another coffee refill, "not old, but not young, to take that position for the first time."
Not old, but also not young, to have open heart surgery and heart valve replacement just after taking the job and then again five months later — about a year ago this time, he said. He smiles with an engaging blend of pride and modesty when he says, reassuringly, that everything is just fine now.
Chester Theatre Company produces only three months a year, late June through mid-August, but its demands are year round — programming, casting, hiring artistic staff, budget and planning the theater's future, something that is very much on Kramer's mind. And while he finds links between Northampton and Chester, there also are strong connections for him between his work in the classroom and his work in the rehearsal room — he directs one of CTC's shows each season.
"The dynamic of the classroom is exciting," he said. "We all learn from each other. The energy is so exciting. These students are great."
The similarities between the classroom and the rehearsal room are unsurprising.
"The idea is to create an environment in which you can try stuff without knowing where it's going to take you," he said.
"Some of the gratification in making theater is coming together to tell a story — the time you spend with actors exploring moments; the time you spend with designers; coming together with audiences; sharing that time and that space with each of these components; imagining the experience of other people's lives."
When he's not teaching or making theater, Kramer says he likes to spend time with family and friends. "A relaxed dinner together with friends," he says. "Escaping somewhere with Adele, which we don't get to do often enough, or even a good walk together with our dog Pearl! I also love to read, though too often I find myself wondering how the book would be as a play. Also hearing Eli play music, occasionally getting to play music with him."
The two also are planning to write father-son film reviews for The Hampshire Gazette, which, he says, "has been patiently waiting for us to get our act together." Kramer is hoping that will be some time this month.
Meanwhile, he has a semester to finish at Smith and as he wraps up his responsibilities for this academic year, the tempo is picking up at Chester.
As the start of the season approaches — the first show, the American premiere of Mark Leiren-Young's "Bar Mitzvah Boy," opens June 21 at Chester Town Hall — Kramer says he is looking forward to "how the summer feels like a reunion: welcoming the actors, directors, and all the artists coming to Chester, then being joined by audiences; making a community together where we're excited about the stories we're sharing; reading a play that surprises me, and thinking, 'We should do this at Chester!'
"I really like being able to be here. I really like being able to be there. How fortunate. I don't have to choose one."
Jeffrey Borak can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6212
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