Dreams of drama: Williamstown Theatre Festival performance on tap for 80 local actors

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Editor's note: This article was updated on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, to clarify that the organization partners with Berkshire Community College. 

WILLIAMSTOWN — Out of the classroom and onto the stage, Penny Bucky is starring in a Williamstown Theatre Festival play in the coming days.

A recently-retired 5th grade teacher at Williamstown Elementary, Bucky will play the grandmother in "Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires," a play that features more than 80 local residents on the festival's main stage.

Bucky graduated with a theater degree but last acted in a play more than 40 years ago, and "had a whole life in between, then retired and got surprised" when she earned the part.

"It's a blast," she said.

The play, written by Lucy Thurber and directed by Laura Savia, not only features the community but is a product of it.

The play was created through Community Works, the Williamstown Theatre Festival's year-round initiative to open its doors — and stage — to its neighbors and create a one-of-a-kind play that reflects the area.

"Community Works was meant to invite people who live here to feel more welcome and actually attend the festival," Thurber said.

The foundation of the play is made from the themes and conversations that arise out of workshops that WTF staff have throughout the year at its various partner organizations, which range from Berkshire Community College to Soldier On.

"Sometimes it's as simple as an open conversation on a theme that Lucy is thinking about for the play," said Savia, who is also the associate artistic director at WTF.

In workshops throughout the past year, older and younger generations shared their thoughts and fears.

The younger generation was talking about "how scared they were about everything," and touched on topics like the environment, racial inequality, and "not knowing what to do," Thurber said.

"A feeling of powerlessness on their part," Thurber said.

The older generation, Thurber said, struggled with how to say something of comfort to the younger generation.

"This complicated attempt at communication was happening," Thurber said. "That for me was the birth of this show — both that feeling of inevitable change and us locally and as a country to deal with where we are."

The story bounces back and forth between a fictional mythology of the origin of people who live in this area — two tribes, the water people and the rangers, who have different ideas about how to get on in the world, Thurber said.

A grandmother tells that tale to her grandchildren when the narrative comes back to modern times, where people have gathered for the funeral of a soldier who was unable to readjust to civilian life.

The central character, played by Bucky, has an extended family who lives throughout the country.

"They have different opinions about what's important and she gets caught in that nexus," Bucky said.

The play features a mixture of original songs and covers and a cast of 116 people altogether — who range in age from seven to 91 — not an easy feat for a playwright.

"The two of us are in conversation even at the very earliest stages," Savia said. "Even when Lucy is outlining it — could we picture a group telling this part of the story?"

And while some of the actors are professionals, many have never shared a stage in their life. Still, the WTF makes it a point to operate and rehearse in the same professional manner they would for any other production.

"The room is run the same way that a Broadway or off-Broadway room is run. It's not an educational setting," Savia said.

One cast member is Reiko Yamada, a native of Sapporo, Japan, and longtime Williamstown resident. She performed for the first time in last year's Community Works play, "Orpheus in the Berkshires."

"They came to the senior center [in November of 2015] and I wasn't interested at all. The last time I played anything like this I was in grade school, and I goofed."

But, like many other, Yamada enjoyed the experience enough to come back for another role in 2017.

Devon Lennon, 21, of Lanesborough, is also back for a second consecutive year.

"I was a part of that and it was a lot of fun" Lennon said. "It brought me so much closer to the community that I grew up in."

Fellow Lanesborough resident Crystal Moore, 14, decided to participate after a workshop at her school.

"They love the theater and I love acting," she said. "We all love the same thing, so it makes it easier for us to bond [as a cast]."

This year, WTF is opening the front lawn and encouraging people to picnic and listen to live music an hour before the show, on each of the four performance dates.

Tickets are free, but they should be reserved through the WTF box office (413-458-3253) or at its website, wtfestival.org.

The one-hour show takes place on the Main Stage and its four-day run begins on Sunday, Aug. 13. It will begin at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, and at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter


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