Williamstown festival crew walks off the job. It's a cautionary tale for outdoor theater

Ashley Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The musical "Row" recounts how Tori Murden McClure became the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic. Because numerous scenes take place in the ocean, the world-premiere production is being staged at the Clark Art Institute's reflecting pool, a picturesque Massachusetts setting that both evokes the story and meets the COVID-19 guidelines of Williamstown Theatre Festival's outdoor season. The show, from composer-lyricist Dawn Landes and book writer Daniel Goldstein, "exposes you to the elements endured by an extraordinary woman undeterred by the odds," its program reads.

Theater companies staging shows outdoors for the first time is one thing; doing so in nontraditional performance spaces is another. What took place at Williamstown is a case study for all theaters pushing ahead with productions in unconventional settings due to the ongoing pandemic. Aside from what the actors are doing on these pop-up stages, tech crews also are working amid heat and rain to make these productions possible.

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, this unique production of "Row" required the installation of wooden platforms in a section of the three-tiered pool, which spans an acre and holds 2,000 gallons of collected storm water. The orchestral pit is split: One foley artist is positioned on this stage, with the rest of the musicians performing remotely from inside the museum. (They must be heard over the area's population of frogs that croak loudly each evening.)

Additionally, the Berkshires has gotten a notable amount of rain this summer — an issue that the festival, usually held indoors, has not had to consider previously. (Audiences are advised that performances will go on amid light rain, and the festival suggests bringing a rain poncho because umbrellas cannot be opened during the performance.)

Electrical setups had to be redone in order to be weather-safe; entire days of tech were canceled by thunderstorms. During lighter drizzles, the sound crew pushed through each rehearsal's two-hour setup and two-hour breakdown — a requirement of the museum.

"We're talking about half a million dollars of audio equipment that you generally don't want out in the rain," said one member of the sound department who declined to be identified out of fear of retaliation by the festival. "But as long as there was no lightning, we were just expected to continue to work."


Whenever rehearsals were paused for intermittent, heavier rain, the cast of actors working under Equity union rules stayed dry under tents or in the museum's auditorium. But others weren't so lucky.

"So where does the crew go if we're holding for rain? And the answer I got was, 'Yeah, we didn't really think about it,'" recalled the team member, who sought shelter in the museum's vestibule. "It was a lack of caring about the well-being of the crew, who are the people who actually make the shows happen."

By July 14, the day of the first public performance, the cast and crew had yet to run through the entire show in tech. The rain was particularly notable that day, so the production manager announced that the tech session was being paused for 30 to 45 minutes, after which the bad weather was forecast to clear. The actors went inside, and the crew quickly covered the equipment and headed inside the museum to wait it out.

"At one point, I asked if I could run and change into some dry clothing, and was told no, because we had to wait around," said sound crew member Mary Fator. "It's like, hey, I'm asking for the bare minimum."


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