A quarter of a century later, Chester Theatre Company still tackling big ideas with small-cast plays

Last modified: Friday, October 10, 2014

For 25 years, organizers at The Chester Theatre Company have been on a mission — to produce thought-provoking, small-cast, contemporary plays that engage audiences who make their way to this small Berkshire hilltown community on the banks of the Westfield River.

“The company looks for language-rich plays that give our audience something to think about on their drive home after they leave the theater,” said Daniel Elihu Kramer, the troupe’s associate artistic director, in a recent phone interview. “We select shows that people are going to want to talk about.”

The company, which was founded in 1990 by actor Vincent Dowling and former banker H. Newman Marsh as the Miniature Theatre of Chester, presents plays each summer in the auditorium at the Chester Town Hall, which has been converted into a 120-seat theater. Working in such an intimate space, Kramer says, fosters a connection between the actors and the audience.

Called “The little miracle of the Berkshires” by The Berkshire Eagle, the company has consistently earned raves for its small-cast, intimate plays. Many of the productions have gone on to Off-Broadway and regional theaters, and international tours.

“One of the things theater does is offer us new views of the world, Kramer said. “At the Chester Theatre Company we perform plays that seem to really speak to the moment that we’re in. ... Our shows aren’t the comfort food of the theater; they leave the audience surprised by something they saw or found themselves thinking about.”

Byam Stevens, who took over as artistic director in 1998 when Dowling retired, says, though the mission of the company remains the same, there have been positive changes since he came on board. For example, the company’s budget has tripled, Stevens says, allowing him to take advantage of technical developments in theater, and to build an even-stronger team of artists, designers, actors and directors. At this point, Stevens says, the company is providing an off-Broadway-quality theater experience, a sentiment mirrored by The Boston Globe, which said the company “has produced a record that can rival the best the area has to offer.”

Take ‘A Number’

The 2014 season opened June 25 with two shows that fit well with the theater’s tradition of audience engagement — J.T. Rogers’ mystery “Madagascar” that follows a family’s quest to find its missing son, and “Annapurna,” a comic tale of a husband and wife’s reunion.

The second half of the season follows suit with “The Amish Project” and “A Number.”

Stevens directs “A Number” by English playwright Caryl Churchill, which premiered in London in 2002, winning that year’s London Evening Standard’s Best Play Award. The play is about human cloning and issues of identity, Stevens says, in particular the debate about nature vs. nurture.

“ ‘A Number’ opens with a son who has just found out he is a clone of an original son, and is both shocked and dismayed upon the recent discovery,” Stevens said in a recent phone interview. “We see three genetically identical beings, two of them are clones of the third, who are radically different from each other. If they’re identical then it seems that the only variable left would be how they were raised — the nurture part of the issue.”

The play questions what happens when our sense of self is taken from us, Stevens said.

“In Western culture, our sense of identity is very much influenced by the idea that we are unique. ... We see how the characters are threatened by the idea that there are other ‘identicals’ out there.”

The show stars Jay Stratton and Larry John Meyers.

Stratton, an acting and voice professor at Nassau College on Long Island, has worked in TV and film, and in Off-Broadway and regional theaters.

Meyers has worked with Pittsburgh Public Theater, the Pittsburgh symphony, and has appeared in more than 30 films and TV shows, including “American Splendor,” “Runaway Train” and “Flashdance.”

“Working with Stratton and Myers has been a tremendous collaborative journey of exploration, in part because they are both willing to explore style and thematics, Stevens said. “We’re trying to get the right balance between the satiric comedy value and the interpersonal drama of Churchill’s play.”

But Churchill’s dark and comic satire is not your typical play, Stevens added. The script is laid out in an unusual fashion, with no stage direction or punctuation.

Tackling the script is not an easy process, Stratton says, so there’s a lot of give-and-take between actors and director in the rehearsal room.

“Rehearsals are demanding. There are a lot of big speeches and tiny phrases strung together. After a couple of hours you’re going, ‘Phew!’ ” Stratton said in a phone interview. “I like that Chester does very daring scripts. You’re not going to come to Chester and see ‘Kiss Me Kate.’ ”

“A Number” will be presented through Aug. 10.

One-actor play

“The Amish Project,” written by Jessica Dickey, is a fictionalized telling of the aftermath of an actual school shooting that took place in Pennsylvania in 2006. Kramer, the company’s associate artistic director, will direct.

The play’s sole actor, Allison McLemore, will portray seven characters — from a supermarket employee to the gunman.

“I’ve never done a show where I will have to switch characters,” McLemore said in a phone interview. “If something goes wrong, I don’t have anyone to help me fix it.”

McLemore is returning to Chester for her fourth season, and has acted in regional theaters, including the Cincinnati Playhouse, the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre and The Pioneer Theatre Company in Utah.

“The Amish Project” is a perfect example of a play that stresses the importance of an actor’s engagement with the audience, Kramer says.

“The play will be vastly different the day McLemore has an audience and on a night-to-night basis depending on what happens between her and those people,” Kramer said. Theater has a way of triggering a viewer’s empathetic imagination, Kramer says. And as a strong actor, he added, McLemore is adept at pulling those emotional responses from the audiences.

“Addressing gun violence is so current and pressing, and it’s begging us to talk about it,” McLemore said. “I hope the show starts a conversation with the audience that can be less about anger and more about how do we all get together and move forward.”

“The Amish Project” will be presented Aug. 14-24.

The Chester Town Hall is at 4 Main St. in Chester. Post-performance TalkBacks follow the Thursday 2 p.m. and Saturday 8 p.m. shows. Post-performance panel forums follow the Sunday, Aug. 3 and Aug. 17 2 p.m. shows. To purchase tickets, visit www.chestertheatre.org .

In conjunction with the company’s 25th anniversary celebration, an interactive performance of “High Dive” by Leslie Ayvazian will be presented July 23-24 at the town hall. Audience members will be invited to participate by reading lines from the script during the live show. A champagne reception will follow.


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