A third act at Chester Theatre: Director Byam Stevens will hand over the reins to the company at the end of this season; Daniel Elihu Kramer will pick them up.

Last modified: Thursday, September 10, 2015
For 18 years, Byam Stevens has filled the small stage at the Chester Town Hall with the weight of ideas.

Under his direction, the Chester Theatre Company (CTC) has dealt with the philosophical implications of clones in “A Number” and uncomfortable truths in “Arms on Fire.” The company renewed a classic Peter Pan tale in “The Darlings” and tackled the crushing reality of captivity for “Two Rooms.”

Stevens led the company in 2004 when the group changed its name from the Chester Miniature Theatre to its current moniker, and he stayed with the theater throughout the most recent economic recession, working to expand the audience even as funding became sparse and arts became a low priority for struggling Americans.

But Stevens will step down as artistic director at the end of the 2015 season, and Daniel Elihu Kramer, associate artistic director since 2012, will take the helm.

The board of directors began its search for a new artistic director in the fall of 2014. Kramer said Stevens suggested him as a candidate to the board and endorsed him throughout the selection process. The change was announced during the winter and, since then, Kramer has been preparing for his new role, to begin in September.

Kramer has directed plays for CTC since 2010. But his resume begins before his time at Chester, and he has already become an established figure in regional theater. He has directed such award-winning performances as: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Boston Theatre Works, “The Pillowman” at the Contemporary American Theatre Company in Columbus, Ohio, and “Jane Eyre: A Memory, A Fever, A Dream” at Available Light Theatre, also in Columbus. Kramer is the chairman of the theater department at Smith College in Northampton and a member of their film studies department. Kramer plans to take a sabbatical from the college 2015-16 academic year, but says he’ll continue as the department chairman after that.

Stevens says, with the experience Kramer has accrued, he steps into the role with knowledge and authority. For his part, Kramer says, he is grateful for the support Stevens has shown him, and he admires the work the director has done to establish CTC in the regional arts scene.

“He has proven that this very unlikely theater can flourish, and that’s the greatest contribution to what I have to pick up,” Kramer said. “I don’t have to ask that question. I get to say, ‘We’ve learned that that’s true, now what?’ and that’s a pretty great place to start.”

Since 2008, local arts groups have struggled to find sources of revenue as governmental support has dwindled, Stevens says, so organizations like his have had to seek donors who will support their efforts. In western Massachusetts, for example, where there are many arts venues, such as Tanglewood in Lenox, Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Jacobs Pillow in Beckett and Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, CTC had to carve out a niche that would separate them from other organizations.

Kramer said smaller-cast, language-driven plays best suit CTC’s tiny performance space in the Chester Town Hall that seats about 100 people. But, despite the architectural limitations, Stevens says he has been able to make CTC a vehicle to address his vision of the role of the theater in the current age.

“Theater should do two things,” Stevens said. “It should address the lasting questions of life, and it should serve as a forum for us to address the important issues that are facing us as a society in the present.”

The theme for Stevens’ final season aligns with that vision. Indeed, he says, the plays were selected because they address those timeless questions, yet have themes that will resonate with contemporary audiences.

Path to redemption

Stevens is directing the season opener, “The Gospel According To Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” by Scott Carter.

The sparse play features the three historical figures wrestling with their views on humanity and divinity as they find themselves trapped in a purgatory-like room. The characters bicker about the very same ideologies that they failed to uphold in their personal lives.

“In some ways, the play deals with our stated aspirations and how we stack up against stated aspirations,” Stevens said. “If we don’t — because we are human beings, and we fail — then what path is there to redemption?”

Even with the focus on historical figures, the themes central to “Discord,” Stevens adds, are especially present in the world today.

“I think in our society these days there is a very harsh and very judgmental political correctness which says, ‘Well, if Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, he’s a hypocrite and not worth considering.’ Well, I’m sorry, that’s just simplistic and it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “You know, I think this happens a lot on college campuses now where, for some reason, we expect great men to be moral paragons, and that’s not what the definition of a great man is.”

The next stage

After the 2015 season comes to a close, Stevens will mentor young dancers with American Ballet Theatre in New York City. He said that despite their differences, theater and dance have been his two major career paths. Although the physicality and silence of dance contrasts with the language-driven plays produced by CTC, Stevens says he welcomes the challenge, and aims to connect the disciplines by teaching dancers to act.

“We live in an age of specialization where everything is getting narrowed all of the time,” Stevens said. “I like the idea of being expanded when we get older, and not narrowed.”

Stevens said he intends to also continue writing, teaching and working with theater on a freelance basis, which will give him more time to work creatively.

The administrative duties of an artistic director are many, said Stevens, who often wakes up at 5 a.m. to review the script for his current production. He arrives at the CTC office by 9 a.m., and then goes to rehearsals for six to seven hours, only to come back to the office again to deal with fundraising, planning, signing payroll checks and meeting with board members.

“If I was just directing, I’d come out of my rehearsal and I’d be thinking about what we accomplished,” he said. “I have to do that, but I have to (do it) fast.”

As for Kramer, he will step into more than just the administrative demands of his new position. Each season has a central theme that he says carries out a conversation with audiences, and the process of selecting plays that will advance that conversation from year to year is not something he has faced as a freelance director. He says he’s trying to learn as much as he can from Stevens before September.

“There’s a cycle to any theater, and Chester Theatre particularly has a cycle of all the steps that are happening in the offseason, and all of the ways that you are creating and preparing for the summer season,” Kramer said. “Each January that passes, I won’t get another January to learn what we do in January. When February passes, I won’t get another February to learn what we do in February.”

Although Kramer has been observing this process and learning from his predecessor, not all things will remain the same under his leadership. He said he will look for new ways to expand the theater’s audience through educational programs and internships. And in addition to an annual trip to London that CTC takes, he hopes to create new offerings for theater trips with theatergoers.

That said, Kramer plans to continue Stevens’ overarching goal for CTC, of asking questions and probing the nature of the human condition.

“I think there is something very special about coming out to ... this little town, beautiful little area. You sit in this small theater and these astonishing things happen in front of you,” Kramer said. “Amazing actors come up to do this work. We do remarkable plays — moving, intelligent plays — and to share a space, as an audience member, with those actors and those stories, and to be engaged with them, I think, is what Chester has been about and what it will continue to be about.”