The Risk Takers: Daniel Elihu Kramer shakes things up at the Chester Theatre Company

  • Margaret Odette, left, and Christian Henley in a scene from “Skeleton Crew” at the Chester Theatre Company. PHOTO BY ELIZABETH SOLAKA

  • Daniel Elihu Kramer, artistic director for the Chester Theatre Company, thinks of himself as “a lucky guy” to be in charge of the program.  — Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

  • Stage manager Laura Kathryne Gomez, left, and interns Merle DeWitt and Shauna Joseph prepare on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, for a last technical rehearsal for the Chester Theatre Company's production of "Skeleton Crew". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Chester Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Daniel Elihu Kramer, right, and actor Joel Ripka read through the solo show "Every Brilliant Thing" during a rehearsal in the Middlefield Town Hall on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Actor Joel Ripka, left, and Chester Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Daniel Elihu Kramer, right, read through the solo show "Every Brilliant Thing" during a rehearsal in the Middlefield Town Hall on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Actor Joel Ripka, center, Chester Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Daniel Elihu Kramer, right, and stage manager Adele Traub read through the solo show "Every Brilliant Thing" during a rehearsal in the Middlefield Town Hall on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Chester Town Hall, the performance space for Chester Theatre Company's season. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 7/21/2017 8:59:46 AM

At the Chester Theatre Company one recent morning, it was shaping up to be a very busy day for Daniel Elihu Kramer.

For starters, there was a rehearsal for the play he was directing, “Every Brilliant Thing,” which would open Aug. 2 at the theater company’s modest venue in Chester Town Hall. Later there would be a last technical rehearsal for “Skeleton Crew,” the second production of the 2017 season, due to open the following night. Kramer had to begin composing the opening remarks he would make to the audience before the curtain went up for that show.

And Kramer, artistic director for the Chester Theatre Company  (CTC), also had to look at some figures, like box office receipts, for CTC’s first play of the summer, “I and You,” which had just finished its run the day before, as well as do some preliminary planning for two theater tours he would lead for CTC patrons this coming fall and winter.

Oh, and there were the thank-you notes he needed to write to some donors to the program, and he had to plan for an opening-night party for “Skeleton Crew.” And if time allowed, he wanted to get some of those box-office receipts to the bank. “I’m guessing that will probably have to wait till tomorrow,” he said, and laughed.

But as he sat in his small office in CTC’s headquarters, in a house gifted to the theater program several years ago for administrative space and boarding for interns, Kramer, a longtime playwright and director, figured he was in a pretty good place.

“We have the opportunity to put on really good productions, with some wonderfully talented people,” he said, “and we can take risks that a lot of other people can’t.” He’s intent on sparking conversation and debate through both the plays and the “Talkbacks” with the audience that follow many performances. He also wants to challenge theater conventions in general.

“Diversity is a really big issue in theater these days,” he said. “It has to do with some very basic questions: who’s telling the stories, who gets to be on stage, who gets to be a critic.” He notes that the same issues have arisen among students and faculty at Smith College, where he’s the head of the theater department.

Kramer, 54, who’s in his second season as CTC’s artistic director after serving four years previously as associate director, is buzzed by the fact that he can be a part of all this just 40-odd minutes from his home in Northampton, where he lives with his wife and their 15-year-old son.

To work at this level, outside of a major city like New York or Boston, is a rare privilege, he said: “It’s like a fluke. To do my professional work and teach in the same place? What an opportunity!”

CTC was started by the late Vincent Dowling in 1990, then grew in stature over the years during the tenure of the former, longterm artistic director Byam Stevens, producing a theatrical track record “that can rival the best the area has to offer,” as The Boston Globe once put it.

As the new sheriff in town, Kramer is conscious of that legacy and also determined to build on it by, for instance, strengthening connections to tiny Chester (population 1,337 according to the 2010 census) itself. This summer, Chester residents can attend any CTC production for $10 (regular price is $37.50).

“We want to be a good member of the community, to make this a place where anyone can see a play,” he said, noting that military personnel and veterans can also see CTC productions for $10 as part of a national program called Blue Star Theatres.

And he gets a kick out of staging plays in the picturesque hills of the Pioneer Valley, also home to the Montague Book Mill, with its famous slogan, “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.”

“I was thinking of a potential slogan for us,” he said with a laugh. “ ‘Chester Theatre Company: 40 beautiful minutes from anywhere,’ but I don’t think the board would really appreciate that.”

Working the script

Leaving his office in CTC’s administrative building, Kramer jumped in his car for the uphill, 10-minute drive though thick woods to the town offices of even-tinier Middlefield; he and Joel Ripka, the one cast member for “Every Brilliant Thing,” were planning a partial read-through of the script with stage manager Adele Traub and the assistant stage manager, CTC intern Megan O’Donnell.

“Hey, you found us!” said Ripka, a Brooklyn actor who has performed in several CTC productions. He and Kramer first worked together in 2010, during Kramer’s directorial debut at the theater, “Gulf View Drive,” and now they have a familiar, easy rapport.

“I even remembered your Tupperware,” said Kramer, indicating several food-storage containers Ripka had requested for keeping his leftovers while staying in Chester.

“Awesome!” said Ripka.

“Every Brilliant Thing” opened in Great Britain in 2013 and played in the U.S. in more recent years. Co-written by British comedian Jonny Donahoe, the play starred Donahoe as a young man who begins creating lists of everything he considers brilliant in the world — music, ice cream, Christopher Walken’s hair — to convince his suicidal mother to live.

“It’s one of the funniest plays I’ve ever read,” said Kramer. “At the same time, it’s really, really poignant.” 

The play also involves audience participation with its one cast member, with a certain amount of improvisation that makes each show slightly different. In an empty room in the Middlefield town offices, Ripka and Kramer went over some of those possibilities, with the two stage managers sitting in for audience members.

They also had to make a few edits to the script, changing some instances of British English to the American version — the setting for the CTC version of the play is the U.S. — and swapping some British cultural references for American ones. For one scene, Ripka suggested he might “do this like a talk-show guy, like Stephen Colbert or maybe Oprah.”

“That would be great reference,” said Kramer. “That’s a winner!”

Talking about his time at CTC, Ripka said he has been drawn back to the theater program because “it’s just a great place to be an actor. The shows are always thoughtful, always challenging. We can do work that’s risky.”

Small stage, intimate drama

CTC’s emphasis on small, character-driven plays is driven partly by logistics. The auditorium at Chester Town Hall can seat 126 people on a good day, and the stage is not exactly set up to handle, say, musicals. CTC’s small staff — three regular employees (including Kramer), several interns, and professionals who handle lighting, set design and construction — also places limits on the size of productions.

But the focus on dialogue, human relationships and social issues is also a good fit for Kramer, who grew up in New York City and northern New Jersey. He studied creative writing and English at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, then earned a master’s in directing at the Yale School of Drama. Aside from Smith, he’s taught at Kenyon and Bowdoin colleges and at Fordham University at Lincoln Center.

Though he acted in plays during high school, and to a lesser degree at Haverford, “I was definitely drawn more to directing,” he said.

Starting in the 1990s, he began writing plays as well, and his work has been produced at CTC and a number of other locations. He’s also a filmmaker: His “Kitchen Hamlet,” in which Shakespeare’s tragedy takes place at an isolated country house, has played in a number of film festivals.

“Filmmaking, for me, has been about finding another way to tell stories, and learning about a new medium,” he said.

At CTC, he’s always looking for ways to offer greater diversity in the programming: to feature more work by non-white playwrights, with roles for more non-white actors. One move in this direction is producing “Skeleton Crew,” by African-American playwright Dominique Morisseau, the third in her trilogy of plays set in a black community in Detroit. The drama features four African-American actors as struggling auto workers whose friendships, in the midst of the 2008 recession, may be trumped by their need for individual survival.

In a review earlier this year, The New York Times called the production “a deeply moral and deeply American play, with a loving compassion for those trapped in a system that makes sins, spiritual or societal, and self-betrayal almost inevitable.”

 Kramer notes that beyond the issue of diversity, staging work by Morisseau is important because her themes are exactly what CTC likes to highlight in its productions — and because she’s a leading young playwright. Her most recent play, “Pipeline,” recently opened to good reviews in New York’s Lincoln Center Theater. “She’s becoming really big,” said Kramer, who’s interested in working with up-and-coming playwrights.

Though this is Kramer’s second year as CTC’s director, it’s his first full one. He had taken a sabbatical at Smith in fall 2015 to begin preparing for CTC’s 2016 season, but he was sidelined by open-heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. Then, after he’d begun recovering, he had to undergo a second surgery in March 2016.

“That made that first season a real scramble,” he said. “I wasn’t involved in a lot of the things I’ve done this year, like casting decisions.”

But with a clean bill of health from his doctor, he has been able to plunge into the 2017 season, although he jokes that he still has had to deal with a learning curve. There’s fundraising, for example, which can be a challenge but also an opportunity to get to know potential sponsors and talk to them in-depth: “What is it that they’d like to see us do, where do we share excitement?” 

In retrospect, Kramer added with a laugh, it was easy to be associate director and make suggestions about the program without having to act on them. Back when Byam Stevens was the artistic director, “It was no big deal to throw my two cents in and say, ‘Hey Byam, why don’t we try this?’ or ‘Hey Byam, what about that?’ ” Kramer said. “It can be a lot harder to actually make those decisions.”

But if mood is any indication, Kramer’s feeling pretty good about those decisions right now and the general state of affairs at CTC. “I do feel like I’m a pretty lucky guy,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Skeleton Crew” plays Friday and Sunday at 2 p.m and Saturday at 8 p.m. at CTC. “Every Brilliant Thing” plays Aug. 2-13. Visit chestertheatre.org or call (413) 354-7771.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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