At the beginning of March, before the severity of COVID-19 pervaded our awareness and the world was still open, artistic director Mandy Greenfield was immersed in the peak of preparations for the Williamstown Theatre Festival Season—a process that includes expanding an 11-person year-round staff into 400-person operation that invigorates Williams College’s campus in Massachusetts each summer.
Midway through March, with production dates and casting announced, development in full swing, and preparations for May rehearsals under way, colleges and universities closed down and theatres went dark. It seemed 2020 might not be the year audiences enjoyed Robert O’Hara’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Audra McDonald and Bobby Cannavale, or Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, or Sanaz Toossi’s Wish You Were Here, Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love, Shakina Nayfack’s Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club, Dawn Landes and Daniel Goldstein’s Row, and Stacy Osei-Kuffour’s Animals.
But two weeks later, Williamstown found a solution. With their April 7 announcement, Williamstown Theatre Festival was one of the first theatres in the nation to pivot their entire season to audio in a collaboration with Audible Theater.
At the time, many theatres were still hedging on when theatre would return, thinking the summer would be safe; but Williamstown is a singular creature in that all of the artists—apprentices, interns, actors, designers, technicians, directors, writers—not only migrate to Massachusetts but live together in Williams College dorms and shared houses.
“It doesn't feel like it was a decision,” says Greenfield. Closing the doors may not have been a decision, but Greenfield’s alternative plan for the season certainly was. “I didn't sleep that night. And the next day I called Kate Navin [artistic producer] at Audible and I said, ‘I have a crazy idea.’” Though Zoom readings and virtual on-screen performances popped up, Greenfield gravitated to audio, “the only medium that actually allowed me to escape.”
“Audible Theater has always looked for creative ways to work with producers and institutions and theatre artists,” says Navin, “so, of course, when theatres were shut down, we were starting to think about having conversations about productions that had been paused. But we certainly hadn't thought about doing an entire season. When Mandy called, it was pretty thrilling.”
With the five world premieres, Williamstown still fully shepherds the ongoing creative development of the works—as in any other year. “I have made a promise to these artists to give them the best possible incarnation of their work,” says Greenfield. And she’s bound to deliver.
The season Greenfield had programmed aligned with Audible Theater’s mission to elevate and increase accessibility to well-known entities and produce work by emerging voices, as well as present a mix of familiar and new performers. “That [mix] is so much at the core of what Audible Theater wants to do,” says Navin.
But what does Robert O’Hara’s Streetcar look like when you can’t look? “His sensibility and his integrity as an artist color how we make the audio offering,” says Greenfield. Not only does O’Hara lead rehearsals, and eventually recording sessions, the director will be heavily involved in post-production and editing. “That's where Audible can bring the expertise,” says Navin. “Our in-house sound designers know how to put a treatment over the audio to make somebody sound like they're outside or all sorts of different things that we can bring to sort of solve those problems.
“The world that those characters live in is so crucial to the storytelling,” she continues. “So we've had conversations about how you bring that physical world into the audio experience.” (And WTF has been exploring ways to create bonus materials to spotlight designers and keep them paid.)
In terms of performance, Navin says audio isn’t foundationally different from the stage. “They have their instincts, they know how to tell a great story, most actors have done voiceover work, so they're used to performing for a microphone,” she says. “If anything, instead of delivering this to a room with a large audience, it’s more of a conversation with a friend at a bar.”
Of course, the audio season cannot fully replace the live theatre that would have been produced; for Greenfield, “making this Audible piece is about a snapshot in time,” maintaining the flow of creativity and artistry, and providing audiences with something to look forward to.
Not to mention, WTF will likely be able to reach thousands more listeners than they could fit in their on-site theatres and broaden the theatre’s reach. “When you look at something like Evil Eye or The Half Life of Marie Curie, these Audible Theater productions have the same number of listeners on Audible as theyw ould have had patrons at the Booth [Theatre on Brooadway] if they sold out the theatre for two years,” says Navin. “When you think about that reach to that audience versus what an Off-Broadway run could really do with a star—because they can only give you six weeks or whatever—it's pretty exciting.”
But Greenfield remains level-headed about the purpose and goals for this adjusted season. “Our job right now is to get out of the way of doctors and nurses and healthcare professionals and scientists who are putting their lives on the line to save lives, and we'll do our job, which is to fill that life with meaning and richness and humor and humanity and laughter [in person] later,” Greenfield says. “In the meantime, we can make these beautiful plays as audio offerings and give the culture something new to embrace and enjoy in the comfort and safety of their homes or on their jobs or on their Peloton in their basement or with their friends and family in their home.”