The Dogs of WTF

The dogs of Williamstown are integral members of the festival team.  They help calm down stressed offices, remind us to go outside every so often, and keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.  Featured below are 5 of this season's champs:


Owner of: David Sugarman, Resident Stage Manager

Fun Facts: Spot Found his home by way of a shelter in Puerto Rico.  He enjoys greeting his many fans at the “Red Herring” (a local bar).


Owner of: Liz Mahan, Company Manager

Fun Fact: Sophie had a featured role in this year's Animal Crackers.  She even had her own wig!


Owner of: Caitlin Healy, Assistant Company Manager

Fun Fact: Bear is a small dog trapped in a large dog's body.


Owner of: Kathryn Dunham, Associate Prop Master

Fun Fact: Rigby comes from a theatrical lineage.  The American Eskimo was popularized by the Ringling Brothers as their first tightrope dog.


Owner of: J. Michael Stafford, Associate Production Manager

Fun Fact: Loves truck rides even more than sitting in chairs!

And with that I sign off.  It's been a great season as WTF's Social Media Intern!

-Julia Hoch

WTF Social Media Intern

Summer of 2013


WTF's Sound Supervisor: Alex Neumann

Alex Neumann on the set of this season's “Animal Crackers”

Alex Neumann is a busy man: as head of the sound department he is in charge of the sound for not only our Main and Nikos Stage shows, but also Directing Assistant and Directing Intern Shows, special events, and communication systems which are essential to tech and the stage managers calling the show each night of the run.  He took a little time out of his hectic schedule to talk to me about the business of sound, how he got into it, and how Williamstown is unique. Read on!

How he got into theatre:

I was a music student in college, a viola major.  Early on I got involved with the campus radio station. During my first semester at college I saw that there was a guy who recorded all the myriad of concerts that we held at school.  He had people working for him who would mix jazz band concerts and stuff like that. I saw what they were doing and thought, “Oh, man that looks kind of cool.  Faders and knobs and buttons and blinking lights….” But I also got to use my ears as a musician.  I did that for four years, and at the end of my senior year the theatre department had a musical going up.  They didn’t really have a true sound guy working on it, the guy doing sound didn’t understand how the system was put together.  My boss at the school of music said “For your work-study why don’t you go over there and help them out?”  So I helped them get that production up and going.  I had a lot of fun with it, so when I graduated I applied for a lot of related positions, and ended up going to Barrington Stage Company as an intern for the summer. After that summer I went to the Canadian Rockies to work as a recording engineer for a little while.  While I was there, I had no idea where what direction my life was going in, so I applied for grad school in theatre sound design.  I figured I had fun with that show in college, and I had fun at Barrington and grad school might help me to find some sort of a career path. I got into Boston University and between there and Williamstown I made most of the connections that put my career where it is at this point.

This is Alex’s fourth year in WTF’s Sound department.  On why he keeps coming back:

It is such a tight-knit group of people.  I would say the vast majority of my work comes from relationships built at Williamstown.  Even though I have a pretty good list of places that I work and people that I work for, coming back to Williamstown gives me that always-beneficial opportunity to network.  Plus I really enjoy working this tightly with so many people.  It can be a lot of time and a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun because you are working with so many people every day, working to solve so many problems. It’s a really good way to hone your skills, because you do so much.  But it’s definitely one of the hardest places to work.  Out of all the jobs I’ve had, in New York and elsewhere, this is by far the hardest gig I do.

This year's Sound Team
Photo by Paul Fox

What the sound team does:

We get the sound systems up and running, get speakers placed where they need to be for every show (Mainstage, Nikos, Non-equity and special event).  We put practical speakers (speakers in a prop) or effects speakers off-stage, above the stage, and in the wings.  For example in Pygmalion we had a speaker in the Victrola and in Blood Play we have a bunch of speakers for specific effects, hidden in set pieces.

The Sound Team deftly hid speakers in this set for the sound effects of Victrola and organ.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Above that the unsung part of the sound department is video monitoring, communication systems, walkie-talkies—things that people don’t really think about until they don’t work and tech grinds to a halt.  That is actually a rather large chunk of what we do, in addition to just making the show’s sound work.  We have to do a lot of support systems and auxiliary events.

The Bridges of Madison County Tech
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The most exciting part of his job:

Both exciting and terrifying is the First Preview.  Be it Williamstown or anywhere else, I always find first preview to be at once both terrifying and ridiculously exciting.  It’s that first time in front of a paying audience, and no matter how solidly you have teched a show there’s always the likelihood that something will go wrong.  Sometimes it is really exciting to fix that, sometimes it’s terrifying to fix that. I think that is always the moment for me.

The most challenging part of his job:

The timeline and how much we have to do.  This year we put up three musicals, two of which were almost Broadway scale, one of which is going to Broadway (The Bridges Of Madison County).  Normally for an out-of-town tryout for something like that you would have a larger sound department, a longer load-in and a longer tech.  Doing it here at Williamstown, you do it with less time and fewer people and your team isn’t comprised of stagehands who have been doing this for twenty years, so it’s high pressure at times.  That has been the most challenging part of this season, the sheer amount of stuff that the sound department had to do, with such a limited amount of people.

The most fun show to work on this season:

I have had a lot of fun listening to Ben Truppin-Brown and M.L Dogg’s sound design on Blood Play.  I think it is one of the most evocative sound designs we have had this summer.  It really helps to elevate the emotional investment in the play.  It is a little challenging because it is very disturbing at times.  But I think that really helps the play.

Blood Play
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

His advice for aspiring sound engineers:

Go out there and do it.  If you want something, put your eyes on it, set a goal.  Colleges and grad schools will only teach you so much. Because the technology changes so fast most sound students end up working with out of date gear in school, so a lot of the education young sound engineers get is in the real world, either at places like Williamstown, other internships, or the first job right out of college.

Don’t stop learning new things.  On every gig that you work on you should be paying attention to the things you don’t know how to do and learning how to do them – take notes.  You will always come up against things that are foreign to you and it is always good to add that knowledge to your arsenal.


Williamstown’s Take on the Drinks of Blood Play

Bartenders of the town took on The Debate Society’s Original drinks.  Taste them at the bars in town, then try them on your own with the recipes here!

See Blood Play through August 18th.  Get one of these drinks before or after the show!

From Hops and Vines: The RaPuPu Sour!

Photo by Paul Fox












From The Williams Inn, The Street Light 

Photo by Paul Fox












From The Red Herring, The Sidecar!

Photo by Paul Fox













Watch the bartenders make the drinks here:

Recipe graphics by Matthew Meier

Interview with The Debate Society (creators of Blood Play)

During their dinner break, between the end of tech and their first preview, the founders of The Debate Society sat down with me to talk about their formation, their creation process, and Blood Play. Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen are writer/performers, and Oliver Butler is the director.  Read highlights from our conversation below:

On becoming a company:

Paul: We have been a company for 10 years.  Well, we are coming up on our 10 year anniversary this spring.  Hannah and I went to Vassar College together and we wrote a play together for our senior thesis.  When we both ended up moving to NY, we decided that we wanted to do that play.  It was about a half-hour long play based on the writings of a Russian avant-garde poet named Daniil Kharms.  Oliver came to our reading of the play and that was where we first came together.  The three of us worked together to shape that play into a full-length play.

Hannah: We really liked that experience, and we wanted to work on another project together.  We needed an entity’s name for our second piece together.  So for the second project, Snow Hen, we decided to have a theatre company name.

Paul Thureen as “Jeep” in Blood Play
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

On choosing “The Debate Society:” 

H: We make lists in our process, it’s a brainstorming and writing technique that we do.  We made a list of good and bad theatre company names and found our favorite from that list.

Oliver: We had about a hundred!  We narrowed it down.

H: We wanted something that didn’t define our work.  That felt really us.  Now, almost 10 years later, I feel like we have grown into it and it has grown into us.

Hannah Bos as “Bev” in Blood Play
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Their creation process:

O: The three of us start with some idea of what we’re going to make a play about. Or three different things that we are interested in.  We meet and try to excite each other with those initial ideas, then we take those ideas and go away and do a lot of research and reading.  All three of us are exploring what at that moment excites the most, it’s a very intuitive process.  During that process we start creating stuff.  Hannah and Paul start writing very early, little snippets of a scene, a few words.  Like Hannah said we make these lists, we have an idea of what our focus is and where the play might be.  We make lists of what are the drinks in this world, what are the games in this world.  It is sort of this exercise that ends up helping us flesh out something that doesn’t exist before it exists.

H: It is sort of a simultaneous project.  We’re working with our designers early, we’re working on acting moments, we’re working on directing moments, we’re working on the vision, the feel, everything is coming in small bits from the beginning, so that at the end we sort of over-create and strip down to the play we end up creating.

P: Those lists of the drinks and the games are very specific.  In Blood Play, you’ll see those drinks and games that we created provide the detail to the world and are often created before the characters and plot.  Then near the end of our creation process, the last few months, it looks more like a traditional play, where we work more intellectually and dramaturgically, so it’s not all this intuitive process.  What we end up shaping it into is in the shape of a play, but it has hopefully these layers of detail from the time that we spent creating it.

Gail and Morty play Paper Bag Dramatics with an attentive Bev looking on
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

On the ideas that sparked Blood Play:

P: There were two ideas, which sometimes happens.   First, is set in Skokie, which is a suburb of Chicago, in the 1950s.  It’s sort of the area that Hannah is from, and Hannah’s family.  Hannah shared many of her grandmother’s stories.

H: My mom is from the Chicago-land area and there was a big move from the west and south side of Chicago when Jews moved to the northern suburbs.  So my Grandma and my mom and her family moved to Lincolnwood, and near the Skokie area, and I am from Evanston, so these sort of newly-formed suburbs outside of Chicago were sort of the American Dream for Jews in the early 50s, after World War II.  It was at this moment of being American. There were still large communities of Jews in this area, it just changed in the last few years, but it was sort of the heyday of this great Jewish suburb.

P: That was mashed up against all this research on Medieval Anti-Semitic beliefs, folk-tales, and blood libel.  How people cast other people as monsters, and feminization: people would feminize someone to weaken them.  We thought a lot about how Anti-Semitism passed through time, and the idea of using fear and fear-mongering.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

H: So we using these things that we did heavy dramaturgical work in and then also pulling on our own stories of our parents and our grandparents and their parental behavior, we have created this very funny, very dark, creepy, wild night that happens in a small neighborhood basement.

The best part of being at the Williamstown Theatre Festival:

H: The air.

O: The drugs. Just kidding

P: We haven’t done any drugs. Stay in school.

H: We’ve only been working since we got here. The air. The air is lovely. And the whole Williamstown Theatre Festival. Everyone is so supportive and so nice.

O: So many people taking care of you.  Plus, I know that not everyone this summer had the weather that we have had, but like cool nights.  You sleep so well.

P: It’s a great combination of a great place to be, great environment, and the support of the festival.  We have our designers here and our lighting designer was raving on Facebook today about the support he has with lighting interns and the staff of the theatre. This is a show we’ve done before and we were able to pop it in and do it really smoothly because of the staff here.

O: It looks better.  I have loved every run that we have done, but it absolutely looks the best here.  I love the space.  I love the theatre.  It’s a unique theatre for us, we never get to use this kind of theatre.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Their Advice for Aspiring Theatre Companies:

H: Be nice.

O: Be really nice to everyone, because the people that you work with way early on, end up, if they’re good, end up in really important positions later on.

P: Then care about every detail of what you do.  We run a company.  We make plays, but we also run a small business. So it’s caring as much about all of the other details as making the plays themselves.  Because you have to keep relationships going and do budgets and fundraising. Also, the big thing is ask for advice, find people who are a few years ahead of you, I mean we still do that…

O: Ask for very specific advice.  I feel that sometimes I talk to younger artists who are starting a company, and they sort of still in the: “Well, how do I do it?” phase, really general.  And the truth is, you should just be doing it, the way you think you need to do it and then you need to ask the smartest people you know for really specific ideas on how to solve really specific problems.

P: You have to do it your way.

O: “How do I raise money in December for a drama?”  It’s got to be super, super specific.

P: “How do you make a tour rider?”  Those are the types of things we still ask people.  And figure out your own way of doing it.


Paul Thureen and Hannah Bos in “Blood Play”
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

See Blood Play on the Nikos Stage through August 18th!  Hurry and get your tickets for this amazing show!


Day In the Life of WTF's Production Electrician

I followed Production Electrician, Gustavo Emilio Valdes ak.a. “Goose” around his day as he sent vans to NJ, met designers, advised interns, and more.  Going from place to place, he rarely gets a chance to sit at his desk and enjoy the light from his (appropriately) Fresnel “desk lamp.”  As WTF’s Production Electrician he is in charge of electrics for the Main and Nikos Stages as well as the Directing Studio (DA, DI, Fellowship Shows), and Goodrich (Cabarets and Apprentice Nights).   This includes being in charge of finances, basic planning of electrics, scheduling crews, and being a reference for his entire team.

The Lighting Team
(Goose is in the first row, far left)
Photo by Paul Fox

His Day:

He arrives at the office at 7:45.   As the good leader that he is, he has made sure to think of his team: bringing donuts and coffee to give the lighting team an extra boost of energy for a long focus day.  Focus day is the day that the show’s lighting designer comes in to direct the lighting crew to physically focus each of the show’s many lights to the specific location that is necessary for the show.  This can last anywhere between 6 hours for Blood Play to a day and a half for The Bridges of Madison County. 


He watches his team finish placing lights for Blood Play and acts as a reference.  

Each theatre has an assigned Master Electrician (M.E.), which allows Goose to supervise multiple stages. Nonetheless, he is always on radio and ready to act as a resource.


Today two apprentices will drive down to Secaucus, NJ to return a supplemental lighting set used for Johnny Baseball.  Goose prints directions, gives them petty cash for food and gas, and picks up the van.


The apprentices arrive. Goose, the apprentices and lighting crew load the roadboxes onto the van.


Goose introduces himself to the Blood Play lighting designer and offers himself as a reference.


He sits down with a lighting intern to talk through her electrics plan for the Fellowship Musical, offers advice, and finds out what he needs to order for her.


Orders lighting gels for Fellowship Musical.  Drives van to Mill (scene shop) to pick up other roadboxes.  Called to be a reference at multiple locations. Does paperwork.

The Fellowship Musical
Poster by Matt Meir


Lunch break


Attempts to do more paperwork.  Called to answer questions, etc.


5 PM is the end of the workday for most vendors, so after 5 his focus shifts to planning the next day for his crew.


While Monday is Equity “Dark” Day, there are often special MainStage events and Non-Equity shows on Monday, so it is hardly a quiet day for Goose.  Furthermore, this Monday they loaded-in the lights for Cabaret 3 into Goodrich.

The show call for the theatres starts at 5:30 so at this point he is a reference to his M.E.s  and the intern show operators, in case any last minute trouble shooting needs to happen.

7:30 or 8:00

(Curtain for Equity Shows, Curtain is variable for Non-Equity and special events)

Once the curtain goes up, he uses the relatively quiet time to catch up on e-mail, finances, scheduling, etc.

12:00 A.M.

The last things he does every night is attend the midnight production meeting of whatever show is currently in tech. Based on whatever is discussed he finalizes and distributes the next day’s intern schedule to his staff.

It is a long day, but he loves it.  Read our interview with him to hear about how he came to be WTF's Production Electrician and his favorite part of the job! 


Spotlight on WTF’s Production Electrician

Gustavo Emilio Valdes, a.k.a. “Goose” is a classic case of theatre in the blood, the product of two theatrical parents he was destined to go into theatre.  He started as musical theatre actor in middle school and was training that way until the unexpected quitting of the lighting designer in his freshman year of high school and his go-getter attitude lead him to him falling in love with lighting and training to become a professional lighting designer.

Part of his training included coming to Williamstown three years ago, as an electrics intern.  While originally against the idea of “putting so much effort into something and then throwing it away two weeks later” he grew to fall in love with this place and thrive in it.  He came back the next year as the Master Electrician of the MainStage and is back this year as Production Electrician a job that comes with more responsibility and even greater perspective.

The Lighting Team
(Goose is in the first row, far left)
Photo by Paul Fox

I talked to him about the good, the bad, and the ugly of being WTF’s P.E.

The Most Exciting Part of his job:

It is super rewarding to see those people who work for you succeed at their jobs.  The last two years I was one of those people. One of the best feelings is that moment when you impart that little bit of knowledge to someone, particularly someone who works for you for minimal pay, and you see that reward in their face, of “I did this right, and I have something to be proud of.”  That is definitely the best part.

The most challenging part of the job:

Not doing everything myself.  While my biggest skill is delegating, my biggest flaw is often not letting go.  If I see somebody doing something the wrong way, I want to just jump in and do it the right way.  I have had to learn how to take a different sort of ownership, learning to trust someone else to take what I have started and see it through its execution.

His advice for anyone looking to be WTF’s P.E.:

Positive attitude.  The job gets overwhelming really quickly here. [He made sure to note that the festival element of working at WTF meant more and different responsibilities than a Production Electrician generally has, so his answers are specifically geared towards this job.]  I, with the advice of the lighting supervisor, deal with financial matters and the scheduling of my crew, on top of actively being a resource in my department.  A lot of stuff is going to get dumped on you, if you are not ready to deal with it on your feet with a smile on your face even if you want to punch everyone around you, it’s not going to happen.


Michael Yeargan: "The Bridges of Madison County" Scenic Designer

On becoming a scenic designer:

That is sort of a long story!  But to make it really short… I grew up in Dallas in the late 50s, which was an amazing time for opera.  The Metropolitan Opera used to tour every spring.  They would bring four shows a year to Dallas.  I had a great music teacher in fourth grade who told us the stories of the operas and I thought that was really cool.  She said why don’t you make scenes from the operas in your mother’s shoeboxes?  And I did.  I made little sets that illustrated different scenes and I am still doing that today!

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

On Joining the Bridges Team:

Bart [Sher, Director], Cathy Zuber [Costume Designer], and Don Holder [Lighting Designer] and I have done a lot of work together. We’ve done South Pacific, Light in the Piazza, Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown.  I have known Bart since he was an associate at Harvard Stage Rep many years ago.  Because we have done so many shows together there is a certain vocabulary that we just have.  When you really know somebody you can relax and have a real conversation.  So he called me and he said this is next on the list, we’re doing The Bridges of Madison County.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

On approaching the show:

Everyone has a buildup of images in your mind, from all of the movies that you have seen, from all the plays that you have seen, from what’s happening the newspaper today.  When you read printed words on a page your mind automatically evokes certain images that relate to what. When you think about Iowa, what do you think about?  Cornfields, flat, Midwest, heartland.  When I think of those things I also think of Grant Wood, who was a great painter of the 30s captured the emptiness of the Midwest.  I think of Edward Hopper who captured the emptiness of the soul that is parallel to the emptiness of this space, when you think of Iowa and the flatness of it.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The script of The Bridges of Madison County jumps all over the place, in time, in space, so I knew that I was not going to build a realistic set.  There is no way you can shift it and do it.  You have to think of elements that evoke locations.  A kitchen cabinet, a kitchen table.  A screen door that squeaks and bangs when you close it.  We have all experienced that.  Those iconic images that you look at and know exactly what it suggests.  An icon in a church suggests whole religion.  Jesus on a cross with nails in his hands, one image connotes a whole history.  In a way, the banging screen door with paint peeling off of it and peanut butter on the handle can suggest a lifetime of someone’s experience.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

When you read the script you try to figure out the house she is describing.  There is an upstairs and a hallway in the script.  However if you have a two story set, it takes what is a very intimate conversation, the first one, between the mother and the daughter, way up there instead of right here.  Bart, who I think is a genius, has figured out how to move these things around.  It involves having the community on stage the whole time.  It’s like a film, with people moving and crossing before one scene is finished, you watch them cross wondering, and then the payoff is when they answer the phone.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

On the equation of a production:

It’s different for every play you do.  It’s different for every director.  If it had been a different director it would have been a different set.  It’s like a math equation: directors + designers + playwright + producer = production.  If you change one of those the production will be different.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

His advice for aspiring scenic designers:

Get a good life behind you.  If you have a passion for set design it’s going to be there.  You are going to design no matter what anyone tells you.  The best thing you can do is get a really good liberal arts undergraduate education, really know English, really know plays, really know history, study the history of architecture.  Go to Europe if you can. I spent a junior year abroad living in Madrid and traveling around Europe and it was indispensable.  When you graduate don’t immediately go to graduate school.  Bum around.  Go to Europe if you haven’t been. Work at Williamstown.  Find out if theatre is really the life you want.  It’s a hard life.  If you come here, the masochistic treatment of everyone staying up all night and then putting on the show [check out the "Overnight"], it’s the best preparation.  You do that and then you go to a good graduate school.  A good scenic designer is almost like a director, that’s the secret.   Then when you talk to them you know what he/she is going through, you know what that experience is like.  You can enter into it and you can help them.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

So, I think the best thing is to get that solid undergraduate education and also just start drawing.  [pointing] Draw that cup of coffee, draw that roll of paper.  Don’t feel like you have to draw buildings. Draw mundane things, so that you are aware that for some reason this bulletin board is crooked on this table. Which you would never notice if you hadn’t been drawing it, you would just accept it.  “That porch has a sag to it, because it is a hundred years old.  It wasn’t built yesterday.”  All of those little things tell a story.

See The Bridges Of Madison County on the MainStage until August 18th! 


Building "Bridges" [Extended Edition]

You read the interview in the program and wanted more JRB and MN.  The blog has got you covered!

Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown

Between rehearsals for The Bridges of Madison County, WTF’s Literary Intern, Skyler Gray, sat down with creators Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman to talk about their new production.

SKYLER GRAY: What do you look for in a successful collaborator?


MARSHA NORMAN: Yes, trust. Also, the fact that the other person can play at your level. You don’t want to be covering for your partner.

JRB: There is such a comfort, I think, with Marsha and me knowing that one of us isn’t always washing the other’s dishes.

MN: We can write characters that can speak and sing in the same voice. I think that is a real gift.

JRB: What doesn’t matter for a collaboration is a similarity in background or personality. I don’t think Marsha and I are similar in that respect, and in background we aren’t similar at all. But, that couldn’t matter less. A collaboration relies on being able to speak a mutual language as far as a theatrical venue is concerned. I mean, we are going to be writing a piece that is going to show up on the stage and we know how to speak the same language and it works.

MN: Yes, so you end up writing in the same show. That is also true of other members of the team. I mean, the director has to be doing the same show. And the costumers and scenic designers—everybody has to be doing the same show. This is why so many musicals are based on underlying material. There are so few original musicals, because you can’t even begin to imagine the arguments that occur when you are writing a show and there is no material underneath. This is like trying to go across the Brooklyn Bridge with no bridge, right? You need the bridge. What is crucial for the whole team is an understanding of where we are going.

Steven Pasquale and Elena Shaddow take a moment, while Bartlett Sher (Director) talks to other cast members
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

SG: How did your writing partnership come about?

JRB: We both got called to interview for a terrible show.

MN: Which cannot be named.

JRB: After the meeting, I E-mailed Marsha and said, “That was the most ridiculous meeting in the world.” And she said, “While we are talking, I have this commission at The Kennedy Center for an orchestra piece for family audiences based on the EB White novel, The Trumpet of the Swan. Do you want to do it with me?” We started writing Trumpet of the Swan and had an awesomely good time together.

MN: It is a beautiful, stunning piece.

JRB: And we had such a good time doing it that we said we have to write something together. What I wanted to write was like La Traviata, where the people sing with that much passion. Then I got a call from Marsha’s agent–

MN: And he said, “Marsha got a call about doing The Bridges of Madison County, and Marsha says that you are her choice to do this with her. She believes that this is the La Traviata that you have been waiting for.”

JRB: So I called Marsha and said, “Sure. I mean, I don’t know. Can we do it?” Marsha said, “Yes, we can do this. I think it is going to be great.” I trust Marsha implicitly.

MN: Right.

JRB: Basically, that is my rule and it has gotten me through this life: trust Marsha implicitly.

MN: The trust is so mutual. I trust that Jason can just knock it out of the park and he trusts that I can do the same. That is a really, really great feeling to be working with a real partner that really knows his stuff.

SG: That brings me to my next question: Marsha, you have adapted quite a few novels for the stage, what is the key to your success? How do you bring these iconic characters to life and keep the story fresh?

MN: Well the adaptation key phrase is: you don’t cut up a sofa to make a chair. Right?

SG: I like that.

MN: In other words, you don’t start with the original and somehow try to chop it in half and paste some stuff. You try to find the tiny ticking heart of the thing. What is it that makes people love it?- What is it that makes people want to see it again? You have to do the work of finding the heart of the show and then you can build around that. You can expand characters that don’t have enough stage time or characters that need to be brought forward. In The Color Purple and The Secret Gardenthere are characters that appear in the first scene and then aren’t seen again until the final few pages. So, what you have to do is keep characters alive throughout. Those are just the tricks of adaptation. The secret to my success in adaptation is that I have chosen pieces in which I had a real vested interest. I was somehow or other that trapped girl in the story. Whenever I write trapped girls, I am able to understand them. Every writer has something they write best. That is why they wanted to be a writer, so they could write about that. You can be good when you are writing outside of yourself, but you can’t be great.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

SG: When you began working on The Bridges of Madison County, did you turn to the novel or the movie?

JRB: I have never seen the movie.

MN: I didn’t watch the movie until I had finished my first draft. The movie uses an entirely different vocabulary than the musical. They use close ups, they use scenery–

JRB: They use famous people.

MN:–they use famous people. But we had to find a different way to tell the story. We have exquisite tools in terms of music, specifically Jason’s music. It puts us way far ahead of the movie in terms of what we can say emotionally.

JRB: I think doing The Bridges of Madison County as a musical is the best way to realize this particular story. [Novelist] James Waller uses a very expansive and poetic vocabulary to keep giving emotional life to his characters, but music can do that in a single note.

MN: In the musical these two great voices sing until you think they can’t take another breath. There is a limit to what you can do with text. I mean, I worked in text for a long time, successfully, but—

JRB: Yeah, you did okay.

MN:  —there are things that I cannot do in plays. If I say: “I love you,” in text, then it is your turn and you have to say, “Oh, I love you too,” or, “I have to go now.” But, in a musical you can say: “If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way. Round in circles I’d go. Longing to tell you, but afraid and shy. I’d let my golden fancies pass me by. If I loved you.” This great feeling of wondering if you are about to be in love with someone, you can’t say that in text. Not in English, maybe French. But in music you can say that for four and a half minutes. Now, Curly comes out on stage and says, “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” The audience sits there and says: “Yes, that is what it feels like to walk outside on a great day and be happy to be alive on the planet.”

JRB:If it is a song, an audience wants more of it. If he walked out onstage and said, “Oh, what a beautiful morning,” we’d be like great, let’s keep moving. But, with music they want to live in it. You feel them want to keep going.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

SG: Can you give us an insight into what drives Francesca to engage in this love affair?

MN: Robert James Waller initially identified Francesca as Neapolitan. Bud rescued her from the war and brought her back to Iowa. So there she is in Iowa, but Waller doesn’t really go into her history and we have really taken that on. What did it mean to come from Naples, the most bombed city of the Second World War, to Iowa? When people are in the midst of incredible destruction and just leave, they have this relationship to their destroyed past. She has a really broken heart about her past and she can’t really get better until she falls in love with this man, I believe. I mean, we haven’t presented it that way, but I believe that loving Robert Kincaid somehow allows her to tell the story of her past in a way that she’s never been able to.

JRB: The novel feels to me like it skews towards Robert Kincaid’s story, you know, it feels like it is largely about him and the effect that this event had on him. But as far as Marsha and I were concerned, his story was not as important as Francesca’s. We wanted to find out what this experience was like for this woman who was under extraordinary circumstances, stuck in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. She is the most active member of the story. You know, he travels around and this adventure is not unlike other adventures that we presume that he has had. She has nothing like this in her life and that was the thing that sings. Finding the balance between those two characters has really been a big part of our job. Also, they are both outsiders, and it was very important that we understand just how far outside this town they both are. It’s not enough that she has an accent, it’s more than that, she’s got a whole different set of values and life experiences that she largely hides while she’s in this particular community.

MN: She even hides them from her family. She has been very careful about what she’s let her family know about her history. I think it’s typical of people who come from a country that’s been destroyed to feel the shame of that personally, even though she was not responsible for the Second World War. She is so beautiful and has a voice that you cannot believe, yet inside that heart is this pain that is just pulsing and waiting to be unlocked by this man. He’s taking pictures of it all and putting them back together. We invented this as a way for them to connect through his photographic skills. He has taken these pictures of reconstructed Naples for the National Geographic and puts them back together for her. They are both speaking a common language of recovery and loss.

Photo by Paul Fox

SG: What inspired you to expand the secondary characters for the musical?

JRB: I can answer this on my end. If you’re going to have someone sing for three-and-a-half minutes, you have to know what’s going on with them. We had to fill this world and understand the stakes of it. Francesca’s husband and children are in the book. But, Marsha’s most delightful invention is the next door neighbors, Marge and Charlie. I take credit for throwing the ex-wife into the show. Chiara, Francesca’s older sister, was really a mutual decision on our part. Once you give anybody a name, you have to make it worth it. The people who have an impact on the story have to be real.

MN: Marge and Charlie were really important in our original concept. They are the world; they are the eyes of society. Marge happens to be extraordinarily compassionate and very funny. We also have Cass Morgan to model this character on. Cass was in the workshop and as she got funnier and funnier, the character got larger and—

JRB: It’s now actually her show. It’s called the Marges of Madison County.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

MN: (Laughs) All great musicals have two couples: you know, they have A and B couples. Marge and Charlie are the B couple in this story. The reason that you have a secondary couple is to pass the time. You have to be able to go to the secondary couple in order to make it clear that a week or a month or a day has gone by, otherwise you’re just stuck staring at these lovers. You know they are lovers from the minute you see them and you can’t just go on having them be more and more in love all the way to the end. You have to stop and give them obstacles and have other things happen.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

JRB: That’s why The Last Five Years is such a wacky show. In order to deal with the fact that I’ve only got two people all night long, I have to keep swapping them around and messing with the time. Otherwise, it would be like: “Yeah, we get it, you’re a couple, good, move on.” I never need to write another show with only two people in it.

MN: No, no, no. It’s really hard.

JRB: That’s one success story I’ve fully accomplished. Check that off the list. That’s done.

SG: Can you explain the development process leading to the WTF production?

MN: I called Jason in 2009.

JRB: I started writing in the summer of 2010.

MN: Right. But we had a producer.

JRB and MN: We picked the producer that we wanted.

JRB: Which has been the biggest blessing of the entire process because I really feel like we have been supported and guided by people who want the same show that we are doing. I’ve never had that in my life, so that’s a miracle. And then we had this fantastic two-week boondoggle on Saint Bart’s that Marsha managed—

MN: I won it in a—

SG: You won it?!

MN: I won it. I had great luck with winning it at an auction.

JRB: It was just unbelievable, so we were in this villa with a recording studio.

MN: Villa Rockstar.

JRB: I had already written two of the songs and I wrote five more in the two weeks we were there. I came home and then we did a reading of the first act. Kelli O’Hara was in all of the readings we did. Seven months later we did a reading of the first act with a lot of changes. Then we did one very important reading about a year after that with a draft of the whole show. This past January we did one more workshop to remind ourselves what was still ahead of us.

MN: And then we worked like crazy people for the last month.

JRB: It actually wasn’t very long in terms of a standard development process. It feels like it’s been a pretty long drive because we’ve known from the beginning what show we wanted to write. I will say that every time we’ve done a reading, we find ways to deepen it and sharpen it. Bartlett Sher has been so incisive; he doesn’t change what we’re doing, he brings it to life. It is exactly what you want a director to do with your material. Bart finds what is in there and interprets it in such a way that it comes alive. I keep saying: “I wouldn’t have known how to do that myself, but that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

SG: What are you most excited to discover with the world premiere here at WTF?

JRB: I think Williamstown is a vital part of the process. I’ve done shows several times where you go to Broadway without having had a chance to really know what you’ve got. We’re going to have an opportunity to really feel our way through this material. It’s such a luxury to have an audience that is so used to seeing new work and just being part of a process. I’m very proud and honored that we get to be part of the history of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Marsha Norman | Book

Marsha Norman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ’night Mother, playwright and co-chair of

Playwriting at Juilliard. She won a Tony Award for The Secret Garden, and another nomination

for The Color Purple. Her first play, Getting Out, received the John Gassner Playwriting Medallion, the Newsday Oppenheimer Award, and a citation from the American Critics Association. Other plays include The Laundromat, The Pool Hall, Loving Daniel Boone, Trudy Blue, Last Dance, and The Master Butcher’s Singing Club. She has also worked extensively in television and film and has an upcoming play for the UN about trafficking and violence toward women. She is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a former advisory member of the Sewanee Writers Conference, and former Vice President of The Dramatists Guild of America. She is a founder of the Lilly Awards and current judge of the Yale Prize. Most recently, Ms. Norman received the Inge Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.

Jason Robert Brown | Composer, lyricist, Orchestrations

Major works for the theatre include Songs for a New World (Off B’way), Parade (B’way and

Donmar Warehouse, London; Tony Award, Best Score); The Last Five Years (Off B’way; Drama Desk Awards, Outstanding Music & Lyrics); 13 (B’way and West End). Other works include Trumpet of the Swan (written with Marsha Norman; National Symphony Orchestra). Jason also tours the world as a singer and pianist and leader of the Caucasian Rhythm Kings, with whom he recorded the CD Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes. His scores, including The Jason Robert Brown Collection, are published by Hal Leonard. Mr. Brown is a former faculty member of the USC School of Dramatic Arts and Emerson College. Upcoming: Honeymoon In Vegas this fall at Paper Mill Playhouse, and the film of The Last Five Years to be released in 2014.


The Directing Interns: Excitement and Advice

The Directing Interns were such fountains of wisdom that I had to break their interview into two segments.  The first one focused on why they came and what they have done. (check it out!)  This one centers on their favorite parts of the program and their advice for DI hopefuls. Read on!

Photo by Paul Fox

The Most Exciting Part of the Program:

Rachel:  For me it’s been getting to direct the apprentice actors.  On the first day, we saw 68 monologues.  The apprentices don’t audition to come here, they just apply, so I think all of us were sort of expecting there to be one sort of “hot mess train wreck” and there were zero.  We were blown away by this pool of talent that we have to pull from.  Really getting to know them and know what their strengths are as actors, it’s been really cool.  Then to work with them to get the performances out of them that we want to have happen and to see them blossom has been great.

Logan: For me it’s meeting the fellow directors. A lot of directors that I have worked with in NY, will always be say, “We don’t have any director friends.”  They are working in a bubble.  They don’t have any other director come in and critique them or push them beyond what they can do.  That has been the critical thing that we have formed, within the DIs and DAs.  We all have each other to come in and say, “Oh my gosh, this moment is great! But what if this happened?”  We have this comradery, where we can push each other, because know each other really well. We all have different aesthetics and different ways of doing things. So I think really meeting your fellow collaborators and directors that you know you will be working with in the future.

Photo by Paul Fox

Rachel: There is so much supportiveness amongst the six of us.  I was in a place where I had to entirely re-stage my DI-2 project over the course of two rehearsals and I was losing my mind. Gabe and Lila and Michael sat down on the floor and helped me work through it on paper.

Gabe: There is an amazing amount of trust.

Photo by Paul Fox

Katie: I am going to echo everything that everyone else said about being part of an ensemble company.  They took us out to this lovely dinner together in NY, which again sets this program apart from other programs where they just say, “Show up!” and you have no idea what to expect.  They took us to this dinner and we all met each other and they said over and over these are your collaborators, this is your new family, this is an ensemble company, you are going to work with each other forever and ever, and I will admit that I was thinking “that sounds nice, but yeah right.”  Almost all the way through, it is so beyond true, and meaningful, and heartwarming what they said actually has happened.  I think my happiest times are when our shows go up. Then we see this night of energy and passion talent all culminating together.  That is my favorite part, seeing everything coming together to soar.

Gabe: For me it has nothing to do with directing.  I had this sort of step outside of myself moment in Hapgood, during one of the performances.  Seventeen doors were the set of Hapgood.  They all move on wheels and they are spin around moved by nine apprentices and three non-eqs.  I realized that the apprentices really have no incentive to haul butt and make these door move in a timely efficient manner on the music to get into the next scene.  Aside from self-satisfaction. the desire to make this show incredible.  That is amazing.  It doesn’t translate into jobs, they don’t get paid, they just want Hapgood to be really good, every single night.  That spirit has fueled me and I think will continue after this is over.

Lila: I would echo what Logan said about being in an ensemble of directors.   It’s not only that there is this instantaneous support and trust.  If someone in the Directing Corps says something to me, then I know for sure that it is true and that I should listen to them.  Which in a lot of places is a hard thing to build.  All of the Directing Interns and Directing Apprentices are really, really different and I think that everything that I have seen has been something that no one else would direct in just that way.  That has also been really exciting and I think that that has fostered the lack of competition, because no one is elbowing everyone else out to be the “whatever.”  I guess that would be feminist comedy in our place.  We do a lot of feminist comedy in this group.

Katie: There is no limit on feminist comedy.  We can do as much as we want… 

Photo by Paul Fox

Michael: Having an ensemble of directors is incredible. Being a director is lonely. For me, it makes perfect sense for directors to have other artists who live outside of the performance, to clash against, have a whiskey with, cry on each other' shoulder. Also, when I saw the opening night of Free Theatre, my heart was warmed in a way that I had not felt in a while. The set was made of recycled WTF sets and the actors were busting their balls in the sweaty heat and mosquitoes. The end product was a piece of theatre free for the community for two weeks. That is amazing.

Katie: I have these moments where I see the big picture of where we are and what we have been doing.  Every day is like four days of life.  There is no other place like this, where you are just around people making theatre, (which you could probably not sustain itself longer than the summer). People care so much and work so hard, in the beauty of this wonderful place with green mountains.

Photo by Paul Fox

Their Advice for Potential Directing Interns:

Lila: It is important to not come here for any one thing.  Your assistantship is super variable depending on the show and the director and the cast.  Who and what your process is.  Your DI project is super variable from DI show to DI show. Based on a gazillion things, like how many of your actors are in 500 crews and doing 16 overnights in a row.  I am exaggerating, but not by that much.  And your play is dependant on whether your play fits into the night that the Workshop office is curating.  If you come here saying, “I’m going to be best friends with this director that I am assisting and direct X, Y, and Z plays with the most amazing actors that I have ever seen, that is unrealistic.”  We are each one cog in a giant moving machine….we are really like half a cog.  You have to come here with this attitude of I am not always going to get what I think I want to get and you have to just be ready to run with it.  You just have to be able to fly with whatever comes your way

Katie: The educational environment is very true.  The education is non-stop and in all forms: social, creative, logistical—all the time.  I had to apply more than once, and I am very glad that I am here now as opposed to a couple of years ago.  Having the distance from the educational environment of college and coming here was very helpful because I appreciate it so much more.  I think it is really good to be you in the application.  I think they picked so many different ranges of experience and creative vision, but also different kinds of people.

Photo by Paul Fox

Logan: If you think that you have reached your pinnacle as a director or actor, don’t apply to this program.  If you come to have a relaxing summer, with greenery and trees, and do theatre sometimes, don’t come here.  You come here to be pushed, you come here to be challenged, to do things that you never thought you would be able to do.  You should leave here saying, “I did not think that I could do that every single day.  Have that much strength, have that much creativity, and you did.  That is what we are here for. That is what your fellow directors are for, that is what the apprentices are for, that is what the workshop is for.  You have your expectations and this place helps you exceed them.  If you want to see how far you can go, apply to this program.

Rachel: Be a good collaborator.  Be the person that lies on the floor and helps them re-stage their play, bake the cake for someone on their birthday.  Be a good collaborator in life, not just in the rehearsal room.  Be the person to ask “how are you,?” to smile, to hug people, and to be there for moral support. 

This place is a great bootcamp for directing in NY.  Here and in NY, and in life, you are not entitled to anything.  You have to do things yourself and take initiative.  If you do that, if you do things that are “beneath you,” if you help people they will remember, 5 years from now and 10 years from now.  So be on board for whatever. 

Photo by Paul Fox

Michael: Remember that the art is twofold.  It is both the product that you produce and the process you are part of.  The whole philosophy of the place is “Let’s do the impossible.”  It means sometimes you are slapping things together, but it’s the act of slapping things together that teaches you. It is a wonderful, infuriating, important exercise as a director to put your work in front of an audience and not feel amazing about every single thing.  Because you are never going to feel amazing about every single thing.

Katie: We had a master class with a Broadway designer.  In a nutshell what he said is: “What you do as directors is about courage and vision.”  This place demands both of those things in great quantities.  If you are looking for an opportunity to do both of those things there are few places like this place to do that. 

Gabe:  And to have your ego deflated.  In a good way, which is good for directors.

Katie: All day, everyday.

See the final DI show on August 9th!

N.B. If you are thinking about applying to be a DI, this year's DIs recommend asking Laura Savia, the Workshop Director to talk to a former DI.


Thomas Murray: BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY Music Director

I sat down with Thomas Murray to learn about what he does.  The following are highlights from our great conversation!

What he does:

It's easy to say “I teach the actors the music” or “I conduct the show”.  But at the big-picture level, my job is to help the composer (in this case of Jason Robert Brown) realize his vision for the music of the show.  At the earliest stages, this involves helping him get the ideas from his head on to the page.  At the final stages, it's about getting the ideas back off the page and into everyone else's head: the actors, the musicians…and ultimately the audience.  Hopefully by the time it's all done, we've successfully made that leap from Jason's imagination to everyone's.

Photo by Paul Fox

How he joined The Bridges of Madison County team:

I've worked for Jason for about 15 years now, music directing various projects.  This one came around and he asked if I wanted to do it.  Needless to say, it wasn't a very hard decision to make.

Becoming Jason Robert Brown’s music director:

I did the first production of Songs For A New World outside of New York.  I was in communication with Jason a lot about the show, because the materials weren’t completely published yet, so I had a lot of questions.  He came and saw the production.  This was right around the time that Parade was being done at Lincoln Center in New York.  I wasn’t involved with that production, but when it went on tour he asked me to be his associate music director.  He would be conducting, but was not able to be there the whole run.  I agreed.  Then, while we were on tour with Parade, he was writing The Last Five Years, which was going to premiere in Chicago.  I lived in Chicago at the time and he asked me if I wanted to music direct that.  I said yes and it’s been a great working relationship since.


The process, in our case, is he will work with Marsha Norman, or whoever is the book writer of the show, and he’ll compose the songs and make demo recordings.  Then I’ll transcribe them onto paper.  He can do that, but it is more productive for him to spend his time composing and have me do some of the legwork.  Then I send it back to him to jigger and tweak and all that stuff and then it’s on the page and we’ll go from there.

The next stage is usually a workshop setting, where we'll teach the music to actors, and he'll start working out the piano part through rehearsal.  I’ll start noting down what he does on the piano and write a rough roadmap to remind him what he's done.   Then, when the show goes into full production (or perhaps a more full-fledged demo is made), he’ll compose and write a complete arrangement, usually every note of the piano part (Jason is well known – sometimes feared – for his piano parts).  At that point the arrangement of the song is basically done.  Since he is such an accomplished musician, he doesn’t need a music director to tell him how it will work on stage or to figure out the mechanics.  I spend more time with the director and actors, and tell him when we need more time for a scene change or something, then he’ll adjust the material or put together some new music.  For other composers, music directors might be asked to do vocal arrangements or write scene change music, etc…  Jason likes to be much more involved at every stage of the music creation.

Photo by Paul Fox

The most thrilling part of his job:

Running the show.  Getting it in front of an audience, and making it work.


One of the most challenging parts is staying focused in rehearsals.  They are often slow, and you need to maintain a high level of focus to do your best work.

Also, the Sitzprobe.  It’s three to four hour rehearsal with singers and orchestra together for the first time.  The cast loves it because they get to hear the orchestra for the first time.  It is my least favorite rehearsal, because you are putting together actors who have spent four weeks with a piece, with musicians, who have spent ten hours (as a group) with a piece.  So you have people who know it really well with those who don’t know it as well.  It can get tense trying to facilitate that.

Photo by Paul Fox

His Advice For Aspiring Music Directors:

Get used to listening.  Get used to understanding how the director works.  Don't go in assuming you know what the job is.  Every composer is different and has different needs.  You are the lynchpin, responsible for meshing it all.  What you teach the singers musically has to integrate with what both the director and the composer want them to do.  Especially in Jason’s music, it is very important for the actors to combine the singing and the acting.

I think the key for music directors is learning to listen.  Plain and simple.

Photo by Paul Fox

See The Bridges of Madison County on the MainStage August 1st to August 18th!