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VIP ACCESS: Top Tips for Visiting the Williamstown Theatre Festival

July 27th, 2011

Every fourth Wednesday of the month, the “VIP Access” column will serve up advice on how to make your theater-going experiences cheaper, easier and more fulfilling with inside scoop from the experts. This month, we’re getting the heck out of this hot, steamy urban sprawl and heading to a little slice of heaven…

Sheep Hill, Williamstown. Image via Union & Field.

Each summer for 57 years, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has attracted loyal audience members and top-tier theatrical talent to a tiny, isolated corner of Massachusetts. How do they do it? Visit once and you’ll understand. Beyond the exceptional diversity of the festival itself, the surrounding area provides the perfect mixture of artistic excellence and natural beauty, total relaxation and active pursuits. And did I mention it tends to be about 10 degrees cooler than New York City?

So let’s get to a few quick tips to make the most of your visit:

Steven Weber. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

THE FESTIVAL: Come June of each year, the campus of Williams College begins to feel like Broadway North as boatloads of theater artists descend on this bucolic Berkshire’s community. From seasoned talent to young apprentices (the apprentice program is the festival’s “secret” weapon; the students in the training program are talented, enthusiastic…and cheap labor), there’s a real sense that art is being created around every corner. The 2011 season marks the first for new Artistic Director Jenny Girsten and she’s pouring on the star-power at the two primary venues (the Main Stage and the Nikos Stage). I caught the haunting revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels, performed with delicate, heartbreaking nuance by Steven Weber and Maura Tierney. Right next door, Justin Long, Ari Graynor and Mark Lynn Baker were diving headlong into comedian Lewis Black’s new farce One Small Hitch.

Although those two shows just finished their runs, the summer is far from over. I’m particularly intrigued to hear about recent Tony-nominee Lily Rabe’s Nora in A Doll’s House opposite Josh Hamilton; this young, modern take on the Ibsen classic runs throgh July 31. An A-list of comic talent including Brooks Ashmanskas, Richard Easton and the divine Kristine Nielsen collide in the naughty 18th century romp She Stoops to Conquer July 27 – August 7. For those craving a musical, how about Malcolm Gets, Donna McKechnie and Lauren Molina in a new Rogers and Hart show, Ten Cents a Dance, conceived and directed by John Doyle (hmm, will there be actors playing instruments in his signature style?). Honestly, I recommend that you choose when you want to go and just buy tickets for whatever happens to be up at the time; the joy of discovery is half the fun at Williamstown–whether it’s a fully-fleshed production or one of the many readings and workshops happening all over campus. (One last hint: when I was there working on a musical for a summer, the best shows were always the Late Night Cabarets. Apprentices and big stars let down their hair for a rollicking night of song and comedy that is unpredicatable, delightfully underrehearsed and absolutely unmissable.)

GETTING THERE: I think one of the biggest reasons that Williamstown is such a joy is that it’s a little too far away for day trippers (goodness, I sound like my grandfather there…got to keep out the riff raff). Peter Pan/Bonanza offer bus service out of New York (5 hours/$100 round trip) but to experience the area fully, I suggest you rent a car. The WTF website offers very comprehensive driving directions (their copywriter is seriously obsessive compulsive and in need of a Xanex). However, for New Yorkers, I’d skip the Taconic Parkway route they suggest and go for a more winding “locals-only” path (I684 to 22 then into town via 43).  My partner Travis and I were delighted by the winding roads and quiet towns along the way and , best of all, in exchange for making the drive a little longer (3.5 instead of 3 hours on a good traffic day), you can stop halfway in Millerton, a sweetly picturesque village with a few shops and restaurants including the Harney & Sons Tea Tasting Lounge and Cafe.

Travis gets playful at the Sol LeWitt exhibit. Photo by Tom Mizer.

TO DO: You come for the theater; you stay for the Berkshire’s experience. Right in Williamstown, The Clark Art Institute is a perfect example of this special brew. A world class museum with a beautiful collection of masterworks, it also features an active research wing, adventurous changing exhibitions (I loved the current display of El Anatsui’s gorgeously unreal, sculptured “cloths” made from bottle caps) and a web of well-maintained nature trails that start from its back door. A short drive away in North Adams, MASS MoCa nearly vibrates with forward thinking art (from all mediums) inside a cavernous abandoned factory complex. The current exhibitions are an exuberant mixture of color, graphic excitement and deeply felt exploration that even those leary of “modern art” will find enveloping. In particular, I was astonished by the eye-popping wall drawings of Sol LeWitt and Travis was nearly giddy at the sight of Katharina Grosse’s enormous candy-colored three-dimensional landscapes.

There’s so much to do inside, that one can almost forget that the Berkshires are a natural playground as well. Make friends with a local and they’ll point the way to a number of “secret” swimming holes and biking trails. We decided to do some hiking, first with a gentle trip to The Cascades, a 40ft waterfall easily accessible from North Adams, then later the very intense “Class of 33″ Berlin Mountain trail (ie. I nearly staged a mutiny against nature-boy Travis after an hour of stairmaster-like ascent). Check out Hikes and Walks in the Berkshire Hills by Lauren R. Stevens for further info. (One hint: bring lots of bug spray; the mosquitoes are fiesty in them th’ar hills.)

Small Sur at Sheep Hill. Image via Union & Field.

Our final night in town was the perfect emblem of the Williamstown experience. On one of our hikes, Tim Nazzaro, co-founder of the local arts salon Union & Field, just happened to pass by and (deciding we looked like OK guys despite our preppy hiking attire) ended up inviting us to a concert. As dusk began to fall, we arrived at the postcard-perfect farm at Sheep Hill where a small collection of friends and MASS MoCa artists arrived to share some food, drink and good music. By the time the stars were out, we were tucked into a barn listening to Small Sur, a mellow folk trio from Baltimore, as they serenaded us with gorgeously wrought songs of bittersweet love and the natural world’s embrace. Art, friendly people and the great outdoors; that’s Williamstown.

Blackinton Manor. Photo by Bob Chalmers.

LODGING: This was my first time not staying in the dorms (praise Budda) so my insider knowledge of accommodations is limited to what I’ve heard and the one place we stayed–though we ended up picking a gem. Blackinton Manor is a quiet, traditional (but not heavy on the doilies) bed & breakfast located right over the border from Williamstown in North Adams and just a short walk from the Appalachian trail–perfect if you’re planning to explore beyond the festival. Hosts Paul & Laura are attentive but respectful, the rooms are large and welcoming, and the breakfasts live up to their headline billing; the blueberry pancakes were so nutty and light, I could almost pretend they were good for me. As for other options, the buzz is good for the hipster home-away-from-home Porches Inn in North Adams and the ever-blossoming complex of inns affiliated with the 1896 House.

EATING: Speaking of pancakes (even typing the word makes me happy), you can’t make a trip to Williamstown without heading North to Bennington, Vermont for a stack at Blue Benn Diner. A classic converted railcar restaurant with jukeboxes on the tables, it’s worth the half hour drive and the wait for a booth. Just don’t be surprised to find yourself standing in line with the cast of a show you saw the night before. A short walk from the theaters on the main commercial strip in Williamstown, Spice Root (Indian) and Sushi Thai Garden are surprisingly tasty, convenient and well-priced options. For higher end choices, theatre regulars recommend the meat and potatoes of Hobson’s Choice and young, trendy locals flock to the upscale dining and drinks at Mezze. And I never miss a chance (twice in three days) to get premium ice cream at Lickety Split, a true classic.

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