Last winter, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and artistic director Mandy Greenfield were riding high. The Berkshires theater has become a key pipeline for productions pointed to New York City and beyond, and a record number of Festival-birthed shows were scheduled to debut on and off Broadway in the 2019-2020 season, including the Tony-nominated “The Sound Inside” starring Mary-Louise Parker and “Grand Horizons” with Jane Alexander.
Then the pandemic hit, and what should have been a capstone summer season got scuttled. But instead of simply turning on the ghost light and waiting for live theater to return, Greenfield has pivoted to produce her full season of seven shows in an entirely different format, via an unprecedented collaboration with the theater division of Audible, the podcast and audiobook giant.
It took a while to get rolling, but audio versions of three plays are now available for listening, with four more to be unfurled in the coming weeks. “[It’s] been nothing short of exhilarating and exhausting. We hit roadblocks and obstacles nearly every step of the way,” Greenfield says. “That we’ve done them at all really is a testament to the strength and resilience of artists.”
Rehearsals took place virtually, and the performers recorded their parts from home using kits provided by Audible. Many toiled from the insides of clothes-filled closets and had to grapple with the homebound distractions of rambunctious children and the honking of car horns and grinding of lawn mowers.
“When we first announced that we were making this season with Audible, you’d hear people saying things like, ‘Oh, you’re going to record them.’ As though that’s easy,” Greenfield says with a laugh. “You already have the complexity of doing [everything] virtually. But then you add in the challenge of translating a play into an audio format that was meant to happen in three dimensions. So now things that you can no longer see have to somehow be communicated through language or sound.
“But these artists are so nimble,” she adds. “They were able to block out the noise, but also let in some of the noise of the universe to fuel them in making this work.”
Audible subscribers can already listen to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Broadway superstar Audra McDonald and Carla Gugino as sisters Blanche and Stella; and Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” in which Anna Chlumsky plays pioneering British chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose work during the early 1950s was essential to untangling the mysteries of DNA.
Debuting last week, Stacy Osei-Kuffour’s world premiere “Animals” centers on a dinner party involving two interracial couples that nearly goes up in flames after Henry (Jason Butler Harner) spontaneously proposes marriage to Lydia (Aja Naomi King) right before the guests arrive. Long-unspoken resentments and recriminations start flowing as freely as the wine.
Next up, to be released Dec. 29, is trans writer and actor Shakina Nayfack’s buoyant comedy “Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club.” Nayfack plays Kina, who’s all alone in Thailand as she prepares for her gender confirmation surgery, until she meets a gaggle of lively new friends (played by Angelica Ross of “Pose” and Kate Bornstein, among others) to help her through the life-changing experience.
On tap for early 2021: Sanaz Toossi’s “Wish You Were Here” tells the story of group of female friends as they prepare for a wedding while the Iranian Revolution threatens to alter the course of their lives. A revival of Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue,” which debuted at Williamstown in 2015, features Blair Underwood as a jazz club owner who must reckon with his troubled past and racist city policies in the Black Bottom neighborhood of 1949 Detroit. Simone Missick (“All Rise”) and Andre Holland (“Moonlight”) costar. Finally, the world premiere musical “Row,” with a book by Daniel Goldstein (“Unknown Soldier”) and music and lyrics by Dawn Landes, chronicles the true story of Tori Murden McClure and her quest to become the first female to row solo across the Atlantic.
The project, says Audible Theater artistic producer Kate Navin, is the first time an entire theatrical season will be produced by the service. Greenfield hopes the audio plays “wind up being valuable and nourishing to audiences.”
“We’re not in the same space, but there are listeners all over the world connected through these seven productions,” she says. “That’s audience. That’s community. That’s a shared theatrical experience. And that matters.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.