The Williamstown Theater Festival has been grappling with the same dilemma facing every performing arts organization during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: Public health concerns have made it difficult to imagine — or plan — an ordinary summer.
But the prestigious nonprofit, known for an annual summer season that for decades has drawn a stream of A-list artists to Western Massachusetts, determined not to simply join the parade of cancellations this year.
So, in a bold attempt to salvage its shows, the festival is taking an unusual step: it has decided to develop, rehearse, and record all seven of its planned productions and release them in audio form on Audible.
The productions — which include the world premiere of a new musical — will feature the same performers that would have appeared onstage, including Dylan Baker, Kate Burton, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Chlumsky, Carla Gugino, Audra McDonald and Taylor Schilling.
“This felt like the only way forward,” said Mandy Greenfield, the festival’s artistic director. She said she had proposed the all-audio season “in my panic and passion for not allowing the devastation of this moment to silence artistic voices.”
She said it was important to see that artists were paid and “to give our audience generative new work made with artistry and excellence and delicacy in a form they can consume anywhere they can be alone with a listening device.”
The Williamstown season will be the first complete theater season released entirely by Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon.com which three years ago established a theater division that since then has released 36 productions, with six more expected in the coming months. Audible, which sells audio content online, has become an increasingly adventurous presence in theater, not only recording existing work, but also presenting work live at the Minetta Lane Theater in New York, and commissioning new plays.
“This was an easy ‘yes’,” said Kate Navin, who leads Audible’s theater initiative as artistic producer. “It’s so important that we are putting artists to work in a way that compensates them, allows them to endure this time, and is artistically fulfilling.”
The Williamstown season includes a revival of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Robert O’Hara and starring Cannavale, Gugino and McDonald, as well as a production of Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” directed by Susan Stroman and starring Anna Chlumsky. There are also four new plays, by Leslye Headland, Shakina Nayfack, Stacy Osei-Kuffour and Sanaz Toossi, and the new musical, “Row,” which is about the first woman to row alone across the Atlantic, and is written by Daniel Goldstein and Dawn Landes.
The productions will be developed at first via video- conferencing, for as long as government officials require social distancing, and then the goal is for the performers to rehearse together in person and record in studio. As a result, the schedule is unknown.
Audible will pay the artists, who will include not only the actors and directors, but a battery of sound designers and audio producers.
Williamstown had not yet opened a box office for this summer; it had sold some ticket bundles to its most devoted fans, and Greenfield said those people would be given “special access” to the audio season.
Greenfield said the financial damage to the festival from the cancellation of live performances would be “devastating, as it is for every cultural organization reliant on revenue.” She said the organization will look to donors and government to help it move forward.
The festival only has 11 year-round employees, and they are still working, but its staff ordinarily balloons to about 400 people during the summer, and most of those will not be hired this year. The cancellation of in-person performances will also have an inevitable impact on a number of restaurants, hotels, and other businesses in the northern Berkshires that count on spending by festival patrons.
Summer in the southern Berkshires is also looking rough: Jacob’s Pillow, the renowned dance festival, has canceled its entire season. The Berskhire Theater Group is hoping to start a season on Aug. 1, while Barrington Stage Company has canceled its first production and is hoping to start on June 18.