“How did you find us?” That’s what Angela Combrest, the press representative for the Chester Theatre Company, in Chester, Massachusetts, asked in response to my query about attending their season closer—a production of Annie Baker’s play “The Aliens.” It was a fair question: although C.T.C. is a season away from celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, the group barely registers on the cultural map of a region populated by long-established giants like Tanglewood, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow—institutions that, each summer, attract big-name talent for their productions, and big-money audiences to see them. C.T.C.’s location has something to do with this: because Chester is located in the middle of the longest stretch between exits on the Mass Pike, it exists in a kind of insular netherworld—a dead zone of small, economically challenged former factory and farm towns. Getting there requires some real intentionality. Yet, despite this, C.T.C. manages to produce some of the most adventurous programming in the area, balancing its artistic ambitions and its relationship to the working-class town it calls home.
The theatre company began as a lark. The late Vincent Dowling, the former artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, built a home in the Chester hills as a place to retire, and he and his wife, Olwen O’Herlihy Dowling, moved there in 1990. As word of Downling’s presence spread, he was tapped to produce a one-off performance to benefit a local cause, and offered the use of the Chester Town Hall to stage the event. Dowling found himself inspired by the little venue (“seduced” is the word he used in his memoir, “Astride the Moon”), and hatched the quixotic idea to found a professional summer-theatre company there. It worked. The town’s government quickly got on board, offering support and the use of the hall for productions. The group was christened the Miniature Theatre (the hall’s seating capacity is a hundred and twenty-seven), and it produced its first full season of plays the following summer, running on a shoestring budget, the business savvy of O’Herlihy Dowling (she became managing director), and Dowling’s knack for engendering good will. “Vincent could get along with anyone,” Erin Patrick, C.T.C’s production and operations manager, told me. “Everyone in Chester has their Vincent story.”
The town’s love affair with the theatre underwent some growing pains during the tenure of Byam Stevens as artistic director. He took the reins in 1998, and had bigger ideas for what the company could aspire to. “I wanted us to grow,” he told me. “But we had to distinguish ourselves from the kinds of safe programming that other theatres in the area were doing. We had to give people a reason to get in the car and drive for forty-five minutes.” Stevens’s background was in developing new plays, and under his watch, C.T.C. began to mount regional and world premières, some of which would go on to have life elsewhere. He also instituted initiatives like playwriting workshops and paid internships for local students. The group was rebranded the Chester Theatre Company, a move that had a touch of irony to it: as the burgeoning group wrapped its identity more closely to the town’s, grumblings of discontent from the locals were heard. “Some of them looked at us like bunch of carpetbagger theatre swifties, descending on the town every summer and then leaving again,” Stevens said. This response by locals was complicated by how the kinds of plays that Stevens was programming—by his lights, darker, edgier, and more sophisticated than previous C.T.C. fare—may have been “outside their comfort zone.” Stevens suggested that, before Dowling had come along, it was possible that many in the primarily blue-collar community had gone their entire lives without attending a professional-theatre production.
Chester has not always been a depressed area. In the nineteenth century, it was positively bustling, served by the Boston and Albany Railroad (whose tracks, “Fitzcarraldo”-style, were the first in the world to go over a mountain, in a project designed by James McNeill Whistler’s father). It was one of the few towns in the area with a proper Main Street, and its mineral-rich hills provided generations with steady employment. The first emery deposits in America were discovered there. But, as rail travel was phased out, and as the turnpike was opened, in 1957, bypassing the area, Chester descended into decades of economic blight and hardship; industries closed, and the former steady flow of tourist traffic along Route 20 slowed to a trickle and then stopped.
I’d decided to make Chester my final destination on a little theatre tour through western Massachusetts last month. I’d just spent an exhilarating morning at Mass MOCA, in North Adams, taking in (among other things) Laurie Anderson’s V.R. experiences, and chose for my southerly route the most direct option as the crow flies—a series of progressively dinkier streets and country lanes that eventually gave way to miles of narrow, treacherous dirt paths. Suddenly, I was in a forest so thick that the tree canopy overhead all but blotted out the noonday sky. Was this even a road, I wondered? My phone had no signal. Having read about increased black-bear sightings in New England (and having recently watched “The Revenant”), I was envisioning my end: “Found mauled to death while trying to avoid commercial thruways.”
I made it to Chester by midafternoon. It was almost hard to tell that I’d arrived. Unlike my previous stops in the nearby Berkshires, there’s almost nothing there. No shops, no art galleries, no boutiques or antiques, not a latte, ramen bowl, or lecture series in sight. The building that houses the town’s one-room library is mostly inhabited by residents living in subsidized housing (the library itself has very few actual books, though lots of DVDs), and foot traffic is basically nonexistent. There are no quaint bed and breakfasts; in fact, there’s no place to spend the night at all, unless you happen to luck into a nearby Airbnb.
I wanted to arrive early enough to get a feel for the town’s personality before attending the performance that evening. I’d done the same thing the previous day, in Stockbridge, spending the better part of an afternoon in a rocking chair on the stately front porch of the Red Lion Inn before strolling over to the Berkshire Theatre Group’s well-made revival of Robert E. Sherwood’s well-made “The Petrified Forest,” from 1935. At the Red Lion, I’d witnessed a pop-up performance by Shakespeare & Company, an impromptu tasting of rosé wines (five varietals on offer), and the constant swarming of fashionably dressed tourists in pinks and whites, sporting golf tans and busy with their devices as they ordered cocktails from red-jacketed servers.
There was no such scene in Chester—not even close. At the end of Main Street, I found the town’s two functioning eateries—a long-standing pizza-and-beer joint called the Blue Note Cafe at Classic Pizza and a newish, more intriguing concern called the Chester Common Table). I chose the latter, and parked myself outside on the wooden porch. For several hours, I was the only customer.
“There’s no real weekend presence in Chester,” Charles (Chip) Schoonmaker, one of the theatre company’s costume designers, told me. I saw evidence to support this statement. Life here seems to move in slow, lazy motion. A trio of perspiring youths sauntered by in tank tops, their shoulders burnt bright pink by the sun, eyeing me warily. Several motorcycles were parked across the street, and after a while, three men sporting nearly identical flat-top haircuts, black T-shirts, and blue jeans emerged, one of them exclaiming, “Can you believe that someone pretended to be my son for two years?” as he casually fetched and lit a half-smoked cigarette that he’d strategically left planted on a bench.
The Chester Common Table is owned and operated by C.T.C.’s Erin Patrick and Aaron Allen, a young couple who met in 2011, when Patrick was stage-managing at C.T.C. and Allen was bartending at the Dreamaway Lodge, a favorite for local artist/musician types in nearby Becket. Enamoured with the area, and with one another, the two decided to set down roots. They bought a house in neighboring Middlefield, opened up the restaurant two summers ago, and got married in its back yard (“after dinner service,” Patrick told me). The Common Table offers dishes that feature organic, locally sourced ingredients. On nights when C.T.C. has a performance, the place gets jammed, making it nearly impossible to be seated without a reservation.
In addition to her duties at the restaurant, Patrick is one of three year-round C.T.C. staff members. She loves being there. “Chester is the first place that has really felt like a home town to me,” she told me, excited about what she perceives to be the start of a true revival of the town’s former glory. Although the larger region has been beset by the opioid epidemic in recent years, she has not seen evidence of that in Chester. John Baldasaro, the former chief of police, who has lived in the town since 1983, supports this notion. “We don’t have a crisis here,” he said. “Sure, we have an occasional problem, but it’s not anything like what you see in the cities.” Patrick’s husband is from Pittsfield, one of several big towns in western Massachusetts that has joined a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies in an effort to recoup money spent treating opioid addiction. “It’s nothing like that here,” she said. “People in Chester leave their houses and cars unlocked all the time. I feel safe here.”
Patrick can empathize with residents who’ve occasionally chafed at the presence of outsiders in Chester. “There are real-world inconveniences caused by C.T.C. taking over the town hall for the summer,” she said. “Sometimes people just want to come and pay their electric bill, and they can’t! And sometimes people don’t like it when fancy cars suddenly roll into town and block up their driveways. I get that.”
“When I came onboard three years ago, there was not a great relationship between the town and the theatre,” Daniel Elihu Kramer, the current producing artistic director, said. When Stevens left, after eighteen seasons, Kramer knew that he had some fence-mending to do. “There was kind of this sense of, ’Who are these people, and why don’t they respect us?’ ” he said. Kramer, who also teaches and chairs the drama department at Smith, saw the beginning of his tenure coincide with internal discussions about relocating the company to a town with fewer inherent obstacles. Instead, the group decided to double down on Chester. The theatre made changes to show its commitment to the town. Visiting actors are now housed right in Chester, where they are just as likely to perform boozy karaoke alongside locals at the Blue Note after a long day’s work as they are to wind up at the Common Table. C.T.C. now offers ten-dollar tickets to anyone with a Chester address (regular tickets go for $42.50), and talk-back sessions for the audiences are facilitated after many of the performances. Richard Holzman, who sits on the company’s advisory board and has seen the evolution of the group from its beginning, cites Kramer’s “engaging, warm presence” as a big reason for the company’s upswing. C.T.C. has just come off its most successful season yet, and is now in the midst of a major capital campaign that aims to strengthen and deepen its commitment in Chester.
The town hall that becomes the company’s theatre each summer possesses none of the rustic elegance to be found in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s barns, nor any of the sleekness of the cutting edge stages in Williamstown. In the lobby, the concession stand sells big, buttery, chocolate-chip cookies in wax-paper sleeves, baked that day at the Common Table. I watched as the two-dollar treats were scarfed up by theatregoers.
“The Aliens” was first produced in 2010, at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, in New York City. Set on “the desolate back patio of a coffee shop in Vermont,” Baker’s play features three men; two are loafers in their early thirties who spend their time hanging out there, amid trash cans and detritus. Like latter-day inhabitants of Harry Hope’s saloon, they live in the oft-evoked glories of their pasts and futures. But really, they’re deadbeats: straight white men without ambition or purpose. They befriend a teen-ager who works at the establishment, and the action, such as it is, centers on their mostly inane verbal interactions, making the play seem—at times—to belong to a kind of dumbcore genre that might include Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and episodes of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” What makes for real drama in Baker’s work, though, comes from her finely-tuned ear for how people communicate (or do not communicate) with one another when there is nothing particularly profound at stake. Baker likes to call attention to how uncomfortable we are with one another, and there is an exquisite artistry in the silences and pauses that she embeds in her texts. This is where the actual drama happens. The words she chooses hardly matter—they are just the banal small talk we make, filler to get us to the pauses. Baker may be the only playwright working today who’s known for what she doesn’t write. When performed faithfully, Baker’s plays take on a pacing that seems to stretch and challenge the rules of time. (Nathan Heller profiled her for this magazine in 2013.) The best productions of her plays that I have seen—notably “The Flick,” at the Barrow Street Theatre, and “The Antipodes,” at the Signature Theatre—felt like they could go on forever. In each case, I wished that they would.
The audience at C.T.C. that night seemed engaged by “The Aliens,” if not quite enamored with it. When the lights came up for intermission, I turned to the person seated closest to me and asked for his thoughts. “Well,” the man said, raising his eyebrows for emphasis, “we’ve got characters, we’ve got a setting … now let’s see if we get a plot!” I tried to talk to as many audience members as I could, both before and after the play. Almost all of then were white, older, and mostly not from Chester.
Why wasn’t the entire town here, I wondered? Ten bucks did not seem like a lot to ask for a professional production of a play by one of today’s most interesting playwrights. “In the early days, it seemed like the entire town was there,” Schoonmaker told me, recalling an era, before the town hall had installed air conditioning, when the locals showed up in droves to the summer performances, inspired by Dowling’s enthusiasm and armed with improvised hand-fans. “Vin always said that every town should have its own theatre company, just like their community hall or their church on the hill,” O’Herlihy Dowling said, thinking back to a time when the man who ran the town dump could boast that he’d been to see the latest play at the town hall, and that his wife had seen it twice.
Kramer is doing everything he can to revive that spirit. “I want the theatre company to be something that the entire town is proud to call its own,” he said. It’s a sentiment that seems to evoke the ideals of George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, founders of the Provincetown Players, whose vision for an inclusive theatre based on Greek ideals gave birth to the American theatre as we know it. “True drama is born only of one feeling animating all the members of a clan, a spirit shared by all and expressed by the few for the all,” Cook wrote. “If there is nothing to take the place of the common religious purpose and passion of the primitive group out of which the Dionysian dance was born, no new vital drama can arise.” Today, as established regional-theatre companies seem to be programming the same handful of plays for a dwindling, aging audience, underdogs like the Chester Theatre Company are kicking against the trends, and doing their part to help fulfill Cook’s century-old promise. “I want this to be a club that everyone feels invited to,” Kramer told me, knowing full well that he still has some work to do.