The musical “Row” tells the story of how Tori Murden McClure became the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic. Because so many scenes take place in the ocean, the world premiere production is staged in the Reflecting Pool at the Clark Art Institute, a picturesque Massachusetts setting that both evokes history and meets COVID-19 guidelines. of the open-air season of the Williamstown Theater Festival. The show, by songwriter Dawn Landes and writer Daniel Goldstein, “exposes you to the elements endured by an extraordinary woman without being discouraged by the odds,” reads its program.
Theatrical companies presenting outdoor shows for the first time is one thing; Doing so in non-traditional performance spaces is another. What happened in Williamstown is a case study for all theaters that are pursuing productions in unconventional settings due to the ongoing pandemic. Besides what the actors do on these pop-up stages, the technical teams also work in the midst of the heat and the rain to make these productions possible.
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, this unique production of “Row” involved the installation of wooden platforms in a section of the three-level pool, which spans an acre and holds 2,000 gallons of collected storm water. . The orchestra pit is divided: a noise artist is positioned on this stage, the rest of the musicians performing at a distance from inside the museum. (They should be heard over the area’s frog population that croaks loudly every evening.)
In addition, the Berkshires obtained a noticeable amount of rain this summer – a question that the festival, which is generally held indoors, has not had to address before. (The audience is advised that the performances will be held in light rain, and the festival suggests bringing a rain poncho as umbrellas cannot be opened during the performance.)
The electrical installations had to be redone to be sheltered from bad weather; whole days of technology have been canceled out by thunderstorms. During the lighter drizzle, the sound team pushed through the two-hour setup of each rehearsal and the two-hour blackout – a museum requirement.
“We’re talking about half a million dollars in audio gear that you usually don’t want to take out in the rain,” said a member of the sound department who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation from the festival. “But as long as there was no lightning, we were just expected to keep working.”
Whenever rehearsals were cut short due to intermittent and heavier rain, the cast of actors working under Equity union rules stayed dry in tents or in the museum auditorium. But others were not so lucky.
“So where does the team go if we wait for the rain? And the answer I got was, ‘Yeah, we haven’t really thought about that,'” recalls the team member, who said. took refuge in the hall of the museum. “It was a lack of concern for the well-being of the team, who are the people who actually do the shows.”
On July 14, the day of the first public performance, the cast and crew had yet to go through the entire tech show. The rain was particularly noticeable that day, so the production manager announced that the tech session was suspended for 30 to 45 minutes, after which the bad weather was expected to clear up. The actors entered inside and the team quickly covered the equipment and headed inside the museum to wait for them.
“At one point I asked if I could run and change into dry clothes, and I was told no because we had to wait,” said Mary Fator, a member of the sound team. “It’s like, hey, I’m asking for the bare minimum.”
Minutes later, the two sound department team members said, the festival’s artistic director, Mandy Greenfield, approached the team members and told them they were allowed to return to work. “The thunder was beyond the 5 mile radius, so they thought it was safe enough for us to get back to work, even though it was still raining heavily,” Fator recalls. “But they were stressed out about the weather, so we got back to work.”
The rain started to fall even harder and the team – who were already working 13 hours a day, earning a relatively low salary without overtime, and paying for festival accommodation – reached a tipping point. With the full solidarity of the current creative team, the whole sound team has come out.
Greenfield attempted to speak with the team members as they left, the team member said, then called a meeting with those who were still there. “She gave this whole speech where she collapsed crying and said, ‘The crew, they’re so tired. I made this mistake. And I really wish we could get together as a group. We’re going to have to cancel rehearsal and we’ll be fine, “the team member recalled.” I couldn’t tell you if it was genuine or not. “
The next morning, the sound team met with Greenfield and the festival management team and secured modest salary increases, safer working conditions and a more reasonable work schedule: an eight-hour delay between shifts and a 10-hour cap on the number of hours before overtime pay takes effect.
The festival released an announcement stating that the July 14 performance had been canceled “due to persistent bad weather during the process leading up to the scheduled performance”, not as a result of a work stoppage.
“Row”, originally scheduled for the 2020 festival season and slated to run until August 15, had its first public performance on July 16 but has not played since due to the rain. Still, Greenfield told The Times she was “incredibly grateful to the entire production team at the Williamstown Theater Festival for speaking out and speaking out.
“The biblical proportions of rain that hit Williamstown this summer made an already new outdoor season more profoundly difficult,” she added. “The production teams, the amazing people who do this job, really expressed what they needed, and we took immediate corrective action so that we could keep everyone safe emotionally, physically. Their well-being and their safety is of the utmost importance to us. “
Members of the sound department disagree.
“This is a band aid on the bigger problem which is the way this festival treats its workers, and most importantly how it mistreats the younger and more vulnerable theater workers who have just entered the industry , and don’t know that they can and should defend themselves, ”said a member of the team.
Fator added: “I was really using this work to dip my toes back into the water after the pandemic, and I think they were relying on a lot of people to do the same.
“But young people are realizing that there is strength in numbers. And I don’t think theaters are going to get away with exploiting students or young professionals any more.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.