Downtown Williamstown, MA has two streets: Spring, and Water. In the dead of winter in the Berkshires, it is crawling with shivering Williams College students seeking solace in the lone coffee shop. In the summer, it is actors clad sleekly in black and designers in paint-splattered jeans that stalk the two streets. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Leonardo DiCaprio getting ice cream or Bradley Cooper at the bar.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival, established in 1955, takes over the two streets and campus from June-August each summer. When I visited Williams College the summer after my junior year of high school, I found the posters proclaiming “WTF” particularly hilarious; my parents didn’t get it. Its ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance sits on Route 2, a monstrous shining building of glass and wood that boasts three theaters, multiple professional shops and seemingly unlimited rehearsal space. Williams counts Stephen Sondheim ’50 as an alumnus; “WTF” earned its Tony in 2002.
I came to the festival as one of 68 apprentices. The administrators called us “the lifeblood” of the festival in the opening and closing speeches of the season. We were college students and grads, roommates and all struggling actors. We’d been told Williamstown was where the New York theater scene summered. Painters and carpenters and stage managers and actors seeped from their schools across the country to the Berkshires to maniacally put on six main productions in 10 weeks for the public and countless others just for the festival. This was not a feat achieved in typical working hours—the festival operated 24 hours a day nonstop from mid June through August.
As an apprentice, we didn’t know our daily schedule until 9 p.m. the night before. Each night, we crowded the call board to see if we got to go sweep sawdust at the mill, have a Shakespeare class, or enjoy the rare coveted “Off” in which one would ideally do laundry but most likely sleep. When a show closed, another one loaded in the same night, calling for a “changeover” schedule in which apprentices would be called from 12-8 a.m. with seven hours to sleep afterwards. Theater magic definitely happened at “WTF,” but it wasn’t well-rested.
I’d often walk down Route 2 before my first shift of the day to watch the sun rise. The Berkshires hug Williamstown from every direction with mossy green and purple arms. I trudged through the mist to earn a latte, basically the only thing worth spending money on in town. There was a bar that burned a hole in most of the festival’s pocket, but I had to settle for the curse and blessing of being probably one of ten out of hundreds of people not yet 21. I would often see actors completing the same daily pilgrimage, sweaty from the exertion of maintaining their stage-worthy physiques. I knew their faces well after pointing a hot spotlight eight shows a week. Most didn’t know mine.
As hard as everyone worked, the festival made sure we had a good time. There were black tie galas at the nicer restaurant on Water Street, dorm ragers lit to perfection by lighting interns, and rarely a night passed without some theatrical event to attend. Inevitably, everyone ended up at the bar. There were always whisperings that this actor or that director, in town for the night to see a show, would be there to rub shoulders with. The whispers were usually wrong, but it was fun to fantasize. Parties aside, some of my best memories came from the occasional twenty-minute road trip to Walmart in someone’s dad’s car or a dip in the watering hole, avoiding the leeches, of course.
Time warped when crossing the blackened quad at 3:30 a.m. after finishing cooking middle-of-the-night breakfast for ravenous carpenters. We had no days off for the entire season, so the weeks overlapped with the months and mingled between the minutes and seconds. We were constantly exhausted, but only because we knew there were just ten precious weeks to see all the midnight shows, play improv games, and spend time with people who had, if anything, an intense respect for theater. If you were sleeping, someone else who wasn’t got the chance to perfect the last prop that might send the show to Broadway. There was a collective understanding that what we did was important.
I now have an impressive array of apparel declaring “WTF happened to me” and “WTF: Have you been?” Frankly, it would be a shame not to take advantage of such a versatile acronym. I collected these snarky souvenirs along with the newfound knowledge of how to change a wig in under three seconds, how to talk to someone who’s won three Tonys, how to always watch the midnight shows because no matter how tired you are after a full day of shifts, you’re seeing the product of three weeks of rehearsals that began and ended even later in the night.
Most people go to the mountains each summer to catch up on rest. If they go to the theater, it’s for some light entertainment. If you’re one of those people, Williamstown may not be what you expected. But you will leave finally knowing WTF is going on.