The Wharton Salon: Bringing Edith Wharton’s Works to Life at The Mount
Posted by: Bess Hochstein
Posted on: Wednesday, August 17, 2011
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Preview by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Longtime Berkshire theater goers fondly reminisce about the days in the late 1970s when Tina Packer and her merry band of thespians took up residence at The Mount, where, in addition to Shakespeare, they performed theatrical adaptations of the work of the estate’s esteemed creator, Edith Wharton. That era ended in 2001, when Shakespeare & Company relocated to its current home, just down the road.
This week for the third summer, Wharton returns to her home, with a production of Autres Temps…, thanks to The Wharton Salon, brainchild of former Shakespeare & Co. member Catherine Taylor-Williams, right. Like her two previous productions – Xingu and Summer, Autres Temps… was adapted by Dennis Krausnick, who was also responsible for Taylor-Williams’ introduction to Shakespeare & Co. in 1996.
“While I was in Toronto I met Dennis, who came up to do a workshop,” recounts Taylor-Williams, who is Canadian. “I found his approach to Shakespeare very refreshing and personal. After that workshop I was pretty determined to come down and work with Shakespeare & Co. I came to the Berkshires just as they were about to leave The Mount in the summer of 2001, but before the move I house-managed their fantastic Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
That summer she also house-managed The Wharton One Acts at Spring Lawn, the mansion adjacent to Shakespeare & Co.’s current campus, where the troupe staged intimate productions before the Bernstein Theatre was built. Among the program of one acts, she says, “Normi Noël directed An International Episode. I was very moved by the production, loved the wonderful roles for women, and also thought that performing in a non-traditional theatre space with windows, daylight, and in such close proximity to the audience was so much better than a black box theatre.”
“From there I began to read Wharton’s short stories,” she recounts. Her first onstage role with Shakespeare & Co., in 2002, was in Wharton’s first novel, The Valley of Decision. “I loved Dennis Krausnick’s adaptations; they were so dry, witty, and wonderful. And I also saw how much the audiences loved them, and I remembered that.”
In 2007 Taylor-Williams was accepted into a prestigious arts management program at the Kennedy Center. “I had been working in the press department at Shakespeare & Co. in addition to being onstage for five years,” she says. “I knew I wanted to run a theatre company, but there was a lot I needed to learn about fundraising, marketing, finance, and planning for a successful company, so I took a year to immerse myself in that alone and build a solid management base.
“From Washington, I went to New York thinking that was where I should strive to make my mark. I worked for two years at the Atlantic Theater Company in development, and was a member of the 2009-2010 Producer’s Lab at The Women’s Project, a company that advances plays written and directed by women. But I wasn’t prepared for how much I would miss the Berkshires.”
In 2008 she began thinking about bringing the works of Wharton back to the author’s home. She found a receptive ear in Susan Wissler, who had recently been named The Mount’s executive director. Taylor-Williams launched The Wharton Salon in 2009 with Xingu, she says, “…because it was one of Wharton’s very rare comedies and it had seven women’s roles for all my favorite actresses.” Next up was Summer because, she says, “It was a Berkshire story—about coming of age in time with nature and the seasons, which is a big part of our lives here.”
This year’s production is based on a short story by Wharton first published 100 years ago in Century Magazine as Other Times, Other Manners—a title derived from the French expression autres temps, autres moeurs, later retitled Autres Temps… in Wharton’s 1916 collection Xingu. It tells the story of the scandalous Mrs. Lidcote, a divorcee who returns to New York from self-imposed exile in Europe, under the assumption that her daughter Leila, who is getting divorced and quickly remarried, is in need of support. Back in America, she finds that times certainly have changed… to some extent.
Taylor-Williams and Krausnick updated the setting to 1962, which, she says, required very few edits: “‘Sargent’s been to paint her’ changed to ‘Avedon’s been to photograph her for Harper’s Bazaar,’ etc. Really just cosmetics.” She also cast a real-life mother-and-daughter – Diane Prusha and Rory Hammond, both Wharton Salon veterans – in the mother-and-daughter roles. Corinna May, who plays cousin Suzy Suffern, was also in Xingu. (Prusha, May, and Hammond, l-r, in photo above by David Dashiell.)
With so many juicy roles for women, it’s only natural to wonder if Taylor-Williams is tempted to jump back over to the acting side of the stage, but, she says, “I am pleased and a little relieved to say I don’t think of that at all when I’m directing. Directing is very new to me, and there is a lot to learn, so I don’t have a lot of time to spend wishing I were onstage.
“Directing brings a very different type of joy. When the actors play a scene with precision, or something sad, funny or surprising happens, or when the designers create something extraordinary, or when the crew comes in and works all night putting up or taking down the set, it’s extremely humbling to be the one person out there witnessing all that passion and energy. But do I have Wharton roles I’d love to play? Ha ha. Sure.”
The Wharton Salon presents Autres Temps…
In the Stables at The Mount
2 Plunkett Street, Lenox, MA
August 17 - 28
Wednesdays and Thursdays, August 17, 18, 24 & 25 @ 5:30 p.m.
Saturdays, August 20 & 27 @ 10:30 a.m. & 3 p.m.
Sundays, August 21 & 28 @ 10:30 a.m.