IF you've never been to a performance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF), it can be a bit like discovering a secret. On a sleepy hot day, the quiet green lawns of Williams College belie the vibrant energy found in the cool, dark refuge of the theater.
An entire colony of actors, designers, musicians, and directors welcomes you into the world they have created - a world that, for a few hours anyway, defies the confines of a stage.
The opening day of this year's season, however, was anything but a secret.
On June 22, just before the curtains rose on Stephen Sondheim's ``A Little Night Music,'' all the town bells rang 40 times to mark how far WTF has come since a small group of citizens started it in 1955. Gov. William Weld (R) even proclaimed the anniversary to be Williamstown Theatre Festival Day in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
For Peter Hunt, who has worked in virtually every aspect of the festival since he started out as a lighting designer in 1958, this summer marks his fifth season as artistic director. Although he's filling the position, he would never claim to fill the shoes of Nikos Psacharopoulos, who, from the theater's opening until his death in 1989, guided WTF's transformation into an internationally renowned regional festival.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Hunt was raising a family in California and working in the film and television industry. He worked at WTF when he could. ``It never dawned on me that I would come back for good like this,'' he says, ``but Nikos's death changed a lot of things and ... here I am.''
``Here'' is primarily the Williams College Adams Memorial Theatre, which WTF rents each summer for its Main Stage productions. Although a separate entity, WTF is certainly ``indebted to the college,'' Hunt says. ``They have given us a break on everything for years. They have been very gracious and supportive of the festival.''
In his office off the lobby of the Adams theater, Hunt takes a break from rehearsals for ``Our Town,'' the one show he is directing this season, to talk with the Monitor. The glow on his face may have come from an invigorating rehearsal, but it also reflects his own affection for the theater as he describes what draws world-famous actors, directors, and designers back to the festival.
It's a combination of factors, of course. For one, ``the location is beautiful ... and you don't have the commercial pressures that you have in the big cities,'' Hunt says.
Another draw is WTF's educational mission. It provides a type of ``theatrical boot camp'' for apprentices, interns, and non-Equity (non-union) actors, all of whom have the opportunity to work in technical capacities or to act with the Equity company. Not only do ``marvelously seasoned actors'' work together and get their ``batteries recharged,'' Hunt says, but ``the hardened professional comes up against the young, wide-eyed apprentice, and so there's a wonderful give and take.''
Finally, there's the Adams theater itself. ``There is something about this building,'' Hunt says with an air of reverence. ``The architects and the theatrical consultants who put this building together in the late 1930s came up with a space that has protected us and nurtured us.''
Hunt says he feels compelled, as artistic director, to make sure that creative atmosphere continues. His initial goal was ``to simply make sure that the festival stays alive and on course.'' Other regional theaters have gone by the wayside because they lost their founding directors (many of whom were basically dictators, Hunt says), which has lead to subsequent loss of a fundraising base, actors, and audiences. Hunt, along with a modest staff that works year-round in preparation for the summer season (when the staff swells to more than 300), has been able to keep WTF very much alive. But he has had to spend more time raising money than he had anticipated.
``The government has pulled away more and more from contributing to the arts, and it's now not as fashionable for corporations to contribute,'' he says. WTF, which is nonprofit, depends on contributions for about 35 percent of its annual $1.5 million budget.
Hunt's agenda as artistic director has also included focusing on newer works and putting more emphasis on the playwright in what has always been known as an ``actor's theater,'' he says.
Along with neighboring arts organizations, such as the Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood, and Jacob's Pillow dance festival, WTF adds to the beat of western Massachusetts' cultural and economic life during the summer. Williamstown natives even have the opportunity to act in the plays. Townspeople ranging in age from five to 70 have performed in WTF productions.
Even though Hunt sees this 40th anniversary season as a turning point enabling WTF to move more away from the past, the heritage of Nikos Psacharopoulos will never be abandoned.
``Nikos was always very positive about the fact that the theater really should be an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one.... So you kind of move ahead in increments, and you take your audience with you through these various changes,'' Hunt explains.
``The theater is its own wonderful world and should always be that, but it reflects and draws from what's happening in the outside world, so we have to be keenly aware of what's on the audience's mind, what we feel we should be saying.
``But that sounds too much like preaching. Sometimes you say it through comedy, [but] whether it's comedy, tragedy, or romance, you are hopefully saying something about the world we live in.''