Populace performers

At Williamstown Theater Festival, Garrett Allen learned about the power of theater to engage community.

By Garrett Allen '16
2016 Artist Development Fellow

Garrett Allen ’16, a resident of Mather House concentrating in Cognitive Neuroscience with a secondary in Theater, Dance & Media, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Williamstown Theater Festival (WTF) in Williamstown, MA this summer as a Directing Intern. Allen has directed and assistant directed productions at various venues at Harvard including Oberon, the second stage of the American Repertory Theater; the Loeb Experimental Theater; and Leverett Library Theater. In April, he directed Anthony Neilson's play The Wonderful World of Dissocia on the Loeb Drama Center mainstage. He plans to pursue a career in theater directing. This is the first of two posts about his experience at WTF; click here to read the second.

Photo: Daniel Rader
Photo: Daniel Rader
“A year ago, I was homeless. I could never imagine that I would be standing here with this opportunity,” said LouAnn, a member of the massive cast for Orpheus in the Berkshires at Williamstown Theatre Festival. A 61-year-old U.S. Army veteran, LouAnn clutched a framed photograph of herself in costume from the previous night’s tech rehearsal and continued to explain how dramatically life-changing this experience was for her. At moments such as these last summer at WTF, I truly felt we were doing something special.

As a directing intern at the festival, I was assistant director of Orpheus in the Berkshires, directed by Laura Savia and written by Lucy Thurber, a production launched as part of a “community engagement” initiative. I kept wondering what that meant. The festival has always existed as a sort of island in the Berkshires, a congregation of New York talent during the summer off-season. This project would be the first year of a multi-year initiative to acknowledge the festival location and actively include the residents in the creation of work. Through workshops and visits with Savia and Thurber, partnerships with several Berkshire organizations such as Soldier On (an organization committed to ending veteran homelessness), and outreach to the community, Orpheus in the Berkshires was born.

Photo: Daniel Rader
Photo: Daniel Rader
I quickly had to learn what “community engagement” really meant. The process of rehearsing this show was incredibly different from anything else I had done before. It was a story for these people and by these people. The performances were in the former Cariddi Mill that had been closed for many years, but many cast members had connections to it. Not only was it reclamation of space with a story that was specifically written for this community, but it was by the community. Seventy-five people, from children to grandparents – most of whom had never been on stage before – gathered each day in our rehearsal room for the purpose of creating something together.

Photo: Daniel Rader
Photo: Daniel Rader
The process was incredibly grueling as an assistant – tracking everyone, attending production meetings, discussing concepts with designers and working individually with these members who were very nervous. But it wasn’t until LouAnn told me about her background that it really hit me: The arts are a unifying force.

This project was conceived from the mission that “theater is central to understanding, building, and maintaining community.” It wasn’t about putting on a Broadway level production, but about the process of bringing people from all walks of life together, not just as audience members but as creators. It may just seem like another show to some, but it was those moments when the cast would talk about how transformative this experience was that I truly believed in theater's power to engage community.


The Artist Development Fellowship program, jointly administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Office of Career Services, awards 10-15 fellowships annually to promising and/or accomplished student artists and creators who have an unusual opportunity for artistic growth and transformation. The program is open to all undergraduates currently enrolled in Harvard College, and applications are evaluated by the Council on the Arts, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit the OFA website or call 617.495.8676.