Regional Dispatch: The Wharton Salon
The next installment of our Regional Dispatch series comes from Western Massachusetts from Catherine Taylor-Williams, Fractured Atlas member and Producing Artistic Director of The Wharton Salon. Enjoy, and don’t forget to email Sarah McLellan if you would like to be featured in Regional Dispatch!
A theatrical love affair with a house in Western Massachusetts
“On a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house, to which we gave the name of my grandfather’s place, The Mount.” -Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
Built on three acres of formal gardens, standing stark white on a hill that emerges down a gravel lane lined with ferns and trees overlooking Laurel Lake; or sometimes lit ghostly pale against a full moon; still other times basked in sunshine like an Italian villa, The Mount, like her mistress, American novelist Edith Wharton, is an enigmatic and formidable hostess.
As I child I grew up around 19th century books, and yet I never ran into Wharton. I came to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in 2001 from Toronto, Canada, just before 9-11, to run away and join Shakespeare & Company. I can’t say I gave much thought to where I was going. I was working, and that was enough for me. S&Co was in residence at The Mount at that time, their home of 25 years began as a kind of theatre commune in 1978. There were legendary love affairs, quarrels, encounters with ghostly presences, people got together, split apart, babies were born, there were torch-lit parties in the woods, and Shakespeare was performed in the backyard of The Mount under the stars all summer long.
Inside The Mount the stories of its literary mistress, Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome) were performed as plays, in broad daylight, in an intimate drawing room overlooking rolling lawns. The audiences sat very close on two sides and the actors performed in the center. The slightest move, the slightest look, was momentous in such a small space. As a house manager that first summer, I held the door for the actors as they swept by in their Gilded Age costumes. The magic was happening even before they hit the stage. The house would transform them as they passed and together, actors and audience, we traveled back in time.
That was the last summer S&Co spent at The Mount. The board of the theatre company and a board formed to save the historic house were in the middle of a tense legal battle for possession of the property and its use. The company left for its own property down the street, and I continued on until 2007 as an actress and working in the press office. For some number of years S&Co occupied another Gilded Age house a few miles away, but the connection with Wharton was lost.
I left the Berkshires in September of 2007, I thought forever, after winning a coveted place as a Kennedy Center Arts Management fellow in Washington, and from there I went to New York City to work in development for the Atlantic Theater Company and to try my hand at producing as part of the Women’s Project producers lab. I loved the life and sparkle of the City, but I missed the mountains, the trees and bird song, I missed the actors at S&Co, and I missed The Mount. Besides, my three-room apartment in The Berkshires was soooo cheap, how could I let it go? My fiancé, Robert, and I went back to The Berkshires to be married, and my dog absolutely refused to go to a tiny sublet in New York City, so she stayed behind with my landlady. So a commuting relationship with the Berkshires continued for the next two years.
By 2008, The Mount was in financial trouble. By the end of the following year pretty much everyone was, but non-profits that had been carrying debt were even worse off. I sat in a coffee shop with the Executive Director of The Mount on one of my Berkshire weekends and pitched her the idea of resurrecting Edith Wharton’s stories as plays at the Mount under a new company, The Wharton Salon, realizing a long time dream for me of directing and producing. The Mount had no money, but that was not necessarily an impediment since I had just learned a few things about raising it. I was sure the audiences hadn’t forgotten about those magical years at The Mount. I received permission from the founders of Shakespeare & Company to use their Wharton scripts, and I began calling the actors who had the deepest connection with the work to see who would come back. Everyone was interested, “money be damned, and when could they start?”
Our first production in the summer of 2009 sold out in a few days. I made a sheepish call to the local paper of record that I had begged for a feature coming out the following day to say we had no tickets left and what should we do? This summer we will produce our fourth season, and the first year with plays in both August and November. The company has swelled to 30 associated artists. I have begun videotaping interviews, as some company members are 20-year veterans of performing the works of Wharton, about what they want to pass on to the next generation, the craft of performing without blackouts, and their relationship to Mrs. Wharton and her house.
I moved back to the Berkshires full time in 2010. I walk in Wharton’s ancestral woods on my way to rehearsals, I breathe fresh air, and through the Wharton Salon I celebrate the works of Edith Wharton, her contemporary writers, and her incredible house. My days are wrapped in literature, beauty, architecture and nature.
Edith Wharton kept a “Commonplace Book” where she kept her favorite quotations including long extracts from the Phaedrus. One that we say backstage before performances is Socrates Prayer, which I believe most exemplifies Wharton’s spirit: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods that haunt this place. Give me beauty in the inward soul, and may the outward and the inward be one.”
Catherine Taylor-Williams is an actor, director, producer, fundraiser, nature-lover, wife of artist and teacher Robert Serrell, and companion of a stubborn 15-year-old Italian greyhound. She happily lives in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and hopes to be buried one day not far from The Mount and join it’s company of very artistic ghosts.