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The pursuit of perfection; Roger Rees begins another season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Byline: Richard Duckett

When last we spoke with Roger Rees, he was about to oversee the start of the 2005 Williamstown Theatre Festival - his first at the helm as artistic director.

He seemed pretty unflappable about it all. "I feel responsible and excited. I don't feel daunted, I would say," Rees said at the time in an English-sounding voice that exuded an effortless command of the situation. (Actually, he's Welsh, and is now an American citizen.)

So, as his third summer at the festival was poised to get up and running, it was no surprise to find Rees ever-phlegmatic.

"I've always believed perfectionism is a moving point. You endeavor for that every day," he said during a recent telephone interview from the festival's offices in New York City, where nine months of the year he is administering, choosing plays, contacting actors and raising money for what is widely regarded as the most prestigious summer theater program in the country.

The moving van had not left for Williams College in Williamstown, idyllically located in the Berkshires, where the festival will put on more than 200 performances on three stages from June 14 through Aug. 26.

"I'm just learning and trying to improve. Absorbing the tastes of the community I work for," Rees said.

He is, however, effusive about his job.

"It's a wonderful and very joyous job," Rees said.

But he admitted that when he was about to come to Williamstown for the first time as an actor several years ago he had some misconceptions about the community. Thinking it was a "strawberries and cream" kind of place and rather elitist with the stars it attracted, "the socialist in me rebelled against it. But I found a place of very hard, serious, concentrated work about the theater."

And Rees, 63, felt right at home.

His career has been dominated by a strong undercurrent of a love for theater - something that has always propelled him despite diversions off the stage to film and even a popular role on the long-running TV sitcom "Cheers."

"Williamstown is always associated with being a very glamorous and beautiful theater experience. But it's also one of the greatest teaching theaters in America," he said.

Star names coming to Williamstown this summer include Worcester native actress Alicia Witt, Williamstown regular Kate Burton, and Kathleen Turner, who will be making her debut as a director. The locals like to do celebrity spotting at such locales as the Williamstown Stop & Shop, Rees noted.

Also part of the program will be 200 young interns who will work with professional designers, directors and administrators.

"It's a place of giving gifts to people," Rees said. "I would love to refine it and keep getting better and better."

In the early 1950s, Williams College officials began allowing the use of its Adams Memorial Theatre for a resident summer theatre company. With local and national support, including a gift from Cole Porter, the Williamstown Theatre Foundation was formed and the first production, "The Bridge and the Bumblebee," was staged in 1955. Nikos Psacharopoulos became the artistic director of the festival in 1956 and retained that position until his death in 1989.

Rees succeeded another Worcester native, Michael Ritchie, who in his nine-year tenure brought in celebrities such as Olympia Dukakis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Marisa Tomei, and his wife, Kate Burton.

This season will see performances of classic and new plays, cabaret, play readings of new works, workshops, and a program for youngsters in North Adams called the Greylock Theatre Project. In the past, many festival productions have moved on to Broadway, Off-Broadway and to regional theaters around the nation.

The plays and musicals are performed on the Main Stage, a 512-seat proscenium theater; the Nikos Stage, a 173-seat performance space; and the Center Stage, a 120-seat black-box theater.

On the Main Stage the lineup is "The Front Page" (July 4-15), "Blithe Spirit" (July18-29), "The Corn is Green" starring Kate Burton (Aug. 1-12), and "The Autumn Garden" starring Allison Janney (Aug. 15-26).

The Nikos Stage will house two new plays, a musical and classical American play. The world premiere of "Dissonance" (June 27-July 8) stars Alicia Witt in a story about members of a string quartet whose world is shaken and stirred when a rock star invades their classical comfort zone.

Meanwhile, Kathleen Turner will direct Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" Aug. 8-19 on the Nikos Stage. Turner had directed a staged reading of the work last summer at Williamstown.

Rees said he has known Turner since they appeared together in the play "Indiscretion" on Broadway in 1997.

"She was always talking about wanting to direct," Rees said.

"Kathleen is a very fierce, strong woman in the theater. It's fantastic that she would come and be part of our community. Last year she was sitting, eating hot dogs with the kids (on breaks) and that's what I ask them all to do," he said of his stars interacting with the festival community.

On the Center Stage, Rees will be directing the musical "Herringbone" (June 14-24) and acting in "The Physicists" (Aug. 7-18).

The latter is a first time association with the Williams College Summer Theatre Lab, and Rees said he is looking to increase collaborations with the college.

Asked what goes into choosing a season, he replied "There are about 10,000 plays in the English language and we're working our way through them." More seriously, he added, "We want to have a terrific season that people are going to be entertained by."

Back in Great Britain, Rees had pondered a career as an artist. He was a student at the SLADE School of Art in London, and worked in theaters as a scenery painter. But he had also acted in community and church productions, and after several audition attempts he was hired by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"Cheers" - where he had a recurring role as an English tycoon - helped persuade him to live in the United States.

Does he get stopped in Stop & Shop?

"Occasionally some people say something which is very sweet. But I can still go to Stop & Shop."

Rather than "Cheers," Rees would prefer to talk about the theater, which he has stayed involved with despite switching continents.

"Tom Stoppard has said theater is he last (remaining) place you can have an intelligent conversation. It's a place of spontaneity and discourse."

So he'll be talking a lot this summer at his home in Williamstown.

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Kathleen Turner directs "Crimes of the Heart" Aug. 8-19. (2) Kate Burton stars in "The Corn is Green" Aug. 1-12. (3) Roger Rees and, below, (4) the home of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. (5) Alicia Witt stars in the world premier of "Dissonance" from June 27 through July 8.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 3, 2007
Words:1133
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