I met Roger in June 2005, when I was a directing assistant at Williamstown Theatre Festival, during the first summer he ran the festival. All of the young apprentice actors and directors were completely in his thrall from moment one, myself included. Not only was this a legendary Olivier- and Tony Award-winning RSC actor existing among us plebeians, but, boy, was he an equally gifted director. To this day, his ingenious, elemental production of Herringbone at Williamstown, starring B.D. Wong, has to be among my top 10 favorite nights at the theatre.
Both those skills were secondary, however, to his brilliance as an artistic director. Williamstown is a unique place in that the a.d. job entails not only programming a diverse, overlapping season of plays and musicals (which he did remarkably well for three seasons) but also involves a mentorship role to the many young actors and directors who make up the apprentice, non-Equity, and directing corps programs. And Roger relished his role as mentor at least as much as his more showy job as summer theatre kingmaker.
To me, that was the defining feature of Roger: his dedication to and genuine respect for what he described as the “next generation” of American theatre. While he was tirelessly tending to all the needs of a huge organization and an insane production schedule, he was a regular fixture at the eccentric, one-evening-only midnight shows of all the young people working at the festival. How he had the time and energy to attend those and then be in rehearsal or donor breakfasts the next morning, day after day, I have no idea. But he cared deeply about these young actors, directors, writers, designers, and technicians, and it mattered to him that these larkish projects were happening; indeed, he viewed the people creating them as the lifeblood of the festival. There was no wall around Roger or hurdles to be able to talk to him. His unpretentious nature and genuine joy and enthusiasm for theatre were infectious to us all.
At Williamstown, he created the Leapfrog program to unite early career directors, writers, and the non-Equity company of actors in the creation of original plays and musicals. He chose two projects a year, allowing each an unusually in-depth investigation and long rehearsal periods. He wanted the shows to arrive as merely ideas, without text, so that the cross-collaboration of actors, director, and writer(s) could inform the creation of the shows and infuse them with as much energy and invention as possible.
I was lucky enough to be a part of that program my second year at Williamstown, and from it Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was born. Michael Friedman and I began the summer thinking the show was going to be a play with songs, and emerged with a full-blown musical, replete with dance, underscoring, the whole nine yards. I was a director at the start of the summer, but by the end, I was a bookwriter, too. A non-union actor up there named Danny Mefford was recruited to do some movement, traveled to Broadway with the show, and is now one of the most prolific choreographers working today, with musicals like Fun Home and Bridges of Madison County. That lack of preciousness about titles and formal experience was central to how Roger viewed the world.
Roger was an actor, a writer, a director, a producer, and a painter. To him, there was no reason that a person had to be only one thing or the other, and that ethos informed the entire spirit of those lucky enough to be at his theatre during those three magical years.
When I asked Roger the summer before if I could flip the orientation of the church where we did my show Dance Dance Revolution, and cast the local head of police as the villain, he was all for it. A futuristic musical that used preexisting rave-music-for-toddlers as its soundtrack wasn’t the kind of show you would typically associate with the refined tradition of Williamstown—and that made Roger all the more excited about it.
In fact, while Roger’s career is in some ways associated with canonical plays, he was an even greater lover and advocate for new work. He championed a second stage that only featured new plays and wouldn’t allow them to be reviewed, so he could foster a protective environment. How cool is that?
Working on Peter and the Starcatcher united his love for new work and his dedication to younger actors. This show, which began for us as a workshop in a log cabin in his third year as artistic director, was a natural extension of those dual focuses. He was so excited about the fact that the play required a deft cast of fresh-out-of-school actors, which he would again routinely describe as the “next generation” of American theatre.
And, indeed, there was nothing more inspiring than watching said actors receive notes from him. Not only were his thoughts always insightful and effective—and suffused with his characteristic charm and wit—but they were incredibly entertaining and filled with his passion for making theatre.
This passion was at times eccentric and Roger had a true child-like joy that made him a perfect match for Peter Pan as a subject. Despite his many film roles and being Nicholas Nickleby, he was not above joining in the Williamstown late-night cabaret and singing a silly song in front of the festival staff and patrons. Or dressing up head to toe as a full-on sea captain with me at the Peter and the Starcatcher opening night.
One of my favorite memories of Roger was when we were preparing to do Peter on Broadway and Roger wanted to take the cast on a field trip to an actual ship to get a sense of the scale of a real sailing vessel, and perhaps what it might be like to be aboard one in a storm: what the planks might feel like, what a mizzenmast really was. Also, it would be a hoot.
So he pushed for it. And, probably as surprisingly to him as to the rest of us, he got his wish. One day in February, the producers organized vans and the entire cast and design team went down to South Street Seaport; we boarded the Peking and walked around. We walked on the planks and looked at the mizzenmast, laughed and had a great time imagining the whole play, as it might have happened in real life.
That passion for the communal experience, and for the group of young artists who might one day look after another “next generation” of actors and directors, were what defined Roger Rees to me.