Back to work: After a hiatus, New Century Theatre returns with two summer productions

  • Sam Rush, seen here in the 2017 production “Building the Wall” at Northampton’s Academy of Music, will direct a New Century Theatre play this summer and perform in another.  Gazette file photo

  • Sam Rush, at left, says New Century Theatre is in a “reboot phase” this summer, staging two new productions. Photo by Jon Crispin/courtesy New Century Theatre

  • Sam Rush, seen here in the 2017 play “Building the Wall,” says he takes “100 percent responsibility” for his dismissal from Smith College in 2017 because of a relationship with a student. Gazette file photo

  • Ellen Wiitlinger, a member of New Century Theatre’s Board of Directors, says she believes many people in the region want to see the company rebound. Image courtesy Ellen Wittlinger

Thursday, May 02, 2019

After a difficult year and an extended hiatus, one of the Valley’s longstanding theater companies is returning this summer with two new shows — and the hope that it can build on that in the future,

New Century Theatre, begun in 1991 by co-founders Sam Rush and Jack Neary, will stage Edward Albee’s classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Gateway City arts in Holyoke June 14-16 and 21-23, and “A Walk in the Woods,” written by Lee Blessing, at Eastworks in Easthampton July 26-28 and August 2-4.

Both plays will have eight showings, a bit less than NCT’s past schedules. But Rush, who’s currently serving as NCT’s producer, says the company is in “kind of a reboot phase,” staging productions with a smaller budget and also re-engaging with sponsors, assessing how NCT can more forward. 

“I’ve described this to friends as ‘We’ve kind of gone back two decades, the early days where we’d have to do it as simply as we could devise,’ ” Rush said during an interview last month at Eastworks. “We’re rebuilding … But we now have a [new] board of directors that’s incredibly supportive and excited about the possibilities.

“I think everyone’s ready to turn the page, roll up their sleeves and get to work,” he added. “There’s still a lot of re-envisoning that we have to do as as organization.”

NCT hit a wall last year following Rush’s dismissal, in late fall 2017, from his long-time position as program and publicity manager for the Smith College Theater Department. At the time, college officials said Rush had been fired for what they termed “allegations of serious violations” of the school’s policy regarding relationships between faculty/staff and students.

In fall 2016, NCT had also moved out of Smith College, where it had staged its plays for years, after the college, without elaborating, cited “undisputed policy and contract violations” by the company.

Members of NCT’s previous board of directors resigned following Rush’s firing, and that, plus uncertainty about sponsorship for the company’s productions, led Rush to issue a statement in spring 2018 that NCT would be on hiatus for the year.

In an interview, Rush said he’s since put together a new, though smaller, board of directors, as well as an advisory board for NCT, and the company has built up a modest budget — about $30,000, perhaps one-fourth or even one-fifth of what NCT had previously worked with. All through that process, he says, he’s worked to be up front with people about his dismissal from Smith.  

“For me, the best place to start is to say definitively, once again, that I am incredibly sorry about what happened,” he said. “I made a huge mistake, one that I’m completely embarrassed and ashamed about. I take full, complete, absolute, 100-percent responsibility for it — period.

“I was the grownup in the room, even though this person was of adult age,” he added. “I should have done it differently … And to work in an institution for at long as I did — I was at Smith 26 years — and to know that that’s a line you don’t cross, that’s on me.” 

Even if the subject doesn’t come up in conversations today, Rush notes, he suspects it’s on people’s minds: “It’s the elephant in the room.” As such, he’s sensed that some actors and others who were part of previous NCT productions — perhaps more women than men — don’t want to work with him any longer. “It’s not articulated as such, but you get a vibe,” he said.

There’s not much he can do about that, he believes.

“There are some people who want to define me by what’s happened, by what they’ve read, and as much as I wish that were not the case, I have absolutely no control over that. I have to accept that they’ve made up their minds, and I may never be able to change that.”

But in his next breath, Rush stresses why he remains committed to NCT and staying involved in theater in the Valley. (He performed in a play produced by Silverthorne Theater Company of Greenfield last fall, and NCT also staged a new version of its short play series, “Life in the 413,” last fall at Northampton’s Academy of Music as a fundraiser and “testing the waters” effort)

“I’ve given almost 30 years of my life to this company, to producing theater in the Valley, and I want that to continue,” he said.

Turning the page

One person eager to see NCT’s work continue is Amy-Louise Pfeffer, a new board member and also the company’s treasurer. Pfeffer, who lives in Florence, is a longtime admirer of NCT and Rush’s work as an actor, director and producer. Her husband took acting lesson from Rush and was equally impressed, Pfeffer said in a phone interview.

“NCT was producing the kind of quality theater that is difficult to find outside of London or New York,” she said.

Pfeffer, a former farmer and now an environmental educator and consultant, says she was “very taken aback” at what she calls Rush’s “decisions that were unwise.” But she also sympathized with his subsequent isolation within the area’s theater community, and that his dismissal from Smith became public; she’s impressed with the ways he’s continued to try and stay active in theater regardless.

“It takes a lot of courage to hold your head up and keep working,” she said. “We all have faults, we all make mistakes — no one is perfect.”

And Ellen Wittlinger, another board member, said she’s long been amazed by Rush’s thespian talents and commitment to theater. A Young Adult novelist who lives in Haydenville, Wittlinger is also a playwright whose work previously received some readings by NCT; she believes there’s still an audience for the company’s work, and that Rush has paid his dues.

“He made a mistake, he has apologized for it, and he's been punished for it by the loss of his job,” Wittlinger wrote in an email. “I saw no reason to punish not only Sam, but the community as well, by losing what has been a fantastic theatre [sic] company for the past 27 years. And I'm certain I'm not the only person who feels this way.”

NCT is currently seeking new sponsors, again “testing the waters,” as Rush puts it, to see how the business community and other potential supporters view the company. These days Rush works part time giving group acting lessons, and he also does organizational and outreach work for Chambers Advisory Group, a Northampton company that helps schools and towns make changes to their telecommunications and lighting systems.

For its production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” NCT is drawing on some real-life experience to tell the story, about a middle-aged academic couple, George and Martha, who lash out at each other one night following a faculty party. In this case, Rush will play George, and Cate Damon, Rush’s wife, will play Martha.

“It’s either going to be the most inspired thing we’ve ever done or the most stupid thing,” Rush said with a laugh. “We’re both scared to death.”

He notes that the play is about a couple “who have a lot of issues,” and that he and Damon have had their share of issues during the last few years as well. “At the same time, I love doing shows with her,” he said.

Moreover, even if the couple in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” are tearing into each other, finding each other’s weak spots, Rush said, “Where it all comes from is that they genuinely love each other, and that love means that when there are hurts, those are deep hurts.”

“A Walk in the Woods,” meantime, which will be staged at The West End space in Eastworks, follows two arms negotiators, from the United States and the former Soviet Union, in the 1980s who break away from the stalled talks in Switzerland to take a private stroll through a nearby forest to see if they can make progress on their own. The play will be directed by Rush, who has changed the character of the U.S. negotiator from a man to a woman.

Another long-term goal for NCT is what Rush calls “a succession plan”: finding someone who can eventually take over the company’s leadership. “I know this isn’t something I want to do forever, but there’s a legacy here and a quality of work that I would like to see keep going … so ‘phase two’ is getting a new artistic person involved.”

And if some people don’t want to re-engage with NCT because of Rush’s continued involvement with the company?

“That is their perfect right,” said Pfeffer. “But I think there’s an audience out there for good theater, who recognize the quality of work NCT has done for so many years.” NCT, she added, “is not just about Sam Rush — but again, I think many people recognize his commitment to theater and to doing what’s right.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

More information on New Century Theatre can be found at newcenturytheatre.org.