February 14, 2023
Williamstown Theatre Festival and the town of Williamstown lost a one-of-a-kind friend last week. We at WTF are deeply saddened by the passing of beloved Festival actor, director, and playwright Steve Lawson. Steve died at age 73 of natural causes at his home in Williamstown on February 7, 2023.
Referring to the omnipresent sprite from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, WTF Trustee and former staff member Tom Fontana anointed Steve “The Ariel of Williamstown.” Tom, who produced St. Elsewhere, a television series for which Steve wrote seven episodes, said, “he was always floating around, perennially.”
Steve was born in Rye, NY and attended Williams College (class of ‘71) and then attended the Yale School of Drama to study criticism. In an interview with Berkshire Fine Arts, Steve once explained that “Nobody was hiring critics so, as a substitute, I turned to journalism and got to interview fascinating people like David Mamet, Athol Fugard, John Sayles, and Francois Truffaut. I published in The New York Times, Horizon, and Saturday Review.” Steve returned to Williamstown after his time in New Haven, purchasing a house with his brother and finding ways to continue to work with WTF.
Fontana said, “He was unrelenting in his passion for the theater.” And Austin Pendleton, a frequent collaborator of Steve’s at the Festival, added, “I will always admire Steve’s passion for theater.” “Over his 50 or more years, even when he wasn’t dramaturging, he kept evolving his involvement, making those epic adaptations for Free Theater and singing in the Cabaret. Will any of us ever forget Pink Fish?” asked Fontana.
Steve participated in 43 of WTF’s seasons, the most by anyone ever. He was proud of that record and his steadfast place as a member of the WTF “family.” Steve’s relationship with the Williamstown Theatre Festival spanned more than 50 years, beginning in 1969 when Steve, then a sophomore at Williams, wrote press releases and sold tickets. Then, in 1971, he played The Meddler in Cyrano de Bergerac, directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos, on the Main Stage. Steve went on to act in other Festival productions, including Summerfolk (1981), Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1989), and No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1990).
In 1972, Steve helped create Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “Second Company,” which was the precursor to the Non-Equity Company, a primary tenet of WTF’s training program for up-and-coming young actors. The Second Company was an integral part of the heyday of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, offering young up-and-coming artists a handrail to their theatrical careers. The Second Company did adventurous work, often by obscure writers, and with many emerging directors who went on to prominent careers. For the Second Company, Steve directed The Rat Trip (1972), Squirrels (1977), Wild Oats (1978), and David Mamet’s The Water Engine (1980). “When we were doing the Second Company, he would find these wonderfully obscure plays. One time he identified a female playwright; no one had heard of her at that point and the play went on to be a remarkable discovery. He would find things that needed attention, that we shouldn’t have forgotten,” said Fontana.
Steve also founded the wildly popular Free Theater program—outdoor productions performed free-of-charge that were adapted from great literary works (almost always by Steve). The first was Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet featuring Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly, and Jennifer Van Dyck. From there, Steve’s other adaptations included Wild Oats (1989), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1990), The Moonstone (1991), What Alice Found There (1995), Hard Times (1996), and Dracula, or the Un-Dead (2012).
Steve’s passion for Tennessee Williams’ work led to an epic Tennessee Williams: A Celebration in 1982 which was a collage of 26 plays performed by many “family” members that summer. Steve also wrote two collections of Williams’ letters, which premiered on the Main Stage: A Distant Country Called Youth in 2002 and Blanche and Beyond in 2009.
In addition to his directing, adapting, and dramaturgy work at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Steve also held a position at Manhattan Theatre Club and wrote many projects for television, including St. Elsewhere, The Dick Cavett Show, an episode for American Masters based on the Group Theatre, an episode of Great Performances about Edith Wharton, and the television adaptation of The Elephant Man. And, of course given his predilection for all things cinema, Steve helped to found the Williamstown Film Festival, where he served as Executive Director for 15 years.
Steve is survived by his brother Jon and sister-in-law Nicole of Rhinebeck, NY. Jon, who also worked at the Festival previously, can be reached at email@example.com.
Steve was integral to the life of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and with his passing, we lose a living piece of our history. Juliet Flynt, a long time staff member and archivist for WTF, sums it up for us. “Steve and I started working at WTF in 1969. I may have been the archivist, but Steve was forever my back-up memory, and he certainly was a wealth of tales of all the goings on at WTF over the many, many years. His outdoor Free Theater spectaculars were such a wonderful way to engage the community, and he was so involved in all aspects of the many different productions. I am so glad Gintare, Joe, and I had two wonderful lunches with him in October and December… his health may have been failing, but his mind was forever full of amusing happenings of WTF over the 50 years he worked there. I will miss him immensely but imagine he and Nikos are having quite the reunion.”
Williamstown Theatre Festival’s 2023 Season is dedicated to the memory of long-time WTF artist Steve Lawson.
Click here to search Steve Lawson in the WTF Archive.