Williamstown Actor Bringing Van Gogh to Barrington Stage

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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James Briggs of Williamstown is producing and acting in the one-man show 'Vincent,' about Vincent van Gogh.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The first production of Starry Night Theater Company is a one-man show but not a one-man operation.

Williamstown actor James Briggs, who founded Starry Night, will bring "Vincent," based on the life and words of Vincent van Gogh, to Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield next month.

Briggs is excited to see his fledgling production company get off the ground and thrilled to have an old friend at the helm of the debut performance.

"The director, who I'm really excited about, is named Brant Pope," Briggs said recently during an interview in his Spring Street office. "He was the head of the (Florida State University) Asolo Conservatory when I was there. I've known him for over 20 years.

"One of the things about doing a one-man play is, obviously, when you're working with a director you're the only actor, so you're working very closely and very intimately and very quickly, too, because it's a shorter time frame than a normal production where you might rehearse over three or four weeks. We'll rehearse two weeks and a do a short week of tech and dress rehearsals."

And then it's a planned two-week run at BSC's second stage, kicking off Dec. 14 and ending on Dec. 30.

For Briggs, it will mark not just the beginning of Starry Night but also a major step in his second career — or his third, depending on how you do the counting.

"I was a professional actor," he said. "After I graduated from [Middlebury] college in 1990, I did a two-year MFL program at the Asolo Conservatory in Sarasota, Fla. I was a professional actor for a few years after that.

"Then I got married and decided to go to law school and get a real job and get serious about life. I was a lawyer for about 10 years. Then, about a year and a half ago, I decided it was time to pursue my real passion: acting and theater."

He spent the last two summers in Lake George, N.Y., performing with the Last of the Mohicans Outdoor Drama.

Starry Night allows him to combine his passion for the arts with the business acumen he developed as a real estate and probate attorney, most recently with Pittsfield firm Grinnell Smith.

"There's always been a bit of an entrepreneur in me," Briggs said. "That's why I wanted to start my own theater company.

Briggs left practicing law to start his own production company.
"As you know, around here we have a lot of great theater in the summer, but it tends to kind of really thin out during the winter. So I thought there is enough of a theater audience here to have more of a year-round presence. I would never try to do some huge-cast musical in the dead of winter. That would be tough to get people to come out and see."

The St. Germain, with about 110 seats, is a good fit for the intimate dramas Briggs wants to produce, and his friend BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd was happy to help him make Starry Nights' first show a reality.

"The plays that I love are just really good dramas that are realistic about real life issues," Briggs said. "I know that's kind of a simplistic statement. But I love really good theater with really good actors.

"While I enjoy an occasional musical, that's not what I'm trying to do. I love the works of Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets and William Inge and some of those types of playwrights."

Add Leonard Nimoy to that list.

The Boston-born actor best known worldwide for portraying Mr. Spock in the "Star Trek" television shows and films is also the creative force behind "Vincent."

The two-act play gives audience insight into the lives of both the artist and his brother and patron, Theo, whose letters to one another were Nimoy's source material.

Briggs steps into the dual role of Vincent and Theo that Nimoy originated.

"It's really interesting because most of the play is done from the point of view of Vincent's brother, Theo, who was really the person who supported Vincent for a lot of his adult life," Briggs said. "He's kind of a forgotten soul, but he was such an integral part of Vincent's life. They wrote hundreds of letters back and forth. That's where this play comes from, the letters.

"It's neat because you have the actual words written by Vincent van Ggoh himself and his brother. I get to speak those words."

And he gets to appear on stage not with other actors but with the works of van Gogh on full display. The backdrop for Briggs' performance will be a 7-by-14 foot screen displaying many of van Gogh's paintings.

That screen is another sign that Briggs is far from going it alone on this project.

"Whenever you have projections, it creates a challenge because theatrical lighting spreads out quite a bit, and you really have to get it right so not a ton of light is on the screen," he said. "[BSC lighting designer] Scott [Pinkney] is very experienced. He just did the Dr. Ruth one-woman show down there, which also had projections. He knows the space, he knows the capabilities and what needs to happen. I was thrilled to get him on board."

In fact, Briggs is appreciative of all the support Barrington Stage is providing for the first production of Starry Night, a production company named, not coincidentally, for one of the most famous works of Vincent van Gogh.

"I had explored various different shows and have ideas for other things in the future, but I sort of hit on this because Vincent van Gogh is someone I have always been really interested in," Briggs said. "Even as a kid, I remember seeing Starry Night and thinking it was coolest thing I'd ever seen. I had a poster of it in high school.

"I remember one day just thinking as I was looking at myself in the mirror that I kind of look like Vincent van Gogh. ... I said, 'I wonder if there are any plays about Vincent van Gogh.' "

A quick Web search pointed Briggs toward "Vincent," and the rest is history.

His personal history with Pope helped lure the chairman of the theater and dance at the University of Texas to the Berkshires for December.

"Originally when I talked to him, I thought I would do the show in October, and he said, 'That's not going to work because I'm directing another play (in Texas),'" Briggs said. "When I decided to do it over the holidays, I called and said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'Yeah, that will work.' "

It works out much better for Briggs, who admits to being both excited and a little scared about doing his first one-man show.

"It was important to me to work with somebody who I immediately knew and trusted and had a good working relationship with rather than having to spend the first several days or a week or whatever really trying to build that working relationship," he said. "We know each other very well. He knows my work. He knows how to push me as an actor. And I understand where he's coming from as well.

"To me, that really makes the process a lot easier when you can just hit the ground running."

Tags: actors,   Barrington Stage,   local theater,   

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