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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

The prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival is in full swing in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Along with world-class professional performances, the festival features an apprentice program that's been called theater boot camp. For 10 weeks, the apprentices do everything from mopping the stage to performing on it. And they pay $3,000 a piece for the privilege. Sigourney Weaver and the late Christopher Reeve started their careers at Williamstown as apprentices. Andrea Shea reports.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Woman #1: Look here, are we going to have a chair then?

ANDREA SHEA reporting:

In a basement dressing room, a bunch of apprentices primp and psych each other up for their chance to perform on stage.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Group of People: (In unison) Five minutes.

SHEA: Upstairs, 19-year-old Jessica Barr(ph) sucks on a cough drop while she waits in the wings of the festival's brand-new $50-million theater, where, only an hour ago, some of New York's finest stage actors stood.

Ms. JESSICA BARR (Actress): It's beautiful. It's huge. I never feel more alive than when I'm out there. So that's what I'm waiting for.

SHEA: If Barr sounds a little less than alive, keep in mind it's midnight, and she's been working almost non-stop since she got here six weeks ago. Fortunately, she only has a few lines in the farcical horror trilogy called "The Witching Hour."

(Soundbite of "The Witching Hour")

Unidentified Actor #1: Now, Mr. Nuby(ph), you're sure you've handled cases like this before?

Unidentified Actor #2: Now don't you worry there, gov, we'll have this here ghost wrapped up nice and tight like. Don't you worry.

SHEA: The young actors live for rare moments like this when they're actually acting. In the morning, a few of them, including 21-year-old Jordan Barbour(ph), will play the part of garbage collector.

Mr. JORDAN BARBOUR (Actor): Right now, I have in my little picker-upper thing a lot of cigarette butts, some dirty gum wrappers and a lot of dirt, grime and grass.

SHEA: Plucking cigarettes off the lawn outside the theater ranks up there with baby-sitting a famous actor's child, driving 10 hours to New Jersey and back to pick up lighting equipment and spending a week and a half gluing 3,000 fake flowers to a huge backdrop as the least desirable apprentice jobs. Zack Fishman(ph) got to paint wooden bricks at Delftree(ph). The scene shop, located on the second floor of an un-air-conditioned warehouse, is like the Siberia of Williamstown.

Mr. ZACK FISHMAN (Actor): I mean, it's a little tough, but that's how it is, you know? Like, if you don't have experience, then you come to Delftree all day and you paint.

SHEA: Or staple or saw.

(Soundbite of saw)

Mr. ROGER REES (Artistic Director): Suffering for your art is a thing that people remember.

SHEA: Roger Rees is the festival's new artistic director and an actor with dozens of stage, film and television credits. Back at the Williamstown Theatre, Rees recalls when he and actor Ben Kingsley apprenticed for England's Royal Shakespeare Company over 30 years ago.

Mr. REES: And for four years, the two of us played huntsmen in every Shakespeare play. And we had no lines at all, we just carried things around the stage. And then eventually, we got small parts. And then 22 years later, both of us finished up playing "Hamlet." It's just the apprenticeship served is what you do as an actor.

SHEA: The transaction is fair, says Rees, especially at a company the caliber of Williamstown, where apprentices get to learn by watching some of New York's top actors, directors and designers. And while the apprentices jokingly refer to themselves as festival slaves, Rees seems to have embarked on an apprentice appreciation program. He refers to them as students.

Mr. JESSE GREEN (New York Times Theater Writer): Nikos used to refer to us as cretins and morons. So that's quite an improvement.

SHEA: New York Times theater writer Jesse Green is referring to Nikos Psacharopoulos, the festival's artistic director from the 1950s until his death in 1989. Green worked under Psacharopoulos as a directing intern in 1980 and says the professional staff loved him. But Green calls him an ogre and quit before finishing the program. Still, Green says a kinder, gentler Williamstown might not be a good thing.

Mr. GREEN: People who are not necessarily going to become major players in the theater, at the old Williamstown, would have learned pretty quickly that there wasn't a very big place for them and probably quickly turned their attention to other lines of work. As it gets nicer, and I have nothing but praise for their getting nicer, one wonders if people who really ought to be looking elsewhere are delayed in their doing so.

SHEA: While some apprentices would do well to heed Green's words, they probably won't because they're all completely obsessed with theater and hardly seem to mind rehearsing late at night after a full day's work.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Unidentified Woman #2: All right. Let's take it from `Anyway, you know, Central Park. It's a real haven...'

Unidentified Actor #3: Anyway, you know Central Park. It's a real haven for panhandlers, homeless. It's really awful of course.

SHEA: Like Josh Wade(ph), Colleen Britt(ph) is an older apprentice and admits to living the cliched life of a New York actor. Britt says she struggled to make her rent in the city so she could be here for the summer and says she used her credit card to pay for her room and board at Williamstown.

Ms. COLLEEN BRITT (Actress): It was like `ching, ching,' $1,800. `Ching, ching,' $1,750. But, I mean, all you do here is theater. And there's nothing better than that, you know. Like, when you're in New York, it's like you want to be doing that, but you have to go to the restaurant job, you know what I mean?

SHEA: For some, the Williamstown experience does pay off. This year's production of William Inge's "Bus Stop" is peopled by former apprentices, including its star, Logan Marshall-Green. The 26-year-old actor has had some success on television and off-Broadway after paying his $3,000 to pick up cigarette butts in 2001. But he says it doesn't get any easier, even if you do survive a summer at Williamstown.

Mr. LOGAN MARSHALL-GREEN (Actor): Even when you're on top of the world, it gets harder because what goes up must come down. And I had to learn that the career of an actor is not when you're working, it's when you're not working.

SHEA: The apprentices at Williamstown have plenty of work ahead of them. They're in the middle of turnaround, which means they're breaking down one set and building another for the next production. They do look pretty cute in their blue, white and yellow hard hats and the experience will give them plenty of opportunities to make connections with power tools.

(Soundbite of power drill)

SHEA: For NPR News, this is Andrea Shea.

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