Dean by day, director by night: Summer Williams and the lives she leads



Dean Summer Williams (third from right) with the cast and writer of “Sandblasted,” an Off-Broadway play that Williams took a leave of absence to direct this winter.

On a cold, snowy January day in New York City, 31 tons of sand were dropped off at the Vineyard Theatre. As the director of “Sandblasted,” which would open the following month at the theater, Dean Summer Williams had to figure out how to handle the sand.

Dealing with 50-pound bags of frozen sand is a very different kind of challenge than what Williams usually encounters in the halls of the high school. But Williams is no stranger to balancing very different careers. In addition to being a dean and directing performances at the high school, Williams runs a professional theater company in Boston called Company One. This winter, she took a leave of absence and spent two months directing “Sandblasted,” an Off-Broadway play.

Williams’s good friend and playwright Charly Evon Simpson, who wrote “Sandblasted,” was approached by two Off-Broadway producers who offered to give the show its world premiere. Simpson agreed, as long as Williams could direct it.

Williams said she enjoyed being able to work closely with Simpson in shaping the play. “Sandblasted” was Williams’s first experience directing Off-Broadway.

“The premise is heavy: Black women falling apart because of what’s happening in the world,” Williams said. “The beauty of the play is that it was not about demonstrating the heaviness, it was about demonstrating the joy that we choose to access in spite of the heaviness, the joy that we lean on to help us move through the heaviness.”

Getting to direct Off-Broadway was surreal for Williams, who had never spent so much time living in New York City.

“I got to live a dream,” Williams said, “And it was fantastic and beautiful in every way.”

Williams first fell in love with theater in high school when she did a summer program at a theater in Philadelphia.

“At that time, I thought I was going to be an actor. But I really got into the idea of creating a world and being able to go inside of a world and make the rules of the world. There was something that was really fascinating and exciting about that,” Williams said.

Since then, theater has always played an important role in Williams’s life. While attending Clark University as an undergraduate, she co-founded Company One Theatre, which operates out of many different spaces in the Boston area.

“We don’t own a theater and that’s on purpose. We produce in a lot of different places and spaces because we think theater should also be able to go to people and not just have people come to us,” Williams said. “Our model is that everything is pay what you want. We think theater is public art and everybody should have access to it. The cost of a ticket should not stand in your way of having an experience.”

Williams has spent her life cultivating what she considers “parallel careers.” Although being a high school dean and being a professional theater director are very different, Williams has found some important connections.

“So much of why I love all the aspects of my work is that it’s about working with people, figuring out some creative problem solving, thinking as a team towards something and trying to create better,” Williams said. “In every circumstance, whether I’m deaning or directing or anything that I do, the goal is always to work toward making something– a situation, a moment, a person– better.”

Williams hopes that the time she spent directing “Sandblasted” can help her students learn a valuable lesson.

“I hope having their dean go away for a period of time to do this other thing that really matters to her and is really important to her– I hope that demonstrates that you don’t have to just do one thing your whole life,” Williams said. “You can have a wide variety of interests and things that you care about. You can build a life around those things. Even though it’s tricky, you can figure it out.”