Take a trip to a summer Shakespeare theater in the Berkshires where the behind-the-curtain theatrics are just as compelling as Bard's onstage drama.

By Ruth Kinane
May 11, 2020 at 02:07 PM EDT
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Graydon House

The course of true love never did run smooth —  not in Shakespearean times, nor in present times.

If you're in need of some theatrics, sunshine, and sexy, intense eye contact to brighten your quarantine-tinged summer, look no further than Aimee Agresti's (Campaign Widows) new novel The Summer Set. Taking place at a seasonal Shakespeare theater in the Berkshires, the novel follows once-it girl Charlie Savoy, a misunderstood "wild child" and actress, who left Hollywood behind ten years earlier, dejected by the attitudes of her peers (or one peer in particular) that overlooked and stifled her creativity.

A decade after she put acting on the back burner, Charlie initially has no choice but to return to the company that launched her career, but she soon rediscovers her love for the craft and the energy it ignites within her as she takes on roles in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer's Night Dream, and The Tempest. Oh, did we mention the theater's creative director, Nick, also happens to be her ex-boyfriend with whom she had the messiest of breakups? (What, like you've never thought about throwing a cocktail glass near your ex?) Cue reluctant nostalgia, snappy exchanges of dialogue and a whole lot of sexual tension. A midsummer night's dream, indeed.

The Summer Set envelopes you in the messy romance and magic of Shakespeare's works and Agresti's sunny story, all at once compelling you to bask in this hazy summery read, but also race to the end to revel in its curtain-dropping conclusion. Not unlike a tranquil July sunset, you can't look away, but it's still over too fast — still escaping to the season of trilling cicadas and glowing fireflies is always worth it, no matter how short-lived.

Basically, it's everything your lockdown living room is not right now and exactly the uplifting summer read we all need when this year's sunny season is shaping up to be a little less lavish than normal. "I'm really glad that the book that I have coming out right now is totally happy," Agresti tells EW with a laugh. "We can't handle anything else bad at the moment!"

Ahead of The Summer Set's May 12 release, we chatted with Agresti about setting up this summer story of a different kind of Juliet and her Romeo.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea spark from?

AIMEE AGRESTI: I definitely had the idea for a long time. I spent so many years in entertainment journalism and always wanted to tell the story of a starlet who, from the outside looked to be your run-of-the-mill wild child with a hint of self-destruction, but actually deep down on there's so much more going on. She's so much more vulnerable than anybody would guess. I really wanted to tell the story of someone that you might not really know the way you think you do based on the headlines and the soundbites. The idea was there for a really long time and sort of percolating — all my books tend to percolate for a really long time. I have the ideas while I'm working on other books and they're just waiting for me to take over as soon as I can.

Why did you decide to set it in the world of theater? And, more specifically, at a resident summer Shakespeare theater?

I've always been super obsessed with the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. I've always wanted to go and this was the best excuse ever to get to finally go there. It's been around forever and I've always loved the idea that they have these incredible, professional accomplished Hollywood stars — like Bradley Cooper and Gwyneth Paltrow — who come and perform and then they also have apprentices who are college kids still learning the craft. They're all like mixing and mingling. I have an overactive imagination and any time worlds are colliding like that and I just love wondering what it could mean.

It's also just a gorgeous-sounding backdrop for a story.

Yes. It's in the Berkshire Mountains — it's so beautiful and when you're there you feel very cut off from the world. You just feel like you're nestled in this creative, artistic community and that's an incredibly inspiring kind of feeling that, in itself, is great for anybody who — like in this book — is going through a second act. They're making these changes in their lives and that kind of landscape makes you just want to take a deep breath and sort out your head. You can really do some soul searching. Of course, at Williamstown Theater Festival they know what they're doing. They run this amazing program every year, but the one in my book is supposed to terrible. So I just took what they do at Williamstown and did the opposite of it so that in my book it's falling apart.

Why did you choose Shakespeare's works as the plays the company is producing?

I'm a Shakespeare geek. I've always just loved Shakespeare. I really liked the idea of that clash of the old and the new ideas mirrored by Charlie and the other actors who were part of the company and these new, up-and-comer apprentices who have this wide-eyed passion and are just getting started in their careers. I liked playing with the idea that Shakespeare and this place feel a little bit musty and old, but get revitalized throughout the book.

You also play with the idea of acting in your personal life as well as professionally.

Yeah, Charlie wants to project to everybody that she almost doesn't even care about anything; she's just flying by the seat of her pants and doing her thing. She's very tough, but that's all just to cover up that really she's super vulnerable inside and very scared to be back in this world. Then we find out that she really left Hollywood so that she couldn't be rejected by the craft she loves so much.

She's such a great character to read and has so many sharp one-liners. Where did the idea for Charlie come from?

I did a lot of thinking about what brought her to this place and I did have one anecdote that stuck with me from my entertainment journalism days. My first job out of college was at a movie magazine. I was a party reporter — so you cover the red carpet, the premiere and then go to the party after. Because I was right out of college, I often got to interview the up-and-comers. It was always interesting if it was somebody's first big role and you got to them before they really even know they're a celebrity. There's so much realness there. So I was thinking a lot about how you go from that to then someone who is on the other side of that and trying to make their careers still happen when they've passed their ingenue phase. One time, I was at one of these premieres — I won't tell you what movie or any of the juicy details — and the movie was so good and it had this brand new actress in it who was fantastic and just super sweet. Right before I left the premiere, I went over to thank the publicist and told him how I thought I was witnessing the birth of a star. He was like, "Yeah, I thought so too, but I think she really blew it with her next movie. It's an indie movie and no one's going to see it." I was so offended on her behalf. That crystallized everything for me about what women go through in Hollywood. You can make a choice, that's not even a bad choice — it's a great career choice and very forward-thinking — and people will still have opinions about it and it can stop you getting roles for a long time. That stuck with me all these years and when I was writing Charlie, I kept coming back to it because she was a character who had these great early roles and then got this reputation that wasn't even right. She actually made a good decision to walk away from that one movie because it wasn't in a good place, but she got burned for it. I always feel like I really relate to people who are getting into things because they want to connect with people. They want to understand themselves and be a conduit to other's stories, and that's what Charlie does.

Charlie is one of four narrators that you go between throughout. When you're writing did you ever, unintentionally, find yourself spending too much time with one character and have to balance it out?

It's tricky sometimes to balance them. Sometimes I'll get really carried away with one person's storyline and I'll have to go back and chop things up a little bit so that I'm getting the other voices in there enough. This book is sort of similar to Campaign Widows in that I got to be in a bunch of different heads and I really liked that. It was useful for this one especially too, because all of these characters are acting as much off stage as they are on. So it's really helpful because so often what they're saying and what they're pretending to show to the world, is not the real them at all. I was glad for the chance to get to show what's really on all of their minds.

Why is The Summer Set the perfect summer-in-quarantine read?

Well, it transports you to a beautiful summer destination. You're in the Berkshire. It's gorgeous. You're seeing plays. You're in this artistic wonderland and it's just a fun ride. All fun, all the time. It's like comfort food and there's a happy ending.

The Summer Set is out May 12.

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