NEA Arts Magazine

The Community's the Thing

The Importance of the Summer Theater Festivals to the Berkshires

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Black-and-white vintage photograph of crowd sitting on lawn at Williamstown Theatre Fest in 1970s Page 16— a male and female actor on a couch in a scene from Period of Adjustment

An audience at a free performance during the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1987. Photo by Nina Krieger

In the summer of 1850, David Dudley Field, Jr., an attorney and homeowner in Western Massachusetts' Berkshire County, arranged a picnic for notable authors and a handful of Berkshire citizens atop Monument Mountain near Great Barrington. That luncheon was said to have sparked the friendship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and convinced Melville to move to the Berkshires, where he would write one of the great American novels, Moby-Dick. This interplay between the Berkshires' communities and its great artistic tradition continues today, and perhaps nowhere more palpably than within the summer festivals of four major residential theaters: Berkshire Theatre Festival (BTF), Williamstown Theatre Festival, Shakespeare and Company, and Barrington Stage Company (BSC).

By the local visitors bureau's estimate, 2.5 million tourists flock to this Western Massachusetts region annually -- the large majority during the summer -- and almost 60 percent of them attend performing arts productions. While the dance center Jacob's Pillow and the Boston Symphony Orchestra's retreat at Tanglewood have traditionally been a focal point for visitors, these four theaters' festivals, with their ambitious scheduling of dozens of plays, musicals, cabarets, children's fare, and touring shows from May to September, have become a large component of the region's cultural life. But beyond the appeal to the tourists, these festivals have enduring value to the 131,000 locals, whose communities are the major beneficiaries of their artistic, economic, and educational output. Barbara Allen, the Stockbridge Library archives curator, noted that, over the years, "The theaters became part of the community and the community became part of the theaters. And it fit in. Just as the writers fit in. It's that type of area."

Paul Fitzgerald and Rebecca Brooksher in Berkshire Theatre Festival's 2011 production of Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Williams. Photo by Christy Wright

Berkshire Theatre Festival

The oldest of the four theaters dates back to 1928, two years after Walter Clark, a New York art gallery president, purchased the dilapidated Stockbridge Casino. Clark helped form a private group dedicated to the arts, moved the casino down Main Street, and reopened it as the Berkshire Playhouse. A New York actor and Yale graduate student was hired to run it, and with starlet Eva Le Gallienne gracing the inaugural summer season of the Playhouse, the theater was an immediate hit with locals. Now known as the Berkshire Theatre Group (having merged with Pittsfield's refurbished Colonial Theatre to produce year-round entertainment), it is one of the oldest professional regional theaters in the country. Its history boasts prominent designers and actors, such as Buster Keaton, Al Pacino, and Katharine Hepburn, its main theater is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and a second stage (the Unicorn) often hosts world premieres.

While the spectrum of their offerings are wide, the underlying theme uniting the theaters is their integration into the communities. Rebecca Brooksher, an actress who's performed at both BSC and BTF, summarized the relationship: "The theaters, along with other cultural events in the area, are the community itself. I think it's why people choose the Berkshires over the Hamptons or Cape Cod. The community is made up of intelligent, cultured people. And it's the constant dialogue between the audience and the theaters that makes the area so exciting."

The region's economic vitality is a strong indicator of the theaters' import. Berkshire Creative, an organization that assists the creative sector, estimates that these theaters and the area's other major cultural institutions spend upwards of $40 million on goods and services within Berkshire County, provide thousands of jobs, bring in millions of dollars in federal grants, and are a boon to the county's hospitality industry. In an anecdotal nod to how the arts can revitalize an economy, Julianne Boyd, a former artistic director at BTF, noted, "The arts are truly leading the economy in Pittsfield. When we moved here, it was a ghost town. Fifty stores opened in the last two years on North Street here."

This past summer, despite fears of a double-dip in the depressed economy, three of the four theaters reported ticket sale increases from 2010, with BSC announcing the most successful season in its history, topping $1 million in individual ticket sales in addition to subscriptions and group sales. Meanwhile, Williamstown reported more than 40,000 audience members in 2011 from 44 states and various countries, contributing to a boost in hotel and restaurant business in the vicinity.

Lili Taylor and Lily Rabe in a scene from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2011. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Lili Taylor and Lily Rabe in a scene from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2011. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Williamstown Theatre Festival

Perhaps inspired by the success of South County's Tanglewood and Berkshire Playhouse, a group of businessmen and Williams College faculty members hatched a plan to start a summer theater festival partially to increase Northern Berkshire tourism. They prevailed upon the college president for use of the school's Adams Memorial Theatre, and the festival was born in 1954. The following year, Nikos Psacharopoulos -- or just Nikos, as he was universally known -- was at the helm, where he would remain for 33 years.

"Nikos never rested on his laurels," said Williamstown Film Festival Executive Director Steve Lawson. "Even after a very successful season, he would say, 'Yes, but next week we do something new and something big.'" Williamstown got bigger indeed; it now boasts a summer staff of more than 350 people, including performers, designers, directors, writers, technicians, interns, and apprentices. The festival moved to a new complex in 2005, three years after winning the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.

All four theaters run educational outreach programs, and their footprint speaks to how vital the theaters are to these towns. For Shakespeare and Company, its education programs are essential to its mission. Based for 23 seasons at the Mount, Edith Wharton's Lenox estate, the company was in search of a new home and in 2001 moved to its current Kemble Street location. According to Tina Packer, founder of the organization, "the principal reason we stayed in the Berkshires is we'd built up relationships with the whole school system." For more than two decades, the company's heralded Fall Festival has brought teaching artists to 500 students across ten schools in the county before presenting shows to the public in the days before Thanksgiving.

A collaboration between Shakespeare and Company and the Berkshire Juvenile Court resulted in Shakespeare in the Courts, which teaches juvenile offenders to explore scenes from the Bard's canon and learn personal values from the texts. Initiated in part with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the program has been praised and awarded on both a state and federal level.

Merritt Janson as Rosalind in Shakespeare & Company's 2011 production of As You Like It

Merritt Janson as Rosalind in Shakespeare & Company's 2011 production of As You Like It. Photo by Kevin Sprague

Shakespeare and Company

Nestled between Stockbridge and Williamstown is Lenox, where Edith Wharton's estate, the Mount, sprawls down the road from the town center. And it was at the Mount that Shakespeare and Company resided for 23 seasons before moving to its current Kemble Street location, which includes three performance spaces and ambitious plans to construct a space modeled after Shakespeare's Rose Playhouse. Company founder Tina Packer recalled that while meeting with her grant officer from the Ford Foundation in 1978, a "bloke came in the door who I thought was a plumber," and listened to her thoughts on forming a theater company. That 'bloke' turned out to be a real estate developer and former trade union leader named Mitch Berenson, who would later offer assistance and propose the Berkshires as an ideal place for the new company. Packer immediately warmed to the notion: "I wanted to see if a classical theater company could actually affect the community it lives in. I was much more interested in its social effect than being on Broadway."

Then there is Williamstown's Greylock Theatre Project, based on New York's 52nd Street Project, which works with North Adams children in the Greylock and Brayton Hill neighborhoods on theater activities. The theaters all run some form of youth theater as well, and BTF operates school residencies and touring performances that reach thousands of students each year. Barrington Stage Company's playwright mentoring project, an intensive, six-month, out-of-school activity for at-risk youth, received a Coming Up Taller Award in 2007.

Barbara Allen, herself a resident for more than 30 years with two children as public school alumni, sees the theaters' education programs as crucial: "I will honestly say that with one of my daughters, Shakespeare and Company changed her life. All the credit in the world to S&Co's children's program."

The 2011 Barrington Stage Company production of the classic musical Guys and Dolls

The 2011 Barrington Stage Company production of the classic musical Guys and Dolls. Photo by Kevin Sprague

Barrington Stage Company

The newest theater of the four, Barrington Stage Company, was founded in 1995 by Julianne Boyd, a former artistic director at BTF. First located in Sheffield, and now in a renovated vaudeville house in Pittsfield with a second stage nearby, BSC has already premiered a handful of works that have transferred to New York, including The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Along with its smaller, intimate plays, BSC is also the most apt of the four theaters to stage musicals, and runs a musical theater incubator for new works, headed by lyricist/ composer William Finn, which has produced seven world premieres and four workshops since 2006.

Even beyond the artistic and educational ancillary benefits, the theaters are entwined in residents' very lives. Allen placed the connection of the theaters and community in a historical context. "You have no idea how many of the 70-, 80-, 90-year-olds in town, you get them talking, and they'll say 'Oh yes, I was an extra in such-and-such a play, or they used my dog in this play.'" Just this past season, Barrington Stage Company used a local church's gospel choir as the final punctuation in its civil rights play The Best of Enemies.

Though the festivals last for only a few months, the theaters themselves remain significant throughout the year. As Melville, Hawthorne, and numerous other writers of the 19th century became part of the communities, so too have these theaters become an essential part of each town's fabric. Returning to the very reason she agreed to found a theater in the Berkshires, Packer said, "My question was can a theater affect the community it lives in, and the answer is yes, absolutely."

Adam W. Green is an actor and writer living in New York City.