Barrington Stage Co. Takes a Lead Role in Pittsfield’s Emerging Arts Scene
Watch for……a new box office! Reads one in the lobby. Watch for …… a new lighting and sound system! Reads another in the balcony.
The hall, nestled on a side street in the center of Pittsfield, is currently undergoing renovations and is, for now, easy to miss. A simple blue and pink placard belies the size and scope of the theater inside, which houses an historic vaudeville stage, 11 rows of orchestra seating and seven in the balcony, formal dressing and green rooms in the basement, and loads of New England charm.
But its neither the unique architecture nor the buildings history that many in Berkshire County are keeping an eye on these days; its the halls new owner, the Barrington Stage Company (BSC), and the commitment the group has made to breathing new life into an old music hall, the craft of theater itself, and the City of Pittsfield as a whole.
BSC, a non-profit, up-and-coming theater group, may have yet to carve a niche in the Berkshires as deep as some other regional theater staples, like Shakespeare and Co. or the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
But the company has already burst out of the Berkshire seams by garnering national acclaim for locally staged productions as well as world premieres of shows such as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, now playing on Broadway and the winner of two Tony Awards.
Until this year, BSC grew incrementally over the past decade from its headquarters in Sheffield, an arts and culture-rich section in the Berkshires South County.
Although the company was established in that area, BSCs artistic director, Julianne Boyd, felt it was time to break new ground, both literally and figuratively. So BSC purchased the hall and an adjacent structure known as the Octagon House for $785,000 in July, marking the procurement of the companys first-ever permanent home. It was also a significant move away from the familiar and toward the unknown, where instead of capitalizing on an already strong arts and theater climate, BSC will be a front-runner in creating such a culture in Pittsfield.
Setting the Stage
The purchase and subsequent renovawww.tion of the Berkshire Music Hall, which began in November and has closed the facility to the public until a projected completion date of June 1, 2006, is one of several initiatives currently underway in Pittsfield as part of the Downtown Arts District project, established to help bring the citys cultural assets to the forefront of its economic picture.
Not all of the reasons Boyd first considered the Berkshire Music Hall as a potential new home for BSC were as lofty as jump-starting an entire communitys cultural vibe, though. She said one major deciding factor was the surprising intimacy she felt within the expansive building.
The actors dont have to yell their lines, she said, recalling the acoustics Barrington Stage players enjoyed during their first production Hair at the Berkshire Music Hall last summer. That intimacy, coupled with the space the building offers for preparation, rehearsals, management of the company, fundraising, and other satellite events associated with the group, is what sealed the deal for Boyd.
She said it offered a physical space in which to house the work that is central to BSCs mission: producing quality, compelling work, developing new plays and musicals, and finding fresh, new ways to introduce theater to new audiences.
When I founded Barrington Stage Theater, Boyd explained, noting she began with a partner but has since struck out on her own, I had been with the Berkshire Theatre Festival for two years, and had some great experiences. But I wanted to create a company that would produce topnotch work, and also include a strong educational arm.
That educational aspect has become one of Barrington Stages strongest features. It works with drama students of all ages and levels, including youths in the area through programs such as KidsAct!, a year-round dramatic training program, Youth Theatre, a musical theater performance opportunity, and through youth-at-risk initiatives such as the Playwright Mentoring Project, designed to provide positive interventions for children and teenagers, steeped in the theater experience.
The youth-at-risk program has taken place around Berkshire County, in Pittsfield, Lee, and Sheffield, Boyd said. Its a project that allows the kids to work with playwrights and essentially tell their stories, after first creating a safe and secure environment.
Boyd said the students create a play based on their lives, and Barrington Stage Co. will travel to schools, community groups, and social service organizations to perform the piece for audiences.
But the youth-at-risk program, though both effective and groundbreaking, is just one piece of the broad organizational plan the Barrington Stage Co. employs on a year-round basis.
In addition to producing its own, original plays, the company also stages traveling shows and more-well-known productions, like last summers Hair that inaugurated the BSCs new home.
And now, with the halls renovation underway, Barrington Stage has its sights set on introducing its unique mix of educational activities and performing arts to a larger audience. It will also rent the space to other performing arts groups, in order to contribute to what amounts to a cultural renaissance in Pittsfield.
We wanted to try to stay in area, and for a long time we could not find the theater that we wanted, Boyd said of the move from Sheffield to Pittsfield. We didnt want to build from the ground up, because that would have to become the focus for years. Then, we found this great space, and the community of Pittsfield has been totally supportive from the beginning. We really feel like were going to be at the forefront of this community as it moves toward greater cultural significance.
Indeed, Pittsfield is in the building years of an arts and entertainment movement. Existing attractions, such as the Berkshire Museum and Berkshire Opera House, are benefiting from a county-wide push to attract younger visitors as well as families to the region (see story, page 41). And new additions like the Barrington Stage Co. are receiving special attention from legislators and residents alike as one of the more visible examples of a cultural shift in the city.
We are moving into what has been long considered a blue collar town, and the community is totally embracing us, Boyd said, returning to her original mission of opening a theater that would reach diverse audiences and benefit a wide range of people in the community, year-round. I wanted to found my own theater and do year-round theater in the Berkshires, not just during those busy summer months. In Pittsfield, we are going to be more able to capitalize on a more year-round community, and we can affect the lives of the people that live here year-round as well as the tourists.
Boyd added that the greater accessibility to other locales from Pittsfield, including Springfield, Albany, and the major hubs of Boston and New York City, are an added plus associated with the move.
I think that positioning ourselves here will prove better because it is more accessible than South County was for us, she said.
We love Sheffield, and well still serve South County through traveling shows and other programs, but we had to change our hub, and in the process, were hoping that Pittsfield becomes a destination as well.
Renovations at the Berkshire Music Hall, which will surrender its name to make way for a new, as-of-yet unannounced moniker upon completion (slated for Summer 2006, when BSC also plans to open its 12th season), are expansive and being made possible by a capital campaign already supported by several Berkshire County businesses and grant funding.
According to facilities manager Jeff Gardner, the Octagon House (named for its unique shape) will house the administrative offices now located in rented space in Sheffield, and he and Boyd hope to have them ready for occupancy as early as March.
The theater itself requires more involved attention, however, and work will continue into the summer months. A new HVAC system must be installed, in addition to a new ceiling, new seats, sound and lighting and sprinkler systems, and an enlarged, fully accessible lobby and box office.
Gardner, a Pittsfield native, said he has a greater understanding of the impact the project will have, beyond BSCs growth. He added that for Pittsfield, the scope of the project is not only heralding a new shift in the city, but serving as a snapshot of the overall needs of the community.
Pittsfield is a story in and of itself, he said. Its a city that has experienced both greatness and struggle, and now this cultural shift were seeing is a real opportunity for the community to redefine itself.
He added that the support given the theater project from within the city will also determine its level of success.
Operating a theater isnt always a winning proposition, said Gardner. Now, were riding a wave, but its very possible that in the future well have some flat years. It makes all the difference knowing that the support of the community is there for us.
And while the marquee currently reads closed for renovations, passersby can be seen glancing up at the building, waiting and watching for a change. The next act should be an exciting one.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]