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Big Steps Forward

The productions at Jacob’s Pillow

The productions at Jacob’s Pillow for the 2021 season will all be outdoors, many at the Inside/Out stage, seen here.

For Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, the nation’s largest and longest running dance festival, 2020 was a lost year in almost every respect.

That’s almost, and we’ll get to that silver lining, if it can be called that, shortly. First, all those losses.

Jacob’s Pillow lost an entire season of live performances and all the revenue that comes with it, forcing a 50% reduction in the budget, layoffs, and other cutbacks. It also lost some momentum when it comes to fundraising, especially for a much-needed renovation of its main stage, the Ted Shawn Theatre, or the ‘Shawn,’ as it’s known. Then, in November, the company lost its smaller, more intimate performance space, the Doris Duke Theatre, or the ‘Duke,’ to a fast-moving fire, the cause of which has still not been determined.

But from the ashes, figuratively but also quite literally, Jacob’s Pillow has plans to roar back in 2021, said Pam Tatge, executive and artistic director. It will be a different kind of year, one with performances in outdoor settings only and to limited audiences, but one in which the company plans to lay a solid foundation for its 90th birthday in 2022, and for the decades to come.

Indeed, ambitious plans are in place to modernize the Ted Shawn Theatre, add air conditioning and new ventilation, and enlarge and improve the stage. Meanwhile, plans are expected to emerge for a new Duke, one that will be conceptualized and designed with input gathered from audiences and artists alike.

“We’ve embarked on a research study to really understand what audiences and artists loved about the Doris Duke Theatre, what they want to retain, and also what artists need for works being made in the 21st century,” Tatge noted. “We’re building a space, hopefully, for the next 90 years.”

While doing that, Jacob’s Pillow will also put on a season of live performances, the pieces of which are still coming together. It will run from June 30 to Aug. 29 and, for logistical reasons and lingering restrictions on travel, feature mostly performers based within driving distance of the 220-acre campus.

Audiences will be smaller and spaced apart for safety reasons, severely limiting in-person attendance. Which brings us to what would be considered the one bright spot for 2020, a schedule of 38 performances from years past — with new pre- and post-performance talks — presented virtually and to huge, global audiences, a development that made it possible for people who could never before get to Becket to take in a performance at the ‘Pillow.’

“We realized an audience for our virtual festival that had thousands more people than we could ever accommodate on the Pillow campus,” Tatge explained. “And 80% of those people were new to us — they had not been on our list before, and that was a great revelation; people know of Jacob’s Pillow, but they haven’t been able to make their way here. So in terms of accessibility and reaching people of different economic means and physical abilities, this was an amazing way to have the magic and joy that we experience on campus at the Pillow shared far more widely.”

For the 2021 season, most performances will again have virtual access internationally, a step to broaden audiences that Tatge called a “a big experiment.”

“We’ll want to see if the audience engagement is as great — it’s summertime, and things are opening again, so we’re going to see,” she said. “But I know a virtual platform has been in Jacob’s Pillow’s mission delivery, and it will continue to be a way that we deliver our mission into the future.”


Staging a Comeback

Tatge was at her residence in Connecticut when she got the phone call early in the afternoon on Nov. 16, delivering the terrible news that the Duke was on fire. She raced north as fast as she could and arrived in Becket just as the last remaining portions of the wooden structure were being consumed by the flames.

The loss of the beloved theater that hosted smaller productions seemed to provide a surreal ending to a terrible year that was all too real, and all too painful.

Looking back on it, Tatge said the Pillow, like every other live performing-arts venue, was severely tested by all the pandemic bought with it.

“With the cancellation of the season, we lost all of our earned-income potential — 40% of our budget is ticket income,” she explained. “We had to lay off 35% of our staff. Ultimately, we ended the year OK because we received a PPP grant. Without that grant, we would not have made it through as successfully.”

For 2021, there will be a new, very tight budget, hopes for a second round of PPP, and some high fundraising goals, Tatge went on, adding that there are many unknowns and considerable challenges ahead even as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the pandemic draws closer.

Ted Shawn Theatre

At right, the Ted Shawn Theatre, which will undergo an $8 million renovation this year. At left, the Doris Duke Theatre, which was gutted by fire in November. Input is being sought on a replacement, and an architect is likely to be chosen later this year.

“Because our performances are going to be shorter, we won’t have the earned-income potential to bridge the gap between expenses and revenues,” she explained. “So we really need a subsidy, and we really need our community’s support to invest in putting artists back to work — who must get back to work if our field is going to survive this — and bring audiences back together.”

Overall, though, there is considerable optimism moving forward, and Tatge said that, for her, it’s fueled by the tremendous response she’s seen from the community, a broad term she uses to describe constituencies ranging from performers to patrons who take in their work.

“What has been impressive to me is the range of people who have contributed to Jacob’s Pillow so far, from artists themselves, who don’t have much but want to share something with Jacob’s Pillow, to alumni, to our board members and our members,” she said. “Jacob’s Pillow members are a devoted bunch, and they have stepped up, and we’re going to need that to continue until we get to 2022.”

“Our first priority is to bring people back together safely, so we have rigorous protocols that are in place — for audiences, performers, and staff.”

Optimism also abounds concerning the 2021 season of performances, which, as Tatge noted, will take place outdoors — at the Inside/Out stage and other settings around the sprawling campus.

“Our first priority is to bring people back together safely, so we have rigorous protocols that are in place — for audiences, performers, and staff,” she explained, adding that these protocols are being developed in conjunction with — and will be shared by — other performing-arts institutions in the Berkshires, such as Barrington Stage, Tanglewood, and other venues.

This collaboration is in many ways unprecedented, but also quite necessary, she went on, if the the tourism-dependent Berkshires region is to battle back from an incredibly difficult 2020.

The schedule calls for all activities — performances, workshops, and pre-performance talks — to take place outdoors or under a tent, said Tatge, adding that, in addition to the Inside/Out stage, the Pillow boasts a number of other ‘natural stages’ around the campus that will enable visiting companies to stretch their collective imaginations.

“There are so many parts of our campus that we’re going to be inviting audiences to discover,” she told BusinessWest. “And artists are crafting works particularly for our site, and that’s exciting.”

These performances will also be filmed, as most have been over the years, and presented virtually — an opportunity, as she noted earlier, to greatly expand audiences.

While the shows will go on in 2021, the Pillow is also looking to make huge strides with efforts to modernize and renovate the Shawn, opened during the 1940s, and replace the Duke.

The former, an $8 million project, has been in the works for several years, she said, adding that the pandemic has only reinforced the need for air-conditioning and improved ventilation. And this simple reality helped convince the board of directors that, despite the difficult and uncertain times, the Pillow needs to push ahead with a capital campaign conceived to raise the remaining $2 million needed for the project.

Pam Tatge says the ‘Pillow’ has put a horrendous 2020 behind it, but stern challenges remain for this Berkshires institution.

“We quickly realized that the Ted Shawn Theatre will not be viable as a theater in a post-COVID world without a ventilation system and air conditioning,” Tatge said. “It’s not a viable space at present, and we made the decision to take the Shawn offline this summer so we could move ahead with the renovation, which actually began in January, with pre-planning.”

Ultimately, the plan is to have the renovated theater ready for that 90th-anniversary year in 2022.

As for the 30-year-old Duke, that research study she mentioned has been completed, with the next steps in the process being to research architects and ultimately select one, determine the full scope of the project, and pinpoint just how much money will have to be raised beyond what is covered by insurance.


The Next Act

Moving forward, Tatge is focused on 2021, obviously, and bouncing back in a big way from a dismal 2020.

But she’s also focused on the future — not just the 90th-anniversary celebrations that will dominate 2022, but the years and decades to come.

The Pillow is a National Historic Landmark and a tradition in Western Mass., and the ultimate mission for staff and board members is to make sure it can serve future generations.

The pandemic severely tested the mettle of this institution, in every conceivable manner. But it has been made stronger by that test and, hopefully, even more resilient.

In short, the Pillow is ready to take big steps forward in 2021 — on stage and in every way.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]