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Creative Economy Special Coverage

Art and Soul

Double Edge Theatre isn’t the easiest organization to describe.

Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s not an entity that lends itself to one obvious description. And that’s a positive thing, said Adam Bright, the company’s producing executive director.

“If you ask a different Double Edge ensemble member or anyone who works here, they’ll have a slightly different answer, I would imagine,” Bright said. “But for me, it’s simply that we’re trying to live together with an understanding, with certain agreements, about how we want to leave the world after we’ve stepped through it.”

That said, “we’re definitely an arts organization first, and everybody here is extremely creatively minded,” he noted. “We all come from different educational backgrounds, different parts of the world, we all grew up in different places, but we’ve all been magnetized to this strange little place.

“Everything you’ll see here comes from that seed of creative thinking,” Bright went on. “The way we’ve renovated the buildings that could no longer be used for dairy farming and were repurposed. The way we create theater and art, and how we integrate that with our work with conservationists, the Native peoples of this area, and how they approach the land. It’s a holistic way of thinking and being.”

Double Edge was born in Boston in 1982 but moved to Ashfield, a bucolic Franklin County community, in 1997, repurposing, as Bright noted, a former dairy farm into a theater company that stages performances, including ‘spectacles’ the audience follows across the grounds (more on those later), but also hosts training programs, workshops, and much more.

It does so while centered on values that are painted in large letters on one of the property’s buildings.

“We’re trying to live together with an understanding, with certain agreements, about how we want to leave the world after we’ve stepped through it.”

“Our vision is to prioritize imagination in times of creative, emotional, spiritual, and political uncertainty,” the message reads. “Our mission is to pursue authenticity, interaction, and identity with whomever is seeking creative, emotional, spiritual, and political clarity. Our art is grounded in a rigorous ensemble aesthetic unfolded in dream, imagery, metaphor, mystery, and symbolism. Our work is created and sustained within an open, honest, meaningful, relevant shared experience. We call this ‘living culture.’”

And then: “Our dedication is to face isolation and erasure, to face despair and pain that can translate into personal incapacity and political paralysis. To uplift. We call this ‘art justice.’”

It’s a mouthful, and Bright knows it. But at its core is a reflection of life that many people in this modern world — especially post-pandemic — have gotten away from.

“I think we’ve isolated ourselves more and more. Even in neighborhoods that seem great, everyone goes to their little boxes, and then they’re isolated,” he explained. “I think what we’re creating here — or recreating, let’s say — is something closer to a village, and that feels healthy. On any given day, there will be 70 people working here, ages 18 to 70-something, from all over the world: different languages, different cultures, different music, all of these things in this little place.”

Adam Bright

Adam Bright says Double Edge is an arts organization first, but one that is always considering how it interacts with and impacts its community and its world.

As part of that philosophy, Double Edge has taken a keen interest over the years in the Indigenous history of Ashfield and its environs, specifically the Nipmuc Tribal Nation, which traces its lineage in the region back 12,000 years. The theater company has partnered with the Ohketeau Cultural Center in efforts to bring awareness to this heritage and support Native priorities today.

“Our interactions introduced us to the Indigenous peoples who still inhabit this land after millennia, even though their presence has been rendered invisible on the land we now occupy,” Double Edge notes in its literature. “Ashfield may never be ‘diverse’ within the currently circumscribed and restrictive use of the term. However, the mission, values, vision, and work of Double Edge will always reflect the larger population of our region, our state, and our country.”


Making a Spectacle of Themselves

Amid its cultural passions, this is, as Bright noted, primarily an arts organization, and its performances — both on site and touring — have become widely noted for their unique, eclectic, and interactive nature.

“The art is predominantly theater, although we touch all the mediums of art,” Bright said, noting that company members — some live on the grounds for extended stretches, while others commute — not only write and perform works, but build and paint sets; create costumes; handle lighting, sound, rigging, and other production aspects; and more,

The summer performances are called ‘spectacles,’ and it’s an apt term. “They move around this farm, so the whole farm turns into a theatrical stage, essentially,” Bright said. “We really interact with the outside world; there are giant puppets and fire.”

“Even in neighborhoods that seem great, everyone goes to their little boxes, and then they’re isolated. I think what we’re creating here — or recreating, let’s say — is something closer to a village, and that feels healthy.”

The audience — which is capped at 80 to 90 per night — follows the performance across the grounds, both inside and outside its buildings, and are often timed to begin in sunlight and end with dark skies, beside a small lagoon lit by fire and stage lights, lined with platforms in the trees, a trapeze, a trampoline, and more. It’s … well, a spectacle.

“We essentially guide everything, from parking the car through the final hurrah,” Bright explained. “There’s a whole journey that the audience follows, and whether you’re at the front or the back, you’ll experience the whole thing. You won’t miss out on anything, although each audience member experiences it differently.”

Double Edge creates ‘spectacles’

Double Edge creates ‘spectacles’ that move around the farm, so the whole property turns into a theatrical stage.
Photo by David Weiland

The spectacles have been a staple of Double Edge’s offerings for a couple decades. “Lots of people are involved; it could be painting giant murals or doing puppets, making costumes,” he said. “We also work with a bunch of contractors that come in to help us with some heavy lifting, certain set pieces. So, really, lots of people are involved before we even open the performance.”

The current spectacle, directed by Double Edge founder and Artistic Director Stacy Klein, is called The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae, and is “our response to Euripides’ Bacchae, in which women’s rites are no longer in hidden territories and women are freely able to express their deeply held desires,” according to the company’s description. It runs from July 19 through Aug. 6, and tickets are available at doubleedgetheatre.org.

“Then, other times of the year, we make other works that can go into regular-type theatres, and we tour,” Bright said. “We just got back from Europe for a couple of tours there. It’s still large-scale, but it becomes a little bit more intimate, and you can control more in the theatrical setting than outdoors. There are different limitations, I would say. But it’s still visually stunning, very physical, poetic … it’s definitely not your average Shakespeare recital.”

Meanwhile, Double Edge offers residencies and other cooperative oppportunities to like-minded companies across the U.S., he noted. “We come together once or twice a year, and we train together, and sometimes we present each other’s work. So it’s really a cool thing.”

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of Greenfield Business Assoc., who recently came on board Double Edge as its team and relationships manager, called the organization one of the most well-organized and communicative companies she’s ever worked for.

The concepts of ‘living culture’ and ‘art justice’

The concepts of ‘living culture’ and ‘art justice’ are integral to the training and performance work going on at Double Edge.

“You don’t find that in a lot of arts organizations. Sometimes the art is taking over so much that the business side lacks a little, and I think one of the real strengths of Double Edge, and one of the reasons that we rise as a real leader and attract people from many sectors, not just the art sector, is because, though our message is really complex, it’s also very clear because it’s being rolled out in a way that a lot of different people can relate to.”


Living History

Klein founded Double Edge in 1982 as a feminist ensemble collective alongside co-founder and emerita ensemble member Carroll Durand and several other women, performing in six-week rentals of various Boston theaters.

In 1985, the ensemble located a parish hall in Allston, a long-unused building at the Episcopal Church of Saints Luke and Margaret. Following renovations, this was its home for the next 12 years. In 1994, the company located a new home in Ashfield, precipitated by the economic impossibility of paying exorbitant rent in the Boston area, and by the desire to house overseas guest artists for long periods.

After driving back and forth for a couple years, the Double Edge team opened their first performance space in Ashfield — in a converted barn — in 1997.

In addition to its spectacles, which launched in 2002, Klein and her team have created seven performance cycles, or series of plays, that have toured around the world, including:

• The Garden of Intimacy and Desire (2002-08), a cycle exploring distinctive visions of magic realism in Jewish and Hispanic culture;

• The Chagall Cycle (2010-15), which was imagined entirely from the visual art of Marc Chagall;

• The Latin American Cycle (2015-18), which began as an effort to come to artistic terms with Co-Artistic Director Carlos Uriona’s sociocultural and personal background; and

• The Surrealist Cycle (2017-present) three performances, loosely woven together, relating to the Latin American Cycle and research into surrealism.

In addition, the Ashfield Town Spectacle & Culture Fair (May 2017) and We the People (summer 2017 and 2018) were a duet and ode to the history of Ashfield and the surrounding hilltowns of Western Mass. Eighty local artists and groups participated in each two-day event, which took place throughout the entire town of Ashfield, ending in a 700-person parade and an aerial flight over the Ashfield Lake.

“There’s a whole journey that the audience follows, and whether you’re at the front or the back, you’ll experience the whole thing. You won’t miss out on anything, although each audience member experiences it differently.”

Clearly, a sense of place and culture is a constant theme here, and Double Edge itself is a model for a living community. About 10 years ago, the ensemble started thinking about ‘greening’ and the necessity of moving off the grid, “not only as giveback for what we receive from nature, but also as a model for theaters around the country and other organizations who are themselves modeling unsustainable building and operating practices,” the organization notes.

With that in mind, single-use plastic was banned from the farm for our students, audiences, and daily living, and the property has also started using solar energy and wants to replace all its heating systems, with the dream of building a solar farm and multi-acre apiary and wildflower sanctuary.

So, yes — this is a theater company with a lot on its mind, one that takes a holistic approach to art and life, striving to find the critical connections that often get lost in today’s world.

“I’m always in the intersection of economic development and the creative arts, and how those things come together,” Rechtschaffen said. “It’s a constant process of figuring out how to communicate that in a way that every sector can understand. I think that’s something that we do incredibly well and have an opportunity to do even more — to figure out how to grow that impact.”


Berkshire County

Culture Shock

Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August

It took plenty of creativity — in the set design and elsewhere — but Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August when no one else could.

For the folks at Berkshire Theatre Group, things were going according to plan.

A three-year sustainability plan, to be specific, developed back in 2018, said Nick Paleologos, the organization’s executive director.

“We had a checklist of things we needed to do in addition to putting on a decent artistic season in 2019, and we hit a lot of goals. As we hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

Versions of that story have been told countless times not only in Massachusetts, but around the country and the world. But for the performing arts, it’s been a particularly tough stretch.

“Starting around St. Patrick’s Day, all we were doing was canceling shows and returning money; we were really in a kind of freefall,” Paleologos continued. “What initially saved us in the short term, and bought us time to figure out how to reimagine our 2020 season, was the Paycheck Protection Program. That was a lifeline, and it accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do — it allowed us to stay in business for those crucial eight weeks in the spring.”

The 2020 season — the BTG was planning eight shows in its three indoor spaces in Stockbridge and Pittsfield — was certainly about to change. “All of a sudden, we had no idea whether we’d be allowed to perform at all,” he noted.

The journey that followed, culminating in live, outdoor performances of Godspell in August and September (more on that later), was a remarkable one, but it’s hardly the robust schedule the venerable company normally puts on. Meanwhile, performing-arts destinations like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood canceled their live slates completely.

It’s a story that affects more than arts patrons; it impacts no less than the entire Berkshires economy, which is so intertwined with, and dependent on, culture and tourism.

Nick Paleologos

Nick Paleologos

“We hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

“The visitor economy is definitely a backbone sector for us; it supports a tremendous amount of dollars in the region,” said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the multi-faceted agency that focuses on tourism, economic development, and business retention in Massachusetts’ westernmost county.

In fact, he noted, visitor dollars spent in the region over the years are approaching the $1 billion mark — and the presence of cultural attractions and other tourist destinations, from restaurants to ski resorts, is a major quality-of-life factor in business owners wanting to set up shop here.

“We were pretty heavily involved in the state’s reopening process — we played a key role in getting some of the museums open and fleshing out guidelines for hotels and restaurants,” Butler told BusinessWest, while 1Berkshire’s website has become an oft-updated clearinghouse of information on the region and its public-health response to COVID-19.

Due to belt-tightening everywhere, including among its strategic partners, 1Berkshire hasn’t operated with the same marketing budget it normally would. “But we have been able to raise enough money to do some things, and we’ve pivoted to a vision of the Berkshires that talks a lot about outdoor recreation, and about our museums and hotel properties that have been able to open.

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city,” he went on. “We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors. And, honestly, we’re feeling better than we were two or three months ago.”

A few success stories will do that, but stakeholders in the region are certainly hoping 2021 looks a lot different than 2020.

Out and About

Take, for example, Bousquet Mountain, which recently hired a new general manager and announced a series of renovations, including a new summit-to-base triple chairlift and a revamped snow-making system with more than 25 new snow guns, as well as new grooming equipment and a new, more accessible beginner area.

In addition, Pittsfield native and two-time Olympian Krista Schmidinger will partner with Bousquet to further the site’s youth programming, contributing to the Race Club and SnowSports School and assisting with race and school-program design, instruction, and one-on-one opportunities for young skiers. All this speaks to a resort expecting a busy season, even in the midst of COVID-19.

As for Berkshire Theatre Group, it had to fight to get a live production staged — a fight marked by creativity, not animosity. In short, the Actors Equity Assoc. wasn’t allowing any of its 59,000 unionized members to work in 2020 unless the safety of the actors could be assured.

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city. We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors.”

“We’re an Equity company, so that puts a little crimp in our plans,” Paleologos said. To stage Godspell, Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire developed a 60-page manual with detailed safety protocols, including quarantining, physical distancing, and regular coronavirus testing for actors. The actors were to be kept six feet apart at all times — 10 feet when singing — with this spacing and plexiglass dividers incorporated into the set design itself.

Maguire was denied at first, “but she was relentless,” Paleologos said. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

When the company and the union finally struck a deal, BTG became the only company in the entire country performing or rehearsing a musical — a major success, he noted, considering that, just weeks earlier, no one knew whether they’d have a live theater season at all, and most companies nationwide didn’t attempt one, moving instead to virtual performances only.

Meanwhile, many patrons of canceled BTG shows exchanged their tickets for future credits or donated the tickets back as contributions, as a show of support for a company — and an industry — so important to locals.

“This is not a sustainable model going forward, performing under a tent for 50 people,” Paleologos said. “But it was a miraculous success story that was totally unexpected. Our goal was just to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal moment in Berkshire County.”

It’s not the only such beacon.

“It’s too soon to gauge anything in the quantitative sense, but from what I’ve heard anecdotally, in conversations with different sectors in the visitor economy, those that have reopened have done all right,” Butler said. “A lot have changed their model — some hotels have a three-night minimum because of the cleaning expenses of turning over a room, and some businesses are closed a day or two a week to focus on cleaning and sanitizing.”

Last week, Main Street Hospitality Group, which operates several hotels in the region, announced the hiring of a COVID compliance officer, or CCO, who makes monthly visits to each hotel for routine inspections and engagement with staff and leadership. A board-certified physician, the officer strictly adheres to mandates from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and stays informed on the latest public-health advancements in order to advise on any necessary changes to the hotels’ protocols and procedures.

“In addition to several months of strategic planning that led to our initial creation of safeguards, it is equally important to continue evaluating our health and safety practices with the CCO’s help and expertise,” said Sarah Eustis, Main Street’s CEO. “A trusted editor was needed to process the ever-changing breadth of information out there.”

Meanwhile, the hotel group has also partnered with Blue Canary, a company that trains hotels in hospital-level cleaning methods and conducts regular check-ins. Main Street’s housekeeping leaders participated in three days of intensive sessions that focused on best practices and heightened awareness. Attendants were trained in techniques that include longer cleaning times, stronger disinfectants, new cleaning tools, and identifying critical, high-touch areas that require the most attention to ensure guest health and safety.

“This new reality has impacted our housekeeping teams in a huge way,” Eustis said. “Main Street Hospitality is committed to staying at the forefront of this.”

Restaurants have had barriers to overcome as well, Butler said, especially those that depend on visitor traffic at other area attractions. “Some have been able to pivot and focus on a delivery and takeout model, while others haven’t made the transition as seamlessly, and many don’t have the square footage inside to sit too many, and if they’re not able to adapt some outdoor seats, it can be challenging.”

The soon-to-arrive colder weather will force many eateries to become more creative until the state lifts restrictions on indoor capacity — and patrons feel safe enough to eat indoors.

“We certainly understand some businesses will have to make more permanent decisions about their fate. And some businesses, unfortunately, won’t make it to the other side of this,” Butler said. “But the outdoor recreation scene has been very busy — it’s flourishing this summer, and that will continue into the fall.”

Lessons Learned

Paleologos told BusinessWest that banks did a good job easing loan terms for cultural organizations and other nonprofits in the spring, and argues that the next step would be a permanent shift in that direction.

Writing this month in Berkshire Trade & Commerce, he cited a study in Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an economic-development plan for Berkshire County, showing that jobs in the creative industry grew at a faster pace than in any of the other sectors examined.

“In other words, cultural nonprofits are absolutely central to the Berkshire brand,” he wrote. “The profitability of other commercial industries depends heavily on the success of this county’s theatres, museums, music, and dance companies. Creating new and innovative financial products that contribute to the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit sector must become a top priority for local banks. As an example, sufficiently collateralized operating loans to nonprofits must be offered at the most favorable rates — not the least.”

Meanwhile, Butler added, bringing visitor traffic back to 2019 levels will depend largely on people’s confidence regarding safety, and the public-health metrics on that front have been very good in the Berkshires. “We’re optimistic that will continue and we’ll come out in a stronger place at the end of this.”

That said, there certainly has been a visitor footprint in the Berkshires this year, he went on.

“We won’t have hard data until 2021, and I’m certain it’s going to be down — we don’t have a lot of the key economic drivers, like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood. But on the plus side, we’ve seen a lot of visitation from Eastern Mass.; they see us as the rural side of the state. We’ve had a lot of visitors from Connecticut and New York. Second homeowners have been living here since March, making their Berkshire residence more permanent during the pandemic. All those dollars circulate back into the local economy, which is a good thing.”

Any forward momentum is welcome, Paleologos added. But so much still remains in flux.

“We can’t guarantee, by the time we get to next summer, we’ll be in a situation where we’ll be able to have shows indoors again,” he said. “The good news is, having had this experience, being able to find a way to do it outdoors, maybe we could incorporate a hybrid model, under tents and indoors. A lot is up in the air at this point, depending on how fast a reliable vaccine comes on the market and how much public confidence there is at its safety and efficacy.”

He noted that the theater business goes back to an amphitheater cut into the hillside at the Parthenon 2,500 years ago — and likely before that.

“From then up to now, the bedrock of our business is people coming together in a single place to have a shared experience and to learn a little bit about what it is to be a human being,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

That’s what the Berkshires do, too, bringing people together every year for an array of activities, many of which have been curtailed in this year of COVID-19.

But the show will go on, eventually — with or without plexiglass.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]