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Live Summer Theater Gets A Million Dollar Reward

(l-r) Storm Lever, Alexandra Silber and Alysha Umphress were featured in "The Hills Are Alive with Rodgers and Hammerstein."
Daniel Rader Photo
(l-r) Storm Lever, Alexandra Silber and Alysha Umphress were featured in "The Hills Are Alive with Rodgers and Hammerstein."

BERKSHIRES – There was once a television series called “The Millionaire.” The concept was that one unassuming person who lived a humble but exemplary life was given a million dollars by a mysterious benefactor.

Two Berkshire theater companies experienced that situation last week. Both Barrington Stage Company and the Berkshire Theatre Group were each gifted a million dollars from a couple they had never met.

Perhaps they had met in a casual way. Mary Chris and Alan Bassman, the donors who recently located from New Jersey to Pittsfield, often volunteered as ushers at Barrington Stage.

What stimulated giving the gifts was the recognition by the pair, as they watched first-hand, what the artistic directors of both theaters went through to produce live theater this summer.

To say Julianne Boyd of Barrington Stage who produced “Harry Clarke”, and Kate Maguire of Berkshire Theatre Group, who got the musical “Godspell” on the boards, jumped through hoops would be an understatement. Think of the hoops as on fire and the landing ground consisting of quicksand.

The theaters were compelled to follow all the strict state and local guidelines which changed weekly, if not daily. Barrington Stage at the last minute had to move the production from their theater to an outside tent. Both companies had their audience capacity reduced repeatedly till it was down to 50 people during the first week of the run.

Too, each had to satisfy the stringent safety requirements of Actors’ Equity Association, with many decisions often made on the fly.

But the theater companies endured. They offered full runs of quality production and each theater also produced a safe musical revue during the summer. No cases of COVID were associated with any of the productions.

In interviews during the summer, both Boyd and Maguire recognized that the effort was for the art and to prove to the public that the art of the theater was both critical and resilient. Neither organization expected to make a profit from the productions. The best-case scenario was losses would be kept to a minimum.

As an audience member, if you are as passionate about theater as are the creators, this year attending a live production was almost a spiritual experience. It was for me and apparently for the Bassmans and Ms. Bassman’s brother Phill Gross, another dedicated theatergoer and a philanthropist.

It was Gross, who on the advice of his sister, actually donated the money. $732,000 to Barrington Stage and $681,000 to Berkshire Group. There is a matching grant option of $350,000 to each organization.

Mr. Gross, who is a co-founder of Adage Capital Management, is donating the funds under a provision of the Care Act which permits people to take a tax deduction on 100% of their income during the COVID pandemic. His generosity also supports several other theaters in the country. The donation is being given in the name of Gross’s and Ms. Bassman’s mother, Mary Ann Gross.

The gift is clearly a windfall for both organizations and has saved numerous jobs at the Berkshire theaters.

However, though a windfall, it is not a permanent lifeline. The annual budget for Barrington Stage who employ 22 people is $5.4 million dollars. Berkshire Theatre group has a $4.5 million dollar budget and a staff of 27 people.

The purpose of the grant is to make certain both institutions survive the winter. The hope is that a vaccine will become available permitting regular programming or another season of outdoor spring-summer theater will generate revenue. This money has bought time, not salvation.

Berkshire Theatre Group has announced an outdoor production of Truman Capote’s “Holiday Memories” for the holiday season running late-November through December. Barrington Stage is planning to offer their annual 10X10 play festival indoors in February.

In art, the reward is in the doing. The applause, public recognition and even financial rewards are usually secondary to the process of creating art. That said, there are few more gratifying things in the world than when unselfish work is recognized and rewarded.

This almost magical gift of a million dollars is proof that when you do something for the right reasons, good things will follow. Both Kate Maguire and Julianne Boyd produced theater for all the right reasons.

It is appropriate that just as the Bassmans and Phill Gross showed their appreciation to the Berkshire theaters, we too can support our favorite organizations who have also done remarkable things under the worst possible conditions.

Individually we can all help save the arts.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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