With cancellation after cancellation looming over Berkshire County’s lucrative summer season, two Pittsfield, Massachusetts theatre companies say they’ll attempt to mount productions despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
From Jacob’s Pillow in Becket to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, mainstays of the Berkshire summer calendar have decided to throw in the towel on live events this summer. But Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group say they’ll soldier on through the crisis with adapted seasons later in the summer.
“First thing you have to do is go by all the safety precautions, the social distancing and wearing masks and all the things that you know have to be followed and that you want followed if you’re going to have people enter an establishment like a theatre," said Barrington Stage Company Artistic Director Julianne Boyd. Much of her company’s schedule has been postponed until 2021 due to the impossibility of mounting more complex productions while observing social distancing. It’s already shuttered two of its smaller spaces for the duration of the pandemic. However, a stripped-down incarnation is being planned at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage starting in August.
“What we said was let’s look at our main stage," said Boyd. "It’s 520 seats, and what if we thought about it sort of like a large stage two – could we do social distancing there? And so the question was, well, do we just do every other row and we seat people in every other row? But then, after thinking about it, we realized even if there was a row empty in front of you, in order to pass people in your row, there wouldn’t be enough room, because you would hit against the row in front of you. We realized, we had to take that row out.”
Barrington created a new seating plan that maintains 163 seats in the theater with the rows removed. Boyd says the company also added a new entrance and has relocated the box office to outside the building, as well as considering another inevitable challenge of social distancing in a theatrical setting.
“All of the shows we’re doing in the mainstage through the summer, none of them have an intermission," she told WAMC. "The longest any of them are is 80 minutes long. So, OK, 80 minutes long, no intermission, so we probably will not have long bathroom lines. We had to think about it even to that point.”
Barrington is working with Berkshire Theatre Group on a joint plan to be the only theaters active in the county this summer.
“What Julie and I have been talking about is the best way to serve our patrons and to make sure that the artists coming to work with us are as comfortable as well in these most extraordinary times," said BTG Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire. Both companies are exploring outdoor venues in addition to adapting seating layouts and cleaning strategies. Outside of the public health precautions, she says deciding what works to present is as big a question.
“We’re doing ‘Godspell,’ which is essentially the gospels set to lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz," said Maguire. "And that seems fundamentally right to me in these times, to be able to tell those stories and to understand humanity in a really interesting and most fundamental way.”
But all of these plans are moot if local public health officials aren’t signed on.
“At this point, I think it is hard to establish those plans and I haven’t been working with them at this point, at this early stage, but we plan to do so as we move into the summer months," said Pittsfield Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong. “We have to make plans as this pandemic progresses, and although they have plans in place now, we’ll have to see how our community status is as we move forward through the summer months. We’ll work with organizations to make adjustments as needed to ensure that any plans they have are consistent with any state and local guidelines and parameters for public health and safety.”