Whoever would have thought that Pittsfield, Mass., a city with a population of approximately 45,000 people, would be the epicenter of professional theater?
In a normal year only two shows opening in the Berkshires would be seen as a theatrical calamity. Now it’s joyful national news that two live professional productions are opening next week in Pittsfield, figuratively our own backyard.
While the Broadway theaters in New York City remain dark, this week the one-man comedy-drama “Harry Clarke” opens at Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group performs the 10-person musical “Godspell.” The two are the only productions in the entire country that have been approved for live performance by Actors’ Equity Association.
In late-May, Actors’ Equity, in an effort to protect the health and safety of actors, backstage crew and audiences, announced guidelines which had to be met for the union to grant permission for an actor to appear on stage. The major conditions Equity set were that the epidemic be under control and reliable testing be in place. At the time, the demands seemed so insurmountable, most theater companies closed for the season.
Independently, Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage and Kate Maguire the artistic director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group, resolved that they would find a way to produce theater this summer. They have done it, but it hasn’t been easy.
It would be impossible to overpraise either of them for their determination and ability to collaborate, compromise and adjust. It appears neither production will generate a significant profit, if any. It would have been far easier and safer to close their theaters for the season.
However, in telephone conversations with each of them it became clear that their devotion to producing live theater and the realization of the economic impact their institutions have on their communities drove them to accomplish what no other theater in the country has been able to do. The achievement can be regarded as a career high point for both women.
And, I repeat, it hasn’t been easy.
At Barrington Stage, Boyd went so far as to have every other row of seats physically removed from the Boyd-Quinton Mainstage, and in the remaining aisle two seats would be empty between individual parties on every side. This reduced seating capacity from 520 seats to 163 seats. For backstage concerns, BSC chose a one-man show “Harry Clarke,” that requires only one stage manager.
Adding to the frustration and uncertainty, is that Governor Charles Baker of Massachusetts still hasn’t signed off on the safety of the theater and is not authorizing any indoor gatherings. So that means with barely a week until the first preview the show has to move to a tent a block or two from the theater.
Adding to the frustration, capacity which was reduced from 520 seats to 163 seats is now down to 96 seats. It’s a strong financial setback, since there is no way to extend the show to recoup the lost ticket revenue.
Maguire says BTG is more fortunate. She originally planned to rearrange the Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, for social distancing purposes. However, discussions with the board, Equity and state and local governments convinced her the better option was to produce the musical “Godspell,” outside under a tent. The tent, also with a seating capacity of 96, is located in downtown Pittsfield, next to the BTG managed 700-seat Colonial Theater. “Godspell” has a cast of 10, and under Equity guidelines will use two stage managers.
Both Boyd and Maguire say that working with Equity was a “collaborative experience.” Boyd admits the demands of the union could sometimes be stressful, but overall it had a positive result. “We all have the same goals,” says Boyd. “That is the safety of the actors, backstage workers and the audience.” Maguire added another goal. “We all want to see the return of live theater.”
It was also a collaborative effort between both theater companies. The two artistic directors would brainstorm together regularly, and each says the other was generous both in terms of emotional support and with resources.
The policy for audiences is very similar in both locations, which Boyd says is a positive not only for safety purposes, but having the same practices in both theaters will help audiences acclimate to the new normal. Temperatures will be taken on entry, and there are no physical tickets used in either venue. Well-marked, one-way signs will be placed in aisles and hand sanitizer stations will be plentiful. Above all, audience members must wear masks at all times.
As for the performers, since “Harry Clarke” is a one-man show, using only one stage manager the risk of contagion is minimal, but Mark H. Dold, who is playing Harry Clarke says he and the stage manager will be tested every couple of days.
The cast of “Godspell” and the two stage managers are quarantining together throughout the run of the show and during the rehearsal period. This greatly reduces the risk of outside contagion. Too, the show is being staged so that there is onstage social distancing and no direct address to other actors during the performance. Despite these precautions, frequent testing of the cast will take place.
On the BTG website, they define theater as “A place to reflect on what it is to be human,” Earlier this year, Boyd said she was calling her Barrington Stage events, “A season of hope.” Both sentiments take on added significance when you recall one of the songs in “Godspell” is “Save the People.”
Finally, thanks to the determination of Boyd and Maguire live theater returns to the area this week.
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.