Tonight, Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park begins its fifth anniversary season in the heart of downtown.
Enrico Spada is the artistic director of PSP, the free outdoor summer theater company that calls the largest community in the Berkshires home.
“So five years ago, I started the company because I was a director and a teacher and an actor down at Shakespeare & Company, and I really wanted to do more of my own work," he told WAMC. "And I also knew that there were a lot of actors in the Berkshires who really enjoy doing Shakespeare and were really hungry for those opportunities.”
In 2014, the company’s debut production was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Springside Park, just north of the city’s core off Route 7. Spada estimates that around 1,500 people came to those first eight performances.
“And then we came back next year, and that was 2015, and we moved to this beautiful new pavilion that they created here at the Common,” he said.
The new centralized location brought with it a new audience.
“I think almost 10,000, probably, people have seen our shows by now, and we’re hoping to just increase that number this year with ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’” Spada said.
The comedy – thought to have been written by The Bard at the very end of the 16th Century – concerns a victorious army decamping to the Italian port city of Messina.
“’Much Ado About Nothing’ is really about how this community deals with relationships, gossip, how they see themselves, how they think their friends see each other," said Director Maizy Broderick Scarpa. She’s been involved with PSP since its inception, playing Puck back in 2014.
“It’s also about the difficulties of coming together in a relationship – both the difficulties we put upon ourselves, and the difficulties that society puts upon us, as well as status, gender dynamics, music, shenanigans, people deciding to play matchmaker with their friends,” said Scarpa.
“And what’s different about this show is that it’s very much in downtown Pittsfield.”
Patrick Toole plays Benedick, half of the tortured romance at the center of the play. It’s his third production with PSP.
“It’s right on First Street, and it’s the Common Park, but it’s next to a housing project and another park – a playground and basketball court – and there’s tons of people coming and going all the time through this park, and there’s a train that goes nearby," said the actor. "It’s very much right there in the center of the city. And that’s kind of cool about it – there’s a lot of personality in this particular space.”
Toole – a veteran of outdoor theater – says the omnipresent threat of bad weather only adds dramatic stakes to the production.
“When it’s a clear night and it’s a beautiful sunset and the air is cool, it’s lovely. And it’s a wonderful experience," he told WAMC. "But I like it when the clouds are rolling in and it’s a little ominous looking and it’s not sure, like that time when there was heat lightning coming off – it was far enough away that it was safe, whenever there’s lightning nearby, we stop the show – but you could see it in the distance just past the stage, right when there was this musical number going on, and we as actors on stage didn’t know. We heard the rumbling and it really charged up our performance. We gotta make this worth it.”
In a region with no shortage of summertime theater, Toole says the fact that the company is comprised entirely of local actors gives it a rare quality.
“Most theaters I know of, most professional theaters, get actors from New York. And there’s no real sense of community within the people who are acting for the audience. Like, my friends and family are going to come see this show," he said. "And my cast mates’ friends and families are going to come and see this show. There isn’t that separation between audience and cast member. It’s a real community.”
“I was thinking about this earlier today – I thought, ‘oh, I’ve never done any like this,'" said Allison Galen, who plays Beatrice opposite Toole’s Benedick. She's a newcomer to PSP.
“I have never been on a stage mic’d, I’ve never been in front of – 500 people show up in this Common. It is such a larger scale than I have ever experienced," said Galen. "And it’s slightly terrifying and very, very exciting.”
Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park’s “Much Ado About Nothing” begins in the Common at 8 after tonight’s Third Thursday wraps up downtown. It runs through August 25th, and all the shows are free.