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Cast from the Wardrobe Ensemble chat with audience members before "Riot."

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Berkshire Fringe Festival Excels in New Home

By Joe Durwin
Pittsfield Correspondent
05:55PM / Sunday, August 17, 2014
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Sweet Soubrette plays at one of several free concerts throughout the festival, held in the former Notre Dame Church.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A major change of venue has not altered the fundamental artistic essence of The Berkshire Fringe, as its 10th season has played out in a whirlwind of theater, song, and assorted buffoonery in the more centralized urban location of one of Pittsfield's most rapidly changing neighborhoods.
 
Fringe founders Sara Katzoff, Timothy Ryan Olson and Peter Wise said the move from the Daniels Arts Center at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington to the repurposed former Pittsfield church known as Shire City Sanctuary has been a positive experience on several levels.
 
"For the most part it's been really great for us. It feels like a much better match for what we do," said Katzoff
 
"It's nice seeing new people that we've never seen before," said Olson. "I've seen many more new faces this year than I have in the past."
 
Katzoff said free concerts held throughout the festival have benefited from the curiosity of pedestrian traffic in a way that hasn't been a factor in previous years. There has also been a contingent among the festivalgoers of those with fond memories of the former Notre Dame Church itself, which previously has only been open to the general public sporadically for a handful of events.
 
"A lot of people that have stopped in have some relationship to the church, and it's been really interesting to talk to people about their stories," Katzoff said.
 
The sanctuary, recently approved for expanded uses, is one component of increased activity in a part of downtown that has been undergoing significant transition. Across the street on Melville, the former Notre Dame School was recently renovated and reopened as high-end apartments, and the blighted former convent adjacent to it demolished. Across First Street, Blueline Designs is in planning to convert a former candlepin bowling alley into a community greenhouse, and around the corner the Pittsfield Common is in the final stages of a $ 4.6 million reconstruction process.
 
"It's definitely a challenge," said Wise, of transitioning to the 1896 church. "But we spent a lot of time planning it in advance, and it's all gone according to plan."
 
Armed with a decade's experience in providing Fringe performance, the trio ably adapted the kind of content that has made them successful to the vagaries of their new venue, which include the ambient sound effects of police sirens and adjacent railroad tracks, along with the lighting nuances of stained-glass windows.
 
"To some extent, we have to acquiesce to what the space is, and just embrace that," said Wise. "Beyond that we've done as much as we possibly can to make it a real professional environment for our artists."
 
Instead of a detraction, the unusual urban cathedral setting in many ways seems to infuse and complement the theatrical fare, which ranges from "Riot," the frantic-paced semi-musical tale of civil unrest in a familiar big-box furniture store, to the slapstick sibling rivalries and hump-backed hijinks in the appropriately named "Hunchbacks of Notre Dame."  
 
"It feels weird to be singing songs about such bad women in such a beautiful religious space," acknowledged Ellia Bisker of Sweet Soubrette, while strumming a ukelele between two melodically bawdy ballads at one of the free early evening concerts.
 
This year's festival is a kind of reunion, incorporating many familiar elements of the past decade's flavor.
 
"The biggest change this year is that we invited specific artists back to the festival to help celebrate our tenth year," said Olson, who said this year's festival was held on a more invitational basis with favorite artists from past shows presenting either new work, a throwback to past shows, or both, as in the case of two companies this year.  
 
The trio agreed that while this was planned prior to knowing they would be relocating the festival to Pittsfield, working with troupes that they knew well has made the transition easier.
 
"There's been so many unknowns with coming to a new city and a new space," Wise said. "So to have all returning staff, and artists that we know already, has been great."
 
Despite its smaller size and budget compared to other theatrical organizations in the Berkshires, the Fringe festival has earned a name and reputation that extends far beyond the Berkshires.  On the opening night of performances, Katzoff shared an encounter she had just had with a couple from Ohio, who had driven to the area specifically to attend the festival.
 
"I'm not used to that," Katzoff told iBerkshires. "People don't usually come to the Berkshires for our thing, they come for something else and then they come to Fringe while they're here."
 
"I think our mission has always stayed the same, nothing has really changed much from past years to now in the very basic idea of what we do," summarized Olson. "Which is to present new original work by emerging artists, create work in a nontraditional way, and keep ticket prices affordable."
 
The Berkshire Fringe hosts two shows Sunday night, at 7 and 9, and wraps up Monday night with performances at 5 and 8.

Tags: arts festival,   church reuse,   community theater,   music,   

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