PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local performing arts leaders are navigating the new post-pandemic world of theater and embracing one another as allies.
Artistic Directors Mandy Greenfield of Williamstown Theatre Festival, Kate Maguire of Berkshire Theatre Group Kate and Julianne Boyd of Barrington Stage Company; Alexandra Fuchs, chief operating officer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and Pamela Tatge, director of Jacob's Pillow Dance, joined 1Berkshire CEO Jonathan Butler for a virtual town hall on Friday.
Greenfield thinks the Berkshires are uniquely positioned to bring back live performances safely.
"I think that we as arts organizations are back with this kind of ferocity because we know we have a responsibility to make space for that, for artists, for audiences, for people who have to reconnect with what it means to be alive," she said. "This is a part of human health and well-being, we have to be back this summer, we have to continue to tear a path forward and we have to do it for as broad and diverse of a community of both artists and audiences as we can all push ourselves to do."
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Greenfield contacted her fellow artistic leaders in hopes of collaborating on a code of courtesy or protocol that everyone attending and performing at Berkshire County arts organizations can follow.
As a result, they were able to produce a document with the goal of building good habits and having a standard set of procedures that can be applied to all venues.
"One of the silver linings of this time has been to work closely with my colleagues on the screen and others to navigate these incredibly extraordinary times that we've all gone through," Tatge said.
"And I think the idea for us is all about communication and just making it so that you know what the protocol is. So you can just enjoy the performance and not have any anxiety about it."
The Berkshires can look forward to an array of programming from the organizations including outdoor, indoor, and virtual performances.
Jacob's Pillow is planning its first multiplatform festival with full in-person and online performances. From June 30 to the end of August, there will be outdoor performances from all genres at 25 percent capacity.
"And at this point, we're planning for 25 percent of capacity audiences, 250 people per performance, one company per week, nine performances for each company," Tatge said. "So they're going to do two 45-minute performances a day, one at 2 one at 6, and we are bringing companies of all genres from primarily driving distance of Jacob's Pillow, but a few that we are flying in and if they're not vaccinated, quarantining before they perform."
Maguire said Berkshire Theatre Group is a fully vaccinated organization and thanked Berkshire Health Systems for its assistance. BTG began its season Saturday under the "big tent" behind the Colonial Theatre and will continue through June 12.
"Harvest and Rust," a Neil Young Tribute will kick off the season followed by Massachusetts native singer/songwriter Ryan Montbleau the next week.
Under a tent in Stockbridge, "The Importance of Being Earnest" will run from June 18 to July 10 and then move back to programming in Pittsfield.
"Between Pittsfield and Stockbridge, there will always be something going on on our grounds," Maguire said.
Williamstown Theatre Festival will, too, be utilizing virtual programming to entertain a global audience as well as in-person performances. WTF's season begins on July 6 and features performances spread around the town.
"We are kind of taking over the town in partnership with the town itself, the board of select people, the Board of Health, the clerk, the college, we are really holding hands with the entire community to bring a three-project show season to life," Greenfield said.
"It's a season that relies on the literal architecture of Williamstown, Massachusetts, to come to life and I hope that our audiences bring a spirit of adventure and openness to it as it hopes to bring everyone's senses back to life in a real celebration of human ingenuity."
The lawn of the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance will feature nine solo plays by black playwrights, the world premiere musical "Row" will be performed at the Clark Art Institute reflecting pool and an outdoor installation piece, "Alien Nation," will found in the "nooks and crannies" of Williamstown.
Tanglewood in Lenox will be focusing on the Koussevitzky Music Shed with Friday through Monday programming that begins on July 9. Friday evenings will include performances that been historically typical to the organization's smaller venue Seiji Ozawa Hall, Fuchs said, and the weekends will be dedicated to more traditional Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Tanglewood's summer academy will be continued with reduced capacity and concerts will be held on Monday evenings at the Shed, with free chamber concerts on Sunday mornings and Monday afternoons.
"We'll have programs in collaboration with the Tanglewood Learning Institute, which is the new program we launched in 2019," Fuchs said. "They there will be partnerships and collaborations and programs that started with with the TLI, which will continue including our open studios or masterclasses which the public can attend."
In response to inquiries about Tanglewood's annual James Taylor concert -- which was canceled last year -- Fuchs said there is a possible date in mind at the end of August but that for now they are "tracking, monitoring, and remaining hopeful."
Barrington Stage Company will have programming both outdoors at the BSC Production Center on Laurel Street and at the Boyd/Quinson Stage on Union Street starting on June 10 with "Who Could Ask For Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin" followed by a world premiere play "Boca" by Jessica Provenz, which is about six seniors in Boca Raton, Fla.
"We got our theater ready last year, and the safety protocols are still just unbelievably fabulous," Boyd said. "All the airflow is 100 percent, we purge the air every single night in the theater, we have Merv 13 filters, we bring in 50 percent fresh air every day, every single seat both outdoors indoors is electrostatically cleaned, so we are really concentrating on the safety protocols and had a chance to start that last year indoors restarting on June 18. We're doing smaller plays indoors and all of the actors both outdoors indoors have been vaccinated as has our staff."
Though the organizations developed a universal set of safety protocols, they have individually found ways to innovate the theater experience to be as safe as possible in the COVID-19 world and acknowledge that some things may be permanently changed for better or for worst.
Fuchs explained that Tanglewood is distributing a two-minute video called "Safe and Sound" that is intended to prepare showgoers for the experience. Additionally, they are limiting lawn tickets to four per household and are distributing 8-by-8-foot plastic sheets that outline social distancing guidelines for lawngoers.
"I think that we are forever changed if you will," Maguire said. "I think we have discovered some new ways of working that are suited to what we do, there are some things that we're doing that I will be glad to say, 'bye-bye, friends, never see again,' to like Zoom calls, but I know that one of the things that have changed for us dramatically is finding spaces, new spaces, to do performances."
Maguire added that there is "no discounting" what has gone on politically and culturally this year, which has made organizations experience a shift in the way they create, think about work, and treat people.
"I think that the opportunity to transform ourselves to work in slightly different ways or new media, I think has also cracked open things for the theater artists," Greenfield said.
"And I think that the practice of being in these other media or other spaces are other ways of making work only enrich and enlarge the more traditional thing that we each do and we'll certainly hope to continue to do, so I see these things as complimentary, whether you're making an audio offering, or an audio-video offering and a stage performance, they're different, but they complement and they enhance one another and they make each other better."
Coming out of the pandemic, some things that the artistic leaders think will aid Berkshire County in recovering from the losses over the last year are the influx of new residents to the area, the tools that have been learned during this time, and the bonds that have been made.
"This has been a wildly difficult period for cultural organizations and it's going to take time to build back," Greenfield said. "But the thought partnership and literal practical partnerships that we are seeing come together to make this happen really do, I think to belie, a kind of long term growth and sustaining force that that indicates to me, we will be okay."
Butler thanked the panelists for their participation and passion for bringing the arts to the Berkshires.
"You're all so good at what you do," he said. "You all have such passion, such deep concern for our region to which we all owe you a debt of gratitude and we're just lucky to have you here with us."
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