Friday December 16, 2011

PITTSFIELD

The way Eric Hill and E. Gray Simons III see it, their annual production of "A Christmas Carol" for Berkshire Theatre Group is all about community.

"This is an intimate production (performed) by a community for a commun-ity," Hill said during a recent interview at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre, where Hill's adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" opens Saturday night at 7 and runs to Dec. 30.

Community is the aesthetic framework for Hill's telling of Charles Dickens' popular tale about reclusive old man's rejoining his neighboring London community from which he has isolated himself for most of his adult life.

Dickens appears at the opening of this adaptation. And as his neighbors gather round, he begins telling his familiar tale of greed and redemption and they participate by becoming his characters.

"Dickens lived in London, which at his time was a community of people living just down the road," Hill said.

"To me, this story has always been about greed versus the harsh realities of life; about the few who have and the many who don't; about taking a little time to get together with others to do something for a neighbor in need."

From a technical standpoint, moving "A Christmas Carol" from BTG's 122- seat Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, where it's been performed annually over the past five years, to the 780seat Colonial Theatre in downtown Pittsfield has required no major technical changes; just a bit of tweaking to Carl Sprague's set, Hill says. Only the lighting has been reconceived.

The Colonial stage is taller and deeper than the Unicorn stage but the width of the Colonial's proscenium is no more than than the width of the Unicorn stage, Hill says.

With a larger seating capacity at the Colonial and no audio enhancement, Hill and Simons have had to train their actors to speak with greater volume and emphasize their words more.

" For a ( nearly) 800- seat house," Hill said, " the Colonial has a remarkable intimacy. Our whole emphasis has been not to lose what we had in Stockbridge."

Hill and Simons believe that much of the sense of community that's developed within the cast has to do with the ways in which the two of them work together.

They've known each other a long time. Simons is artistic associate at BTG. He runs the training and education program for BTG's Berkshire Theatre Festival, where Hill has directed and acted, and worked with Simons on training the young members of the Unicorn company.

Where one leaves off in directing "A Christmas Carol," the other begins.

"We each know what the other is thinking," Hill said. "I do some things; Gray does some things. He fixes things I've done (that aren't working). I fix things he's done. We nudge each other. We get bounce- back from each other."

" The kids come into rehearsal and they see Eric and I working together. We're also both in the show," Simons said. " That allows them to assume responsibility for what each of them does; to contribute ideas of their own and so they participate in a professional, refined way."

"What the cast sees is two people who really love working together on something they love," Hill said.

"They see us creating something within a very difficult situation so they take responsibility for their own stuff. They feel they've been given an invitation to collaborate and they have."

And collaboration, Hill said, leads right back to community. There is the sense of community, Hill says, that has to do with "pitching in and helping; with kindness and generosity; with helping and supporting each other." Hill says. There is community in the sense of doing community theater for the community.

The " Christmas Carol" community is made up of a broad cross- section of Berkshires residents - kids, teens, adults, seniors - most with little or no stage experience.

Among those community members is a prominent figure, James Taylor, who is joining his wife and two sons in the cast. He's playing Bob Cratchit. It's something new for the Grammy winning singer-songwriter who knows his way around a concert stage but has virtually no acting experience.

"He's very shy," Hill said of Taylor. " When he's not on stage, he sits quietly in the theater waiting until his family is done with their scenes or he'll chat with other cast members.

"He's just another member of the cast; an approachable regular guy; so easy to work with. He wants to do things right so he's willing to go over things. He asks for ways to improve.

"He joins in all our vocal warm-ups. He puts us all so at ease. " In the end, Hill says, Taylor is doing this production "for the same reason we are.

" This is a beautiful story that we're doing for the community and it makes a difference.

"We all want to make a difference. He wants to make a difference."