PITTSFIELD -- Barrington Stage Company’s cast, crew and administrators are coming together to tackle community issues, with this week’s theme focusing on race and disabilities.

Following tonight’s Youth Threatre company production of "Hairspray JR." at the Berkshire Museum, BSC will present a Pittsfield Community Night discussion that will address issues such as racism and discrimination that are encountered in both the musical and in the city of Pittsfield. The production begins at 7 p.m., and runs for 85 minutes.

The panel will include BSC youth company members and staff along with community leaders.

BSC will also present "Sensory-Friendly" performances of "Hairspray Jr." and "Dancing Lessons" this Saturday and on Sunday, Aug. 16, respectively. These performances and theater settings will be modified to accommodate audience members who have autism spectrum disorders and other sensitivities to light and sound.

"Young people tend to be totally open, and open to getting along with everyone," said Artistic Director Julianne Boyd, who planned the community night with Managing Director Tristan Wilson.

Based on the film and Tony Award-winning stage musical of the same name, "Hairspray JR." follows spunky plus-sized teen, Tracy Turnblad, as she pursues her dream of dancing on national television and navigates the racial tensions and stereotypes that took place in Baltimore in the 1960s.

"I went to rehearsal and was absolutely blown away by this group of 18 young people, some Caucasian, some black.


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Most of them didn’t know each other, but they became fast friends because the theater brought them together," Boyd said.

She thinks the success of this microcosm could serve as a guide for the Pittsfield community at large.

"Let’s be frank, there have been some tensions lately between people and I’m concerned about that," she said. "So let these kids talk and bring in some of the city leaders to talk with them. Let’s have a smoother more positive energy in moving forward with race relations in our community."

Boyd said BSC previously demonstrated success with this approach when the company was based in Great Barrington before 2006. During that time, Boyd said the town’s business owners were groaning about teens loitering near businesses, on sidewalks and in parking lots.

So in 2000 BSC staged Eric Bogosian’s "subUrbia," which takes place in a similar setting and deals with the same social issues that were happening at that time in real life. After one of the shows, a panel discussion involving local teens and officials such as police and fire chiefs took place.

"They really got to hear each others’ points of view," Boyd said.

In addition to addressing race relations this summer, BSC is also addressing entertainment from the perspective of people with autism spectrum disorders. This group of developmental disabilities can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges in the people who have them.

Persons with ASDs have been found to question something that they don’t understand in a performance they’re watching aloud, or be stimulated in such a way that they might shriek, laugh loudly or have trouble sitting still.

These behaviors may be considered rude by other audience members who aren’t aware of ASDs’ symptoms. By offering special sensory-friendly performances to some of its shows for people who have this disorder, BSC hopes to make theater more accessible to all kinds of people.

"We’ve been working with CIP and have become very aware that more has to be done to better meet the needs of this population. One in 68 children are now said to have some form of autism spectrum disorder," Boyd said. The College Internship Program, or CIP, serves students with ASDs and other learning disabilities.

Saturday’s sensory-friendly show of "Hairspray JR." will take place at 12:30 p.m. at the Berkshire Museum. The performance will feature reduced sound and light levels both on stage and in the theatre; intentionally empty seats to give people more room to either move or exit the performance if necessary; teaching materials that explain the production’s storyline; and a quiet space outside the theater for those who might need a break during the show. Assistive comnmunication technology and apps for mobile devices will be allowed.

"I think these performances will be helpful for the cast members, to make them aware at how they can make others as comfortable as possible," Boyd said. "We also hope to get a group of young people here that hasn’t had a chance to go to the theater before because their response to a show might be different than others."

If you go ...

Tonight: Pittsfield Community Night in conjunction with Barrington Stage Co.’s Youth Theatre production of "Hairspray JR." Performance starts at 7 at the Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., in Pittsfield. Run time is approximately 85 minutes. A panel talk and reception will follow with cast members, BSC company members, and the following guests: Shirley Edgerton, program director of Youth Alive Step Dance and Drum Team and Rites of Passage Empowerment Program; Adam Hinds, Pittsfield Program Coordinator for the Shannon Grant, Pittsfield’s Gang Prevention Initiative; and Will Singleton, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Saturday: Sensory-friendly performance at 12:30 p.m. of "Hairspray JR." Tickets are $16 for adults; $12 for youths ages 5 to 18 (kids under age 5 are not permitted).

Saturday, Aug. 16: Sensory-friendly performance at 2 p.m. of Mark St. Germain’s "Dancing Lessons," a romantic comedy featuring a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who seeks the instruction of a Broadway dancer who’s been sidelined with injuries. Tickets are $20 adults; $15 for youths ages 6 to 18 (kids under age 6 are not permitted).

For more information on these offerings, visit barringtonstageco.org or call (413) 236-8888