10 years after opening its renovated doors, the Colonial is staging its next act — growth
PITTSFIELD — The doors to a restored Colonial Theatre opened on Aug. 29, 2006, with a production of "Rent." Now, 10 years later — five after the merger of the Colonial and Berkshire Theatre Festival into Berkshire Theatre Group — CEO and artistic director Kate Maguire wants to open those doors wider.
"After five years of merger," she said during a wide-ranging interview in her office at the historic 780-seat South Street venue, "we've reached a new point of growth.
"We've hit some goals and we are ready now to reach out from the plateau we're on."
Driving that outreach is community engagement, two words, Maguire says, that were not in her vocabulary when she joined Berkshire Theatre Festival as its artistic director 22 years ago.
The most visible signs of community are the total number of people — upward of 600 — who have participated in BTG's big annual summer community musical and its annual winter production of "A Christmas Carol" over the past 10 years, and the number of tickets, just over 500,000, that have been sold to Colonial events since "Rent."
But for Maguire, community engagement isn't simply a matter of putting people on stage or in the Colonial's 780 seats, the Fitzpatrick Main Stage's 312 seats in Stockbridge; or the Unicorn Theatre's 122 seats, also in Stockbridge. Rather, she says, "I think we have a responsibility as civic leaders to open our doors to community groups, provide a gathering place for community engagement.
One of those gathering places is The Garage at The Colonial, typically a performance space but doubling these days as the home of "Happimess," a new program for mothers and fathers of pre-K kids to help them develop the parenting skills they need to help their children develop and grow.
BTG also is working with Downtown Pittsfield and the Department of Mental Health on creating a program to help people deal with trauma.
"The theater is a place where we have in our tool box skills for communication, a different kind of communication with the community," Maguire said.
Engagement extends to 25 county schools where BTG works with roughly 13,000 students annually through its BTG PLAYS! education programs.
That sense of community seems built into the DNA of two cultural institutions that have deep roots in the larger Berkshires community — Berkshire Theatre Festival, which was founded in Stockbridge in 1928, and the Colonial Theatre, which opened its doors in downtown Pittsfield in 1903.
Begun in 2004, The Colonial Theatre Association's 22-month, $21 million project to reclaim and restore the historic theater — which had become a retail paint and art supply business in 1952 — was born of community.
Indeed, says Maguire, "the revitalization for downtown Pittsfield — Barrington Stage, Beacon Cinema, the carousel — all began with planning for the Colonial."
"It's not just about putting on shows," said BTG executive vice president and treasurer Lee Perlman, who is in his ninth year as a trustee.
"The Colonial is an economic engine for development in downtown Pittsfield, which I see as one of the state's gateway cities. We also provide social service. We are in the schools."
"We're not elitists," commented BTG trustee, educator Linda Ruberto. "Our idea is to create a place that is for everyone. The variety of programming we offer means that people come to the theater who might not ordinarily come. We bring in different audiences for different programs."
Berkshire Theatre Group's total annual operating budget is $3.4 million.
"I think we do so much more with less," Perlman said.
At the same time, he said, "the Berkshires is a busy place, lots of competition. We need to be very competitive from a fundraising and fill-the-seats standpoint. The two are co-dependent."
Ticket sales cover only 50 percent of BTG's costs. "We are very dependent on continual support for operating and capital needs," Maguire said.
To that end, BTG has just begun a yearlong 10th anniversary fundraising campaign with money to be distributed among its education programs, general operating expenses and building maintenance.
Maguire says the Colonial will need close to $1 million in capital expenditures over the next five years, chiefly for overall maintenance, roof repairs and restoration of the Thaddeus Clapp House on Wendell Avenue, which BTG will use for artist housing.
"(Literally and figuratively) the theater is fragile and, after 10 years of operation, needs new things. The challenge is to understand how fragile it all is and keep it going."
Keeping it going is not only about physical improvement; it is about growth, change.
"When I watch my nine-month-old grandson go through a growth spurt," Maguire said, "it is always accompanied by some kind of pain, but then, he stands or walks.
"Change is no less painful for adults, or for a community — but change must happen in order to grow."
And growth means looking to the future. So it's no surprise that if you ask Maguire about her bucket list, she will reply, without hesitation, "I want to make sure the theater is here for a generation to come.
"People come here for shows like 'Beauty and the Beast,' which involved over 100 young people, and see the talent and leave knowing this is their theater. These kids are going to run this place one day."
She paused for a moment, reflectively.
"You know, on days that are particularly challenging, you think 'What's the worst that can happen?' The worst that can happen is that the doors will close.
"Well, that is NOT going to happen. The real question is 'How wide can we open them?' "
2006: "Wizard of Oz"
2007: "Alice in Wonderland"
2009: "Peter Pan"
2011: "The Wizard of Oz"
2013: "Peter Pan"
2015: "Mary Poppins"
2016: "Beauty and the Beast"
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