Celebrating BSC's 20th season: Julianne Boyd finds artistic home in the Berkshires
RELATED | Barrington Stage Co. Timeline
PITTSFIELD -- As a sixth-grader growing up outside Easton, Pa., Julianne Boyd, seeking self-expression, took a big bite by the theater bug.
Celebrating her 20th anniversary season as co-founder and artistic director of the Barrington Stage Company, Boyd acknowledges that the long road to a permanent home and financial stability hit some bumps along the way, but has smoothed out as the theater's two downtown stages expand their audiences and operate in the black.
"I was the best reader and could memorize lines, so it was just fun getting up in front of people," she recalled during a conversation at BSC's administrative offices on Union Street, near the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, originally a 1912 vaudeville house.
Boyd recalled that her father, a high school principal, wanted all his youngsters to have after-school activities, so she and her sister chose the stage while their three brothers pursued athletics.
In college, she decided to shift from acting after performing in George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man" under an uncommunicative director. "It just bit me then that I love the intellectual part and also the acting part," said Boyd, thinking that with the doctorate she obtained from Adelphi University on Long Island, she could teach and direct on a campus.
Working for a pittance off-off Broadway in the early 1970s, she was tapped to direct a late-night production. "That was sort of the beginning," she said. "I loved it, it was being able to use your mind, see the overview, get feedback from the actors, it was very exciting."
After seven years directing at small Manhattan theaters -- getting "a great education, more important than my master's or PhD" -- her big break arrived.
After conceiving and directing "Eubie!" a musical revue of jazz great Eubie Blake that moved from a tiny theater to Broadway in 1978 for a 439-performance run, Boyd began working in regional theaters.
"There were more exciting things happening there than on Broadway," she said. After a decade as president of what's now known as the Stage Directors and Choreographers union in the 1980s, Boyd -- who had never been to the Berkshires -- took up a friend's suggestion that she look into an opening as artistic director at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge.
Heading for her first day of work in November 1992, Boyd was seriously injured in a car accident on the Taconic State Parkway in New York state. She suffered a crushed leg, requiring multiple operations and many months in a wheelchair and on crutches.
Unfazed, she took up the post but quickly realized it was more than a summer season job. So, after two seasons, Boyd left BTF.
Then, in January 1995, she and co-founder Susan Sperber, who had been the BTF development director, decided to create new theater company, which, ironically, has since developed into a year-round operation. The initial plans were hatched in Sperber's dining room in Becket before they relocated to the former Camp Deerwood on Lake Buel in Great Barrington. (Sperber left after three seasons to shepherd the Colonial Theatre restoration project.)
"We named it Barrington Stage because we thought we'd find a space in the town, but we didn't," said Boyd. Instead, they landed at the 500-seat Consolati Auditorium on the Mount Everett Regional High campus in Sheffield. School Superintendent Thomas Consolati agreed to provide the space at a low rent, provided youngsters 18 and under could attend at half-price.
With the school as its base, BSC reached into the community. Its first production, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," based on the tragic life of jazz singer-songwriter Billie Holiday, was staged at the former Macano Inn in the village of Housatonic.
Finding a permanent home for BSC was her greatest challenge, Boyd acknowledged. It took 11 years.
"Our budget and our ability to serve the community was always going to be limited" by the short-season requirements of the Mount Everett setting, she said. "We wanted to do theater at least from May to October and we couldn't do it (there)."
After scouring Great Barrington, including the Mahaiwe Theatre, and other sites, Boyd leapt at the opportunity to purchase the Berkshire Music Hall, reincarnated from the former Berkshire Public Theatre on Union Street in Pittsfield. After BSC staged a production of "Hair" at the Mahaiwe and then ran it for a week in August 2005 in Pittsfield, the owner, Ray Schilke, sold the building and the nearby Octagon House for $785,000.
Aiming to open in the summer of 2006, it was down to the wire to complete the massive renovations, with a close call when shortcomings in the structural underpinnings and upward-sloping sight lines were discovered, requiring quick fixes.
Despite the setbacks, Boyd found it "all very exciting, everyone was rowing in the same direction."
Unable to open in June, BSC staged productions at BCC and the Lenox High School auditorium before the Pittsfield theater was ready for the season's final show in August, "Ring ‘Round the Moon," followed by a full season in the summer of 2007.
"We bought (the building), to the consternation of many people in South County," Boyd said. "It was a risk that made common sense to us, because we were never going to grow, we were always going to come up short in what we were trying to do for the community."
The support of the then-recently hired Cultural Development Director, Megan Whilden, and Mayor James Ruberto, an ardent advocate of the arts as an element to help revive downtown Pittsfield, was crucial.
Paving the way to Pittsfield was the William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the first hit among BSC's 20 world premieres. After workshop and stage productions at Mount Everett in 2004, the show moved to off-Broadway and then Broadway before it was revived in Pittsfield in 2008.
" ‘Spelling Bee' allowed us to move up here," Boyd explained, "because we got a small piece of the residuals."
Just two years into its new life in Pittsfield, the Great Recession halted BSC's $7 million capital campaign for a year, before the goal was reached last July.
"It was really difficult," Boyd acknowledged. "We owed a lot of money and we were paying a lot of interest to the bank."
But she demurred when asked whether that difficult time had threatened to sink the entire enterprise.
"You're not going to believe this," she told the Eagle. "Never! I'm one of the most optimistic people you've ever met in your whole life. We knew we had this groundswell of people who loved our work, so we figured out how could we do more."
The world premieres were an
answer, along with the five-year lease of the former VFW headquarters on Linden Street, starting in 2008. The 113-seat Stage 2 is home to intimate productions. BSC purchased the building in 2012 for $345,000, which also houses Mr. Finn's Cabaret on the lower level. Major renovations are planned.
"I've been challenged," Boyd admitted, "but it's always been ‘how can I solve that problem' rather than, it isn't working. In theater, there's always a solution -- how can we get the best result possible."
With 520 seats at the Mainstage, BSC now puts on 280 performances annually over a six-month season from May to mid-October, plus the 10 x 10 festival in February. No further expansion is anticipated.
Among other major achievements, Boyd cites the proliferation of new work at the company, along with the annual season-opening vintage musical. Last summer's "On the Town" is set to open on Broadway in October.
"Those revivals bring in family audiences, it seems more people love musicals than straight plays," Boyd said.
On the other hand, Boyd confessed, "my biggest surprise is that audiences also love the serious plays. Stage 2 was a God-send." She cited Mark St. Germain's "Freud's Last Session" and his retitled "Becoming Dr. Ruth" -- both wound up in New York after long runs in Pittsfield.
The company is debt-free and has operated in the black for the past several years. The BSC annual report for 2013 shows a $113,000 surplus on a $3.4 million budget. Paid attendance, at 52,086, including 40 percent from Berkshire County, reflects a sharp rise from 40,246 in 2010.
Boyd credits gains in season subscriptions thanks to promotional deals such as "combo passes," guaranteed prime seating and tier pricing based on seat locations.
But efforts to attract younger patrons have fallen short -- the core audience continues to range from 45 to 60.
Married to Dr. Norman Boyd, her college sweetheart, for some 45 years, Boyd lives much of the year on Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield but the couple maintains a home on Central Park West in Manhattan, where he continues to practice dentistry.
Looking into the future, Boyd, 69, hopes to commission more new works from different playwrights through a new endowment fund targeted toward artistic ventures, education and general operating expenses.
"Wherever we go in 20 years," said Boyd, "if I can give the theater a basis for the future, so if a play doesn't work we don't have to go to the board for extra money, then we can remain self-sufficient, secure financially. That's always a challenge."
To put it another way, whenever Boyd moves on (she suggested 10 years from now), she wants to hand her successor a viable, going concern with expanding artistic horizons buttressed by a healthy bottom line.
February 1995 -- Julianne Boyd and Susan Sperber announce the formation of Barrington Stage, a new theater company based at the 500-seat Consolati Performing Arts Center at Mount Everett High School in Sheffield.
June 1995 -- "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" opens at the Macano Inn in Housatonic, selling out, causing BSC to reprise it in the fall. BSC reprises the show twice more over the next few years.
1995 -- "The Diary of Anne Frank" opens at the Consolati PAC, moves to the Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough, wins two Elliot Norton Awards.
1997 -- BSC revives "Cabaret," which moves to the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge where it wins several Elliot Norton Awards.
1999 -- "Mack and Mabel" is the season-opener, with book rewritten and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman attending final rehearsals and opening.
2000 -- BSC produces "subUrbia" in the winter, the first time working with disenfranchised youth, leading to the Playwright Mentoring Project created by Artistic Director Julianne Boyd.
2002 -- BSC produces William Finn's "Falsettos," the start of an enduring artistic relationship with the playwright.
2003 -- BSC produces first of many world premieres by Mark St. Germain, "Ears on a Beatle," which moves to off-Broadway.
2004 -- William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" becomes a hit, beginning as a February workshop and then a summer production at Mount Everett High. Production moves on to off-Broadway and then Broadway, where it runs for 1,136 performances (May 2, 2005-Jan. 20, 2008) and wins two Tony Awards (best book of a musical; best actor in a featured role -- musical).
2005 -- Following the opening of the well-received, sold out "Follies," BSC purchases the Berkshire Music Hall and Octagon House in Pittsfield for $785,000.
January 2006 -- Renovation of Main Stage at 30 Union Street begins.
August 2006 -- After performances at various sites caused by construction delays at the Mainstage, the new venue opens with "Ring ‘Round the Moon," with only the orchestra section of the building open.
April 2007 -- The Playwright Mentoring Project receives the national "Coming Up Taller Award," given by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
June 2007 -- Main Stage mezzanine completed; "West Side Story" opens in the completely renovated theater.
2008 -- BSC begins five-year lease at the former Pittsfield VFW as Stage 2.
2009 -- Mark St. Germain's "Freud's Last Session" opens on Stage 2 for prolonged run.
2010 -- BSC reprises "Freud's Last Session" prior to its move to off-Broadway for a two-year run.
2011 -- BSC productions of "Guys and Dolls" and "Best of Enemies" set box-office records.
2012 -- BSC wins four Boston Broadway World Awards for "All My Sons" and three for "Fiddler on the Roof." Purchases the VFW building for Stage 2, where St. Germain's "Dr. Ruth, All the Way" opens.
2013 -- BSC's "On the Town" revival, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Josh Bergasse, sells out, with a Broadway opening planned for October 2014. The retitled "Becoming Dr. Ruth" opens off-Broadway.
June 2014 -- Company opens 20th anniversary season on Mainstage with "Kiss Me, Kate" revival.
Source: BSC; Eagle files
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