Fresh season, fresh optimism at Mahaiwe

Friday April 19, 2013

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Poet T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month but you’d have a hard time convincing Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center executive director Beryl Jolly of that. For her, April is a month of hope.

For openers, there is a new board chair. Maggie Buchwald has replaced founding chair Lola Jaffe, who has stepped down after 11 years .

For another, the theater is in an expansive mode -- more staff, more programming.

And Mahaiwe officials are soon to launch the public phase of a fundraising effort to retire the theater’s $2 million debt and establish a reserve.

Most important, earlier this month Jolly unveiled the Mahaiwe’s 2013 summer-fall season -- 55 days and/or nights between now and mid-December when the theater will be occupied with comedy, music, dance, movies, talks, live HD telecasts and community-sponsored programs. The broad range of artists includes Rita Rudner, Natalie Merchant, Taj Mahal, Bela Fleck, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Pilobolus, Pink Martini, Manhattan Transfer, and Bill Cosby, who headlines the Mahaiwe’s fall gala on Oct. 13.

"I think we’re hitting our stride," Jolly said during a a recent dual interview with Buchwald. "I feel we’re going to another level."

"Our audiences have asked us to provide more of the same programming we’ve been offering," Buchwald said. "We want to offer (not only) more of the same (but) better."

That goal already seems to be bearing fruit. Jolly reports brisk ticket sales, chief among them for Rita Rudner’s Aug. 4 appearance.

The big fall gala is a relatively new kind of event for the Mahaiwe, according to Buchwald. Last October’s event with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin on stage, a dinner beforehand and a reception afterward was a big success, Buchwald said.

Bill Cosby, she said, seemed a natural.

Other venueshave had good experiences with Cosby and, Buchwald said, "we felt he’s the right performer for this community."

Jolly and Buchwald acknowledge that their optimism is tempered by a realistic awareness of the challenges involved in keeping the nonprofit organization’s annual $1.5 million budget on an even keel. That focus is paramount for Buchwald.

"It’s different from being a founding chair," Buchwald said, referring to Jaffe, who retains a seat on the Mahaiwe board.

"[As founding chair] Lola defined the vision of the theater and had a lot to say about the artistic (as well as the fiscal) choices.

"I feel the role of the board chair is to support the executive director; to carry on the mission and support Beryl’s role in the unearned income side of the equation; to give the staff all the help it needs. So far, it seems to be working pretty well."

Jolly talks about expanding the Mahaiwe’s outreach, especially in terms of its education programs; about more collaborations and interactions with other cultural institutions within and without the Berkshires; about making firm the future.

"We need to build a strong foundation to ensure that [our] vision is secured and has longevity," Jolly said.

The key to that is fundraising.

Ticket sales are up and so is membership -- 100 new members over last year at this time.

"As good as all this sounds," Buchwald said, "we still depend on the community for support. We operate on a very tight budget. People don’t understand that even if you have a sold-out performance, you’re still only barely breaking even.

"It’s the economy. We’re in a competitive community. The model of corporate giving has changed. We have to build financial security across a broad spectrum of individual support at all levels."

The Mahaiwe has begun a campaign to retire the its debt, build a reserve, and attend to theater maintenance. Fifty-five percent of the $2 million the Mahaiwe needs has been raised privately; the rest will come from a public effort called Impact! that will begin shortly.

"This is the first year of our future," Buchwald said hopefully.


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