As Berkshires get go-ahead for indoor theaters, lawmakers react with varied attitudes

The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center is pictured in 2016. Despite getting the green light to host indoor theater shows, the Mahaiwe is taking a wait-and-see approach to resuming normal activities.

Deemed "lower risk" by the state because of low COVID-19 infection rates, Berkshire communities are free to raise the curtain next week on indoor theater performances.

But, while the news was seen as a welcome opportunity for cultural organizations that lost much of their programming — and revenue — to the coronavirus pandemic, some lawmakers wish it had come sooner. And lingering uncertainty about the virus might prevent some from moving forward just yet.

"Here's the opening. Can we get creative to do things differently?" said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "We just need to proceed cautiously, [and] it's up to the locals to interpret that."

Gov. Charlie Baker this week announced that he was easing coronavirus safety restrictions in communities with COVID-19 rates under control, which includes all of the Berkshires. As soon as Monday, theater groups in the Berkshires will be allowed to hold indoor performances for up to 250.

The new guidelines might allow some groups to entertain the possibility of a fall performance season, though there is widespread agreement that the near-total loss of the summer season hurt some groups that are key players in the economy.

"Ideally, it would've been nice to have this in August," Pignatelli said, "but the numbers didn't work out that way."

Two Pittsfield groups — Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company — were the first two companies to have live shows approved by the Actors' Equity Association after the pandemic hit the United States. Yet, a week before performances were set to begin, Barrington Stage was forced to move shows to an outdoor tent when Baker opted not to proceed with the second step of the state's Phase 3 reopening as initially expected.

BTG already had planned to hold shows outdoors, but both companies had to cut attendance to meet the new gathering limit of 50.

It was "frustrating" to have gotten the go-ahead for indoor performances now rather than in the summer, said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

"We had multiple theaters and venues who invested a lot of money and time to ensure a safe setting for outdoor performances, and the capacity was reduced just as they were starting those performances," Hinds said. "Now, these guidelines are shifting to allow for more folks just as the performances are winding down for the season.

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"That's been a disappointment, because they basically proved they could conduct these gatherings safely."

Yet, at least one Berkshire theater, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, is not rushing to take advantage of the opportunity.

"Even though this is wonderful news, it carries a lot of uncertainty with it," said Janis Martinson, executive director of the Mahaiwe. "We are grateful to be in an area with low rates at the moment, but it's hard to predict what the future's bringing. That makes it a little bit more difficult to plan."

Instead, the Mahaiwe will proceed with screening movies for audiences of up to 25 and will continue its expanded online presence. In anticipation of eventually welcoming back audiences safely, it already has worked on bolstering safety measures. When it reopens, the Mahaiwe will have ticket scanners for touchless admission, plexiglass, a medical-grade air-filtration system and floor markings for social distancing.

"There's nothing we want more than to welcome people back to the theater, except to protect audiences and staff members, so we want to make sure that we're being as thoughtful as we can be and making the preparations," Martinson said.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, urged caution but expressed appreciation that reopening decisions were made specific to individual communities.

"I like the fact that the governor has chosen to make this part of the reopening based on the numbers in the communities, and that everybody shouldn't be treated the same because we have different levels of outbreak in different communities," she said. "I'm a little hesitant because it feels like our numbers are starting to rise. ... I have concern. Not alarm, but concern."

Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.