LENOX — For all intents and purposes, Shakespeare & Company shut down this summer, canceling its 2020 season; furloughing staff.
Now, says Artistic Director Allyn Burrows, Shakespeare & Company is back in business and raring to go.
The staff, furloughed since July, has returned to the company’s 70 Kemble St. campus at full complement. Saturday afternoon at 2 will see the first live performance at Shakespeare & Company since winter — an outdoor staged reading of Shakespeare’s rarely seen “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” An audience of no more than 50 — to comply with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines — will be spread across the field behind the Tina Packer Playhouse at a new performing space, the Wooden O Theatre, a one-quarter size replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; designed by a former board member, kept in storage, now taken out and assembled for use on an expansive location under an expansive autumn sky.
The reading will be performed by members of Shakespeare & Company’s Northeast Regional Tour troupe.
“It’s a perplexing piece,” said Burrows, during a socially-distanced interview on the terrace outside Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse. Burrows appeared in a production of the play in 1996 for Kings County Shakespeare Company in New York and directed a production in 2013 for Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston.
“It’s about a weirdly autocratic ruler, King Antiochus, with whom Pericles comes in contact and then has to run for his life. He is encumbered with adversity again and again and still maintains his balance.
“It seemed perfect for our times when we are experiencing the pandemics not only of COVID-19, but also social injustice,” he said.
“Pericles” launches an active online fall season for Shakespeare & Company beginning with a revival of Jodi Rothe’s “Martha Mitchell Calling” with Annette Miller reprising.
The role of Martha Mitchell, wife of President Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, is a role Miller created at Shakespeare & Company in 2008. It will be shown Oct. 26-28 and Nov. 1, “right before the election,” Burrows said.
“Martha Mitchell Calling” will be followed in November with readings of recently premiered plays. The series begins Nov. 7 with Richard Wesley’s “Autumn,” directed by Regge Life, followed Nov. 14 by “Kernel of Sanity” by Kermit Frazier, also directed by Life, and, on Nov. 21, “Smart People” by Lydia Diamond, directed by Aimee Michel, who is on the faculty at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
“All these plays deal with issues of race on various levels,” Burrows said. “’Autumn’ is a story of political gamesmanship. ‘Kernel of Sanity’ is a mystery about racial injustices in the theater.”
“Smart People” is about social, sexual and racial politics played out amidst a group of four extremely bright Harvard University graduates on the eve of Barack Obama’s first election.
Burrows had scheduled a costumed staged reading of an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” directed by Ariel Bock, for December in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. Burrows said he is still hoping to produce “Emma,” albeit in some other fashion. He also is rethinking ways to produce the highly popular annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare, which involves Berkshire County’s high school students; and the company’s vaunted training program.
“It’s a learning curve for all of us,” Burrows said. “We’re looking for opportunities at every level to do programming that’s safe.”
Shakespeare & Company may not have been live this summer, but it was alive with programming nonetheless. The theater company had a huge success on its hands with a drive-in movie series, produced in partnership with Berkshire International Film Festival.
Shakespeare & Company also was active online with programming — talks, webinars, classes, discussions, readings — “that was well-served, a pretty full field,” Burrows said. Call it the Zooming of Shakespeare & Company.
“I remember when Zoom was just getting started about six years ago and [we said] ‘Zoom what?’” Burrows said. “Who would have thought then that Zoom would become what it has?”
Among the things Zoom has done, Burrows said, “is allow us to do some deeper thinking about why we do what we do and how to make the most [of things] while we’re here.”
It’s not been easy. If theater is about anything, it is about connection, immediacy. Theater across the country — as has every aspect of life — has been devastated by COVID-19 in every way. The “company” in Shakespeare & Company was scattered; apart; fractionalized.
“We’ve been checking in on each other,” Burrows said. “We have a strong support system. We wanted to make sure everyone was connected.”
That support also has extended to board members.
“Strange as it may seem,” Burrows said laughing, almost incredulously, “we are in the best shape [financially] we’ve ever been. The commitment from our board really fills my heart. They have leaned in, stepped in at every turn. They’ve been really engaged.”
Time can be an enemy but, Burrows suggested, in a sense, time was an ally during Shakespeare & Company’s downturn.
“Typically, during a summer we don’t have time to step back and see what this all means,” Burrows said. This year, he said, there has been time to think; reflect. As a result, Burrows came to realize “how deeply ingrained in this area our culture is. It’s part of the musculature. So, we’ve had time to think about that.
One immediate conclusion: “We’ll be back next summer,” Burrows said firmly. “I don’t know what form that will be. We will anticipate embracing the limitations whatever they are.
“I don’t anticipate we will button up again. We have a lot of plans; a lot we want to do.”