LENOX — For Amy Handelsman, Shakespeare & Company’s new managing director, there’s much ado about many challenges facing the theatre troupe created by Tina Packer, founding artistic director, in 1978.
Like most performing arts organizations, there’s the concern about restoring robust pre-pandemic attendance. That’s still a work in progress.
Combining box office sales, about 50 percent of revenue, with contributed income from trustees, donors and foundations is necessary to balance the company’s $4.5 million annual budget.
There are over 200 staffers in prime season and 28 to 30 year-round, mostly full-time, comparable to pre-COVID times. In 2019, 72 percent of available tickets were sold.
In September of that year, Shakespeare & Company rolled out a request for proposals from potential collaborators to redevelop and restore unused portions of the theater troupe's 33-acre site on Kemble Street, minutes from the historic downtown business district.
Among the key elements:
- Attracting one or more business or nonprofit collaborators for potential projects such as affordable housing, lodging and dining, or another nonprofit partner for the property, currently zoned for educational and one-acre residential use.
- Focusing on potential applicants such as real estate or other business and development firms, as well as nonprofits "with the goal of monetizing the property in a way that is advantageous to both the interested entity and the Company. All prospective applicants must show experience with large-scale development projects."
- Demolishing or renovating at least five buildings in various states of dilapidation.
Are any partners waiting in the wings?
“We’ve started serious conversations with two entities, giants in what they do,” Handelsman confirmed. “They’re based in Berkshire County, but I don’t think it’s fair to them to say what they are, but they’re very viable and could yield a big upside in terms of income. They’re very different in terms of their ideas for the property, how we would benefit and how it might be mission-related.”
“We’re certainly going to be maintaining all the performances, we’re not changing any of what we do, so it’s going to be allied with the mission,” she emphasized. Potential residential and artist housing are on the table.
“We want this to be a creative hub,” Handelsman said. “I like the notion of a laboratory, a center for people to exchange ideas. This property has a lot of draws for different things you can do, not just in the theaters but actually on the lawn.”
Handelsman acknowledged that a third potential player is the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, whose executive director Diane Pearlman has described her vision for a potential production studio on the campus.
“We’re not ruling anything out,” said Handelsman. “It’s an ongoing conversation, but nothing can move further without a proposal.”
Meanwhile, the fall season continues, with “Golden Leaf Ragtime Blues,” now playing through Oct. 30.
The company’s 34th annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare, with performances by students from 11 Berkshire and nearby Columbia County schools, including the addition of Pittsfield High this year, reopens to the public with shows at the Tina Packer Playhouse from Nov. 17-20.
Month-long Actors Intensive Training sessions remain on the books for January and for the summer, with some weekend and week-long courses being planned.
Entering her fifth month on the job, Handelsman offered her progress report during a conversation with The Eagle outside the 405-seat Tina Packer Playhouse, one of four performance spaces on the site, along with the 192-seat Elayne Bernstein Theater and two outdoor stages — the New Spruce Theater (543 seats) opened in 2021, and the Roman Garden, which can seat 289 patrons.
She began work on May 2 following an extensive search by the company through Arts Consulting Group. Her credits over a 25-year career in New York and Los Angeles include producing and writing roles in theater, dance, film and television, specializing in nonprofit management, business development and strategic planning.
Handelsman launched her movie and TV career as a story analyst for Warner Bros., United Artists and Paramount Pictures, and has developed and produced movies and series for Disney, Tri-Star, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, HBO and Showtime.
Most recently, Handelsman served as managing director of GALLIM, a movement production company based in Brooklyn, N.Y., which has staged productions at Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza, New York City Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, Ailey II Dance Company, and other venues.
She voiced enthusiasm over her close collaboration with Shakespeare & Company’s Artistic Director Allyn Burrows.
“Working with Allyn was one of the draws of coming here,” said Handelsman. “We’re really good together, he has a very strong business sense and I have a very strong artistic sense. There is a very healthy dialogue, we don’t always agree, but if we don’t agree on something, we respectfully air our thoughts.”
Handelsman’s ideas and goals include:
- Earning revenue from the company’s intellectual property such as education and actors training department curriculums, scripts and videos;
- Rentals of campus facilities for weddings, events, food festivals, music, comedy, think tanks and conventions;
- Shakespeare-themed or Elizabethan fairs, dances and masked balls;
- Video on demand for master classes and performances;
- Podcast sponsorships and partnerships with colleges and universities such as allied educational programs;
- Expanding the reach of the Fall Festival nationally and globally, including distribution of the festival’s lauded “Speak What We Feel” documentary;
- Expanding merchandising in person and online.
“How do we keep awareness of the strength of our Shakespeare offerings but make it more known that we have other kinds of contemporary plays and readings,” Handelsman said. “We’re blessed and burden by the title of ‘Shakespeare & Company,’ how are we are branding the ‘and company.”
Additional excerpts from the Sept. 19 interview follow, edited for length and clarity:
Q: What attracted you to Shakespeare & Company when you were approached — was it a no-brainer to accept the offer?
Amy Handelsman: It wasn’t, because I’m very urban but at the same time I appreciate how beautiful it is up here. I’d heard about the company’s rigor in education and training, in all honesty I hadn’t seen a production, but I watched a lot of videos. So it wasn’t a slam dunk when I heard about the position, but it became really, really attractive to me, particularly in conversations with Allyn Burrows.
Q: Compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019, how has attendance rebounded this summer following the 2020 season cancellation and last year’s stripped-down schedule?
Amy Handelsman: We’re still in COVID, we knew some people were still reluctant to come back, even outdoors, but we’re much closer to the target than other presenting organizations here. We have some mask-required indoor performances, one matinee and one evening a week. We’ve added seating capacity, certain shows did better, that’s always the case. “A Walk in the Woods” was a hit, with 160 percent of the target. Allyn’s looking into a potential Boston production, and he and Jonathan Epstein, his co-star, will stage a gala for donors in Sarasota, Fla., this winter. But here, we’re still in the season.
Q: What are some of the most formidable challenges to confront?
Amy Handelsman: Some of it is just doing the caliber of work that we do in performance, education and training with a limited budget and limited staff. When the search committee asked what qualified me for this, among other things I said that I was a short-order cook once, and I had to learn timing and had to be fast and precise. About the parts of the job that involve negotiating, I’m a good poker player. I’ve run organizations and they were attracted to my well-rounded background.
Q: Have you had a chance to step back during the busy summer season to look at the bigger picture in terms of your goals?
Amy Handelsman: What I’ve been doing mostly is learning the culture, the finances and how the various departments work, and listening to staff. I’m going to be starting conversations with my contacts in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. I’ve done some conversations here with Tanglewood, Barrington Stage and the Great Barrington Public Theatre. One of the goals we have is taking a production to New York, and I have a lot of those contacts, as well as agent, writer and director contacts. From now until November, we’re doing a draft budget. There are certain things we may expand and others that we may contract. Programmatically, I don’t think things are going to change. We’re looking at personnel, labor and materials expenses.
Q: How would you describe the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion?
Amy Handelsman: We did a really deep dive over 18 months into we call IDEA — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility. We’ve been looking at hiring, dissemination of information about job openings, a lot of it has been in training for the staff, board and volunteers. We have required them to view certain videos on sexual harassment, unconscious bias, anti-racism. We’re taking grievances here very seriously. We had two non-binary people involved in the Fall Festival who felt some friction, we’ve made accommodations if people feel uncomfortable. I feel like we’re really on it. We’ve done a training with Gwendolyn VanSant of Multicultural BRIDGE, she’s a board member.
Q: What about discounted tickets for potential theatergoers, especially younger and diverse audiences who may find prices unaffordable?
Amy Handelsman: We’re thinking about doing that for families with children, and there’s already 40 percent off for Berkshire residents, every production except for weekends. For Fall Festival, there’s a big discount for parents and families.
Q: What’s the one priority that’s front and center for you?
Amy Handelsman: A strong strategic plan and capital campaign going forward, involving partnerships, renovations and development of the campus, having everybody on staff pulling in the same direction.