LENOX — Is it going to rain tonight?
It’s a question crossing the lips of many in the Berkshires this summer, as several cultural institutions have moved to outdoors-only performance venues.
Shakespeare & Company has committed an entire summer season of four shows on two outdoor stages — the 280-seat Roman Garden Theatre and the newly completed 542-seat terraced amphitheater, the New Spruce Theatre. "King Lear" is now in performances in the New Spruce Theatre. (Two shows, "hang" and "The Chairs" will be held indoors this fall)
“We have a rain plan,” Allyn Burrows, artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, said calmly during a recent phone interview. “We’ve kept Sundays open in case there is a rainout during the week.”
For those patrons not able to attend the makeup performance on a Sunday, there’s the option to exchange tickets for any other performance of that play.
“Part of being outdoors is being subject to the weather,” Burrows said. “It enhances [the performance] and also makes it a very visceral experience.”
Planning performances around bouts of bad weather should be nerve-wracking, but Burrows has spent the last 15 months or so keeping an institution, that relies on an in-person audience, afloat during a pandemic.
“I still feel like I’m going to wake up and we’re going to be in the middle of a third wave and all of this will be a dream,” he said. “The fact that we’ve navigated through such a narrow path, it’s astonishing to me and a real credit to the staff.”
The path to reopening was fraught with uncertainty and restrictions.
“First there were the state restrictions and CDC guidelines. Then Actors Equity limited how we could rehearse; how many people could be in a theater,” Burrows said. “At one point, with all of the variables, we felt we wouldn’t put more than one show out there this summer. Just a couple of months ago didn’t know if we would be able to pull this off.
“As the calendar ticks off, hope turns into speculation, and so we were speculating we would be doing it. But we had to pour on the hope … We went from kind of not believing that we’d be getting a vaccine in time, to how to manage activities we can do, to developing a full season.”
Part of developing a full season was built around the completion of the new stage.
“We built the New Spruce for several reasons,” Burrows said. “It ties into the outdoor theater spaces we already have, but also, very specifically, so we could invite people back to the property. We had to be able to sell enough tickets to make it worthwhile to reopen.”
Initially, the company was going to be limited to just 200 tickets per performance for “King Lear,” its debut production in the New Spruce. But changes in state guidelines at the end of May will now allow for 320 patrons a performance.
“It’s a 542-seat amphitheater, which I think will work best when it’s nice and full,” Burrows said.
But patrons attending with less than a full house, he said, won’t be disappointed.
“It’s a majestic space, but still very intimate,” Burrows said. “It’s similar in setup to our Bernstein Theater experience. The back row is only 24 feet from the front row; there’s a very quick rise from the stage to the back row. There are no bad seats in the house.”
But this summer’s reopening is about more than new performance spaces and new experiences, he said.
“Coming out of this, we have to think about things differently in general. This is not a reset or reboot, especially in relation to social injustice. This is not a return to normal. We need to invent a new normal because ‘normal,’ as we’ve come to see, wasn’t really normal.”