PITTSFIELD — There is a place where the arts, education and commerce meet for the benefit of the community, and that intersection is where one is most likely to find Janis Martinson.

Martinson is the executive director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, a nonprofit charged with maintaining and operating a historic 680-seat theater built in 1905 for use as a vaudeville house.

Traditionally, the Mahaiwe features an eclectic mix of offerings. Musically, there has been everything from bluegrass to Broadway, opera to rock. But, it also serves the community as a space for local organizations to hold their own events, no matter how funky the topic. Case in point: The Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge will be holding a Rooted in Place Ecological Gardening Symposium at the Mahaiwe on Nov. 14.

All this work involves time, effort and, of course, money, and like many other performing arts venues in the Berkshires, all these operations at the Mahaiwe took a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of state and federal aid, the Mahaiwe slowly is recovering.

Martinson, who was born in Kansas, grew up in western Pennsylvania and resides in Egremont, discussed all these topics with The Eagle during a recent interview.

Q: You majored in English and received a certificate in dance and theater as an undergraduate at Princeton, then obtained an MBA from UMass-Amherst. Those subjects aren’t often found in the same sentence, let alone the same resume. How did this mix come about?

A: I think, like most undergrads, my undergraduate degree was passion-driven and my graduate degree was a little more practical. It was actually fun to be in a graduate program where I really had to stretch the way I think, because I was a very atypical student in terms of my gender, my professional experience and my undergraduate background.

So, it was great to be studying statistics and accounting with people who thought that way all the time.

Q: Why did you decide to get an MBA?

A: I was working in private school administration [Martinson came to the Berkshires in 1997, to work for Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield] and then eventually in university administration [Lesley University in Cambridge]. The credential was useful, but it was also about wanting to be able to speak with authority about where the human and practical meet with the structured and quantifiable. My work was leading me to do that, and I found it very interesting.

Q: What do you like better, working in the arts or in education?

A: Oh, that’s not a fair question [laughs]. What I like is working with people in an endeavor that’s going to actually sort of enlarge people’s experience of life.

Q: Were you a performer while studying theater and dance?

A: Yes, I was. Not professionally, if that’s what you’re asking. I did theater all the way through high school and college. In college, I realized I was more interested in the big picture.

Q: What attracted you to the job at the Mahaiwe?

A: Oh, a lot of things. It’s such a critical institution for the Southern Berkshires. It’s a real community hub, and the quality of life is much more vibrant here because of the Mahaiwe.

I’d been living in the area a long time and watched its growth and knew that it had a really solid vision and a sort of disciplined foundation with its business practices, which doesn’t sound very romantic. But, again, it's really important to have both the aspect of the job that inspires you and makes you smile and the aspect of the job that is functional. I saw a lot of room for growth in the organization, all in that solid foundation, and that was exciting for me.

Q: So, what path did you follow during the pandemic?

A: Like many organizations, we began to put programming online, which we hadn’t done in the past, especially lectures and concerts that were recorded in our theater and posted online. We did a livestream gala last October. ... A year ago, in September 2020, we set up a drive-in movie theater, essentially, on the campus of [Bard College] at Simon’s Rock and did movies for a few thousand people. We got inventive in every way that you could think of.

Q: Do you see that inventive, creative spirit at the Mahaiwe continuing, now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us?

A: Certainly, the spirit of invention is very much alive, and that's going to give us a kind of confidence that our audience trusts us and follows us. So, we're thinking about what that might mean for digital programming going forward. That's trickier, because we're a presenting house, not a producing house. We don't create content, and if you don't have ownership of the content, there are, sometimes, limits on what we can do with it. ...

... During COVID, a really wonderful thing happened. On every side of the equation, people became much more flexible in their thinking and very partner-oriented. ... It was a real lesson in how interdependent we all are in the industry, in the world.

Speaking specifically to this industry, I think that feeling of partnership and cooperation is going to stay with us for a long time and make us a better industry and certainly allow us to explore some new channels.

Q: The Mahaiwe received over $300,000 in COVID relief funding from both the state and the federal government. How are you using the funding?

A: That's been helping us to keep the doors open, keep people employed.

We went through a year-and-a-half working twice the time to produce a quarter of the content that we normally would. ... We started a year-and-a-half ahead of time planning the next season, and when all that gets erased, you have to go back and start planning, but all of the rules have changed.

For a lot of the agents who book professional talent, their agencies collapsed during the last year-and-a-half. Individually, they went out and built new agencies. So, we're having to rediscover pathways just for booking talent. Everything we do, there's a corollary like that. 

Our revenues in 2020 were just a tiny fraction of what they were in 2019, and even this year, we didn't really get back to what you would call our regular programming until August. So, we've had more than half of this year's revenue entirely lost. ... That [relief] money is intended to be spent on overhead costs, and that's how we're spending it.

Q: You told my Eagle colleague Jeff Borak back in January that your greatest wish this year would be to see a full house again at the Mahaiwe. When do you think that might happen?

A: Well, we had more than 450 people for Christopher Cross [Oct. 1], so, I would say that's pretty good. We're not selling out yet, and I don't think we will until this pandemic is really behind us. I think we were more hopeful in 2021, until the delta variant came along, that we would be on a straighter trajectory than we have been. But, it has been an upward trajectory, and that has felt great.

No matter the size of the audience, every live show we have had since audiences returned in late July has been moving and gratifying.  Both the artists and those enjoying the show experience the sheer delight of being together again.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.