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Shakespeare & Company

Shakespeare & Company found success despite the pandemic. Its leader is predicting a repeat performance

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The New Spruce Theatre, a terraced amphitheater at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, was built just in time to host last summer’s production of “King Lear.”

LENOX — Getting by with a lot of help from its friends — and from nearly $1.3 million in federal coronavirus pandemic relief grants — Shakespeare & Company will be closing the books on its hybrid 2021 season with a small surplus on its annual $4.5 million budget.

During a recent conversation at the Tina Packer Playhouse on the 33-acre Kemble Street campus, Artistic Director Allyn Burrows credited loyal audiences eager for live theater after a shuttered season last year and the support of donors to make up a box office shortfall ($850,000 in ticket revenue this year, compared with $1.2 million in 2019, when 72 percent of all available seats were sold).

And he is most proud about the last-minute completion of the New Spruce Theatre, the outdoor stage built just in time to host the summer’s major Shakespeare production of “King Lear,” starring Christopher Lloyd. The long run of 34 performances yielded wildly divergent reviews, including a rave from The Wall Street Journal.

The $500,000 theater was funded fully through the support of the 29-member board of trustees chaired by Kenneth Werner and other contributors.

“We don’t allow ourselves a deficit budget,” Burrows said. “We have to have at least a break-even budget.” He was named artistic director five years ago, well after the company’s brush with bankruptcy in 2008.

“We’ll have yet another hybrid for next year, because there are that many unknowns,” Burrows said. It won’t be possible to restore a typical season yet, he noted, as COVID-19 cases rise again and 2022 schedules have to be completed well in advance.

“We’re definitely having a season,” he said confidently, thanks to vaccination requirements and other safeguards. It was a definitive statement he couldn’t have made at this time last year “without a relative amount of derring-do.” The announcement of the 2022 Shakespeare production is due in December, with the non-Shakespeare bookings to be unveiled in February.

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Artistic Director Allyn Burrows said lingering uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic will require Shakespeare & Company to have another hybrid season. Details will be released in December, he said.

Both outdoor stages — the 543-seat New Spruce, which will host next summer’s Shakespeare play, and the 289-seat Roman Garden — will be scheduled fully, and Burrows hopes for some indoor programming at the 435-seat Tina Packer and the 192-seat Ellyn Bernstein theaters.

“The whole 2021 summer was about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” Burrows said, citing Scotsman Alexander Barclay’s 16th-century proverb. Ticket sales from “King Lear” hit 165 percent of their target, he reported. “That was really gratifying; the whole summer was sold out,” using 325 seats out of the New Spruce Theatre’s capacity because of the need for social distancing.

Burrows cited “the necessity of having a large enough space that we could separate people and still make our bottom line.”

“That was the key,” he said. “We had to have at least 300 people sit in there, otherwise we couldn’t come close to paying for the show.”

Opening the run was a close call, as the Actors Equity union didn’t give its green light until just a month before scheduled rehearsals. “Until then, we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season,” he recalled, citing a breathless race to the finish line for completing construction of the New Spruce.

Rainouts caused by especially volatile summer weather also complicated the “King Lear” run, with several rescheduled shows and a few less-than-ideal relocations into the Tina Packer Playhouse.

Though the company has “cash in the bank” because of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, Burrows doubled down on the goal of “how best to make this place comfortable and welcoming for people from all walks of life so they feel they can come back in force. I think we’re well-positioned to do that.”

But, any spending has to be matched by income, he acknowledged.

The company earns 60 percent of its income from ticket sales, the training program for actors and educational ventures such as the Fall Festival of Shakespeare. The troupe had 1,300 donors this year, a dramatic increase from a previous average of about 600 annually.

Looking ahead, Burrows sees a continuing role for streaming, though it’s challenging to earn profits from electronic presentations. But, there has been streaming-specific film programming, such as the current “American Myth” shot on the campus. But, there will be no pivot into filmmaking, he insisted.

“We’ll always be a theater company, but we will fill out our storytelling with supplemental programming,” he said.

Peering into the future, an ambitious road map for development of the campus, unveiled in fall 2019, remains “very active,” Burrows noted. The strategic plan, as outlined publicly in September of that year, was to attract one or more business or nonprofit collaborators for potential projects, such as affordable housing, lodging or another nonprofit partner on the property.

“We’re negotiating terms and relationships,” he said, “and the interest has stayed vibrant, which was great.” The timetable for public disclosure of any potential proposals remains to be set.

“The most important thing is to keep our neighbors informed of any plans that come to the forefront, because we want to continue to be a good neighbor and a real active part of the community,” he said. Any proposal has to fit with the theater’s mission, Burrows added.

Meanwhile, hiring is pending for a new managing director, replacing Adam Davis, and a new director of the Center for Actor Training, succeeding interim director Susan Dibble.

“For a skeleton crew, we have a deep bench, we want to keep the goodwill flowing and make sure we create a positive environment so people really enjoy working here,” Burrows said. “We feel incredibly fortunate to be in this spot, doing this work.”

Burrows cited the theater company’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion work, aimed at “making our programming more accessible, both through ticket pricing and how to get people to the property, really making it about an experience for everyone, for people in all walks of life and of all means. We’re really proud to be part of Berkshire County, which has been so good to us.”

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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