PITTSFIELD — When the coronavirus pandemic cloud finally lifts, two city theaters will be poised to quickly resume operations, thanks to two $1 million gifts in honor of a longtime theater patron.
The gifts, from the family of the late Mary Anne Gross, will support payroll and basic operating expenses for the next six months “in order to ensure that there are no furloughs or layoffs while the theater(s) continue to raise funds in support of future artistic programming,” Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company said in separate announcements.
“The idea is to keep infrastructure in place so that when the world is ready, they (the theaters) are ready to get back to as close to normal operations as soon as possible,” said Phill Gross, in a statement released through Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company. He said a portion of each gift is structured as a matching grant in order to stimulate additional donations for 2021.
Gross is co-founder and managing director of Adage Capital Management. He also is the brother of Mary Chris Bassman who, together with her husband, Alan, initiated the gifts as a way of honoring Mary Chris’ mother, who died in December.
“We wanted to do something that could make a difference in the community and that would be a wonderful and fitting tribute to our mother’s memory,” Mary Bassman said in the theaters’ announcements. “My mom loved the theater and by exposing me to it at a young age, fostered my love for the performing arts. My brother, Phill, and his wife, Liz, have been involved with many non-profits and offered to help with a charitable endeavor that would be meaningful to all of us.”
Since the pandemic began in March, theater operations in the Berkshires have been curtailed sharply by state regulations designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Godspell” was the first Actors’ Equity Association-approved musical in the United States in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The production ran for six weeks in an open-air tent adjacent to the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.
Barrington Stage Company’s “Harry Clarke” was scheduled to open the company’s mainstage season as the nation’s first indoor production to receive approval from the association — the nationwide union for professional actors and stage managers. But, restrictions on indoor gatherings lingered longer than expected, forcing the theater to move “Harry Clarke” to an open-air tent for its two-week run.
“We are extremely thankful to the Gross family for recognizing the importance of the arts, especially theater, in this extremely difficult time for all artists and theater companies,” said Julianne Boyd, founding artistic director for Barrington Stage Company. “It is true philanthropy to provide such a generous financial gift, keeping our staff gainfully employed and the lights on.
“Covering our everyday operating costs allows us to begin working once again with artists, playwrights and directors — and especially our community — as we plan our 2021 season,” Boyd said. “We will be forever grateful for this timely and extraordinary gift.”
“The arts are critical to the vitality and quality of life,” said Kate Maguire, BTG’s artistic director. “This gift recognizes the economic, educational and cultural importance of all that theater brings to our community.
“Berkshire Theatre Group will celebrate 100 years of activity in the coming decade,” she said. “This support will lead us to our future.”
In the meantime, both theaters are working to find new ways to offer programming into the colder-weather months as the pandemic lingers.
BTG is finishing out the year with a mix of live and virtual events that includes a production of a stage adaptation of a Truman Capote story, “Holiday Memories,” outside the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. The show replaces BTG’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
And Barrington Stage is showing a film presentation of a new stage musical, “The Right Girl,” before a live audience Sunday at its mainstage. There also is talk of a holiday cabaret that would be filmed live in an empty mainstage and then streamed. BSC is not expected to go live again until the 10X10 New Play Festival in February.
“Mary Chris and I have been coming to the Berkshires for 15 years,” Alan Bassman said, adding that he and his wife moved to Pittsfield full time in June.
“We saw the outdoor performances of ‘Harry Clarke’ and ‘Godspell’ this summer and were moved by the courage, imagination and determination that it took to put on these shows,” he said. “We felt that it would be a huge loss if these theater companies did not remain viable.”
“As this summer progressed,” Mary Chris Bassman said, “we were worried about the survival of the theaters here in Pittsfield given the cost of putting on outdoor shows for so few people and the lack of revenue in general.
“Last December, my mother, Mary Anne Gross, passed away. We wanted to do something in her memory that could make a difference in the community ... [We] thought helping keep the theaters going in these difficult times might be a good choice,” she said. “She loved the theater in Milwaukee where I grew up and where she lived and she loved the theaters in the Berkshires.”