LENOX — How can Berkshire County’s challenged performing arts organizations plan ahead effectively for next summer, given the uncertainty surrounding the vaccination rollout aimed at vanquishing the coronavirus pandemic?
The crystal ball remains foggy about whether music and theater audiences will be at all keen to gather in large numbers at performance sites, or even if state and national guidance will permit such presentations when seasons would normally resume in May and June.
At Shakespeare & Company — essentially dark last summer, except for a well-received, two-month drive-in movie venture with the Berkshire International Film Festival that broke even financially — the leadership team is betting that outdoor performances are the ticket to attract patrons.
That’s why Artistic Director Allyn Burrows and Managing Director Adam Davis are asking the Lenox zoning board to review a proposal to demolish two uninhabitable buildings to create an open-air stage with enough audience seating to accommodate whatever guidelines are in place.
Whether the 466-seat Tina Packer Playhouse and the 195-seat Elayne Bernstein Theatre will be able to present shows, perhaps to partial-capacity audiences, remains questionable. But, the new outdoor theater will remain a key attraction going forward into future seasons, Davis stressed, since it’s been under discussion long before the COVID-19 disease emerged.
Besides, al fresco theater is in S & Co.’s DNA, ever since it mounted productions outdoors at The Mount, its original home beginning in 1978. In recent years, the company added several open-air venues, including the Roman Garden, the open-sided, tented Rose Footprint and a small-scale replica of Shakespeare’s original home, the Globe Theatre in London.
Subject to zoning board approval, the focus is now on the new, still-unnamed stage.
“This space would be the focus of our outdoor performance activities, with the tented Rose Footprint for continued education use and as a rain space,” Burrows noted.
As he observed about next summer, “If the opportunity arrives to present indoors, we’ll restore that notion, but we’re anticipating that audience hesitation to gather indoors could continue beyond the advent of a vaccine. For that reason, we feel it’s crucial to our sustainability to provide our patrons with an option to convene out of doors. Besides, it’s the Berkshires, we want to be outdoors!”
Long-term planning for further development of the 34-acre campus on Kemble Street continues, despite the pandemic.
Fifteen months ago, the company solicited a request for proposals to attract one or more business or nonprofit collaborators for potential projects such as affordable housing, lodging or another nonprofit partner on the property, currently zoned for educational and 1-acre residential use. Shakespeare & Company was hoping to identify a potential developer by last March, but then the pandemic struck.
“The conversations have continued, kind of surprisingly,” Burrows acknowledged in my joint interview with Davis this week. “We’re always exploring partnerships for the highest and best use of the property.”
Because the new outdoor stage proposal is a beautification of the property, Burrows explained, “it plays into our long-term plans of wanting to be a good neighbor, part of the community, and wanting to stay solvent on the property through potential partnerships around the property.”
Davis pointed out that “we got a bunch of proposals” last March, and negotiations were underway but inevitably slowed down during the pandemic. “A lot of them haven’t died,” he said, “but everyone has to understand what the new landscape’s going to be before they’re willing to put their toe in the water.”
Just like Tanglewood, Barrington Stage, the Berkshire Theatre Group, Jacob’s Pillow and numerous others, COVID-19 sent entertainment sector finances into free-fall. Shakespeare & Company lost $1.3 million in box office revenue last May through October, and its year-round staff was furloughed. Recently, 23 full-time staffers have returned full time, with several openings to be filled.
After “pulling up the drawbridge and closing operations,” Burrows stated, the company was able to cut back drastically on its expenses and went full throttle on fundraising from its board and donors, including online presentations that brought in limited revenue.
He predicted that a “hybrid company” is emerging, consisting of live performances as well as filmed offerings.
For the 2020 fiscal year that ended last March, the budget was $4.3 million, but that was halved, and then some, to about $2 million for the current year, Davis told me. A “Springboard” campaign exceeded its summertime goal of $500,000, and the overall number of individual donors has more than doubled.
By last month, all of the company’s bills had been paid, he added, but “we still need people’s support, the support of the community. It’s one thing to be in nice financial shape, but it’s more about what’s coming up and how do we come back strong together.”
In addition to funding staged performances, vital educational programs such as the Fall Festival of Shakespeare in area schools and the annual midwinter professional actors training program on the campus will need to be revitalized and reimagined.
“We feel like we’re in a decent position to come back, but we’re going to need ticket support, donation support and capital support,” Davis emphasized.
To that end, “New Horizons: A Virtual Gala” will be presented online Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m., with links to the event provided to donors at shakespeare.org. In September, an outdoor fundraising gala yielded an encouraging response, along with several small-scale performances.
“It turns out, people want to see us here, and we feel performing outside is the safest way to have them do that,” Burrows said.