LENOX — Shakespeare & Company, looking ahead to an uncertain summer season for staging shows indoors, is seeking zoning permission to knock down two of its five decrepit, uninhabited buildings so it can create an outdoor performance space.
The theater troupe, which has returned its furloughed full-time staff of 23 to the 34-acre, Kemble Street campus, will ask the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special permit at a remote meeting Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. The proposed new outdoor stage and seating area would occupy 110 by 140 feet and, if approved, would be ready for audiences to enjoy theater in a natural setting next summer and beyond.
“For a few years now, we’ve been talking about creating another outdoor space that reflects the basics of what we do, performing Shakespeare in the Berkshires as a destination,” Artistic Director Allyn Burrows said in a joint interview with Managing Director Adam Davis.
The designated area is near a set of spruce trees close to the Elayne Bernstein Theatre and could accommodate up to 543 theatergoers in post-COVID times. Until then, Davis noted, “it will obviously be less than that, and we will comply with whatever regulations the governor puts on us.”
“A great open space can be created by taking down these old derelict buildings,” Burrows said, pointing out images of Monk’s Hall and Monk’s Nursery during the remote interview. “People could enjoy outdoor productions in a bucolic setting, the way they did when we were over at The Mount.”
In 2002, the company relocated from the Edith Wharton Restoration, where it was founded in 1978.
“This ties us into our past, it looks to the future and it addresses what we can do during COVID,” Burrows said. “The company’s viability is dependent on being able to pursue this, given the current circumstances. It’s pretty crucial. Even with a vaccine, it doesn’t mean people are going to rush inside, into theaters.”
As Davis stated, “this is about bringing audiences to our space in a setting where they can feel comfortable, safe and entertained at an outdoor venue.”
He emphasized that the new space would not just be for this coming summer.
“It will have a life long after,” he said, as part of the performance landscape. It will work with existing parking and restroom amenities, he noted.
The project also would play into what Burrows called “the post-COVID renaissance that the Berkshires are going to have to enjoy in order to have an economic influx.”
“It’s really not about a big build,” he stressed. “It’s about clearing a space and the beautification of the property; it’s about people taking in the environment and enjoying Shakespeare.”
The cost of the project is being determined while fundraising continues and local grants are sought, Davis said.
“We feel confident we would be able to put this in place for the summer,” he said. “As we build a budget for it, we’ll hit the fundraising goals that we need to.”
According to plans on file at Town Hall and at townoflenox.com, approval is needed because existing 1995 special permits allow for live theater performances and educational programs but prohibit “advertised and ticketed outdoor performances.” Permits approved in 1998 and 2002 allowed daytime performances by small ensembles and solo performers, as well as student productions.
In the application for a special permit to be reviewed by the zoning board, the company’s attorney, Lori A. Robbins of Heller & Robbins, noted that “they anticipate that they will continue to be hindered in providing full-capacity performances in their indoor venues for the unforeseen future.”
Parking for the new performance space would include the existing lots for the 195-seat Elayne Bernstein Theatre adjacent to the Monk’s Hall building ,as well as for the 466-seat Tina Packer Playhouse. Expanded and new accessible pathways would connect the parking areas to the proposed new outdoor performance space.
Robbins stated that the theater company commits to not offer programming at the same time in all three of those venues.
“The use would not be substantially more detrimental than the existing non-conforming use to the neighborhood because the number of cars accessing the property would be substantially fewer than normally attend the permitted use during the summer season,” she wrote in the special permit application.
The community need served by the proposal is bringing back outdoor theater entertainment to Lenox, the application states.
The company has used the new outdoor Roman Garden theater for one ticketed production each season; the open-side tented Rose Footprint for intern productions and as rain fallback for the Roman Garden, and a newer informal outdoor space featuring the quarter-size Globe Theatre reproduction, so far used only for a summer fundraiser.
Shakespeare & Company, founded by actress and director Tina Packer and based for 22 years at The Mount, purchased its current property at 70 Kemble St., then 64 acres, in April 2000 from the failed National Music Foundation for $4.1 million. The current assessed value is $8,821,000, according to town records. Several parcels have been sold off, yielding the current 17-building, 33.8-acre footprint.
The site had been the home of the Lenox School for Boys (1926 to 1972), the Bible Speaks religious cult (1976 to 87) and then the National Music Foundation.