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Paula Kaplan-Reiss: All the world's a stage, but Berkshires make me feel like a 'Broadway Baby'

Take Five Martinson -- Mahaiwe marquee (copy)

The marquee of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.

When I was seven, I was cast as the lead in “Alice in Wonderland” in my second-grade play. I performed my part for anyone who would listen. While I wasn’t a popular child and was often chosen last for athletic activities, I could dance and sing and was easily accepted in the world of the arts. I never worried about fitting in.

As I grew older, I was happiest and most comfortable when I was performing in plays and musicals. As a student, I often volunteered in class and was a big rule-follower — not an enviable role for an emerging adolescent. On the stage, however, I felt appreciated and loved.

Though my parents met in a play and were frequent patrons of Broadway when they could afford it, they both pursued higher education and were employed in public education. My brothers, too, members of our high school Drama Cadets, creators of basement and camp productions, also went the academic route, becoming a physician and a professor. The message we all received from my parents: The performing arts is an unpredictable way to earn a living and have a family. Enjoy performing as a hobby.

Yet, while enrolled as a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, pursuing a safe yet challenging career, I was the only nontheater major in the summer dinner theater production of “Side By Side By Sondheim.”

I got my degree, got married and got my first job as a psychologist. Still, I found time to pursue community theater. While going through infertility, the first of many life challenges, I was ironically cast as the Wicked Stepmother in “Cinderella.” I belted out a song in between two signs on either side of the stage: “Once Upon a Time ...” and “They Lived Happily Ever After” — pieces of scenery hopefully foretelling my future life.

Soon thereafter, three children arrived and life was very busy, leaving little time to perform as anything but a real mom and psychologist. The few times I auditioned for community productions, I wasn’t cast. My performing window felt like it was closing.

Now, I’m 62. I moved full-time to the Berkshires a year ago. After vacationing for several summers, my husband and I knew we loved everything about living here. Beautiful lakes and mountains, starry skies, incomparable music, majestic dance, Broadway-caliber theater, endless art galleries and museums, and so much more are at our feet.

Here’s what I didn’t anticipate. While I have always missed performing, I had forgotten what it felt like to be surrounded by passionate lovers of the arts. The other night, I went to see a tribute to the life and legacy of Lola Jaffe, the founder of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. I never knew this woman, but I felt like I was surrounded by my people. A singer began by performing “Broadway Baby,” the song I sang in “Side By Side By Sondheim,” 40 years ago. I found myself dancing in my head with the fabulous and young Paul Taylor Dance Company. I listened to speakers declare their devotion to the arts and the memory of this woman who introduced many high school students to Broadway. I, too, took an “exploring the theater” class in high school and fondly remembered my teacher who took us to Broadway shows.

I enrolled in two classes in theater through Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College. Through one, I recognized a director I had when I was 16. Again, I met others who are equally excited by all the Berkshires has to offer. Unlike going to Broadway, however, I feel the intimacy of this community with our shared experiences and delight, almost as one experiences being in the cast of a play.

While I know my opportunity to become a Broadway star is over, I didn’t realize I could still experience the acceptance and common values of a close-knit arts loving community. I know so few people around here; I miss my friends in New Jersey and still crave friendships close by. But, now that the Berkshires is opening up, I feel the chance to meet fellow performance-lovers broadening, and this Berkshire Broadway Baby will soon find others. As I ease into my senior years, I feel grateful I found my place.

Paula Kaplan-Reiss lives in Canaan, N.Y., with her husband, Richard Reiss, who is a regular Eagle contributor.

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