Allyn Burrows reflects on second season at Shakespeare & Company

LENOX —Allyn Burrows' first season as Shakespeare & Company's artistic director is history. He's already planning the future — his third season. His immediate attention is on the now. Burrows' second season at the helm has just begun with the New England premiere of Carey Crim's "Morning After Grace" in Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

Shakespeare & Company's 2018 season is an intriguing blend of work by the company's namesake and by contemporary playwrights — Terrence McNally ("Mothers and Sons"), Taylor Mac ("HIR"), Simon Stephens' "Heisenberg") and 19th-century Swedish playwright August Strindberg ("Creditors" in an adaptation by David Greig).

Shakespeare will be represented by "Macbeth" in the Tina Packer Playhouse, "As You Like It" in the outdoor Roman Garden Theatre, and "Love's Labor's Lost," also outdoors, this one in The Dell at The Mount, the Edith Wharton estate that once was Shakespeare & Company's home.

The casts are drawn chiefly from the company's roster of veterans — Jonathan Croy, Tod Randolph, Jonathan Epstein, Annette Miller, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Tamara Hickey, Malcolm Ingram, Ryan Winkles, Kristin Wold, Corinna May, Martin Jason Asprey.

OBIE Award-winning director Melia Bensussen will be on the campus to direct "Macbeth." Burrows is directing "As You Like It." James Warwick in his Shakespeare & Company bow, Kelly Galvin, Nicole Ricciardi and Tina Packer also will be directing.

"We have some new faces," Burrows said in an interview in his office in the Miller Building just inside the entrance to Shakespeare & Company's 70 Kemble St. property, "and we have some familiar faces in very different roles."

The Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre will again be the workhorse. The significantly larger Tina Packer Playhouse will sport two radically different looks — one for the nine-actor "Macbeth" that will feature a pit-dominated set; the other a space created for the intimacy of the park bench setting for the two-character "Heisenberg," which will find Packer working on a smaller scale than audiences are accustomed to seeing from her productions.

"I feel really fortunate to get the rights to some of these properties," Burrows said. "When the rights do come in it means a great deal because they don't always. There were five or six plays we didn't get the rights to."

Putting a season together, Burrows says with a hearty laugh, "is like making Jello in a colander."

"To begin with," he says, "the play has to be a good play. What are the strengths of the relationships in the play? How good is the story being told?"

The mix of Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare is delicate but necessary. Burrows stresses that the theater company's name is "Shakespeare AND Company."

"You wonder if in 400 years (the plays of) Arthur Miller will resonate," Burrows said reflectively. "Shakespeare's stories are very specific to what you're watching but also relate to the world; the breadth of the story he's telling." That contrasts to what Burrows calls the "specificity" of the non-Shakespeare plays.

That being said, "every one of the non-Shakespeare plays this year is searing. They will take people's breath away," Burrows said. "The Shakespeare is more fundamental."

Burrows noticed an encouraging payoff last year with the non-Shakespeare plays.

"Last year," he said, "we had some titles that had made their mark in New York and people either hadn't seen them or had and liked what we did with them."

Another gamble that paid off was the Roman Garden Theatre, which bowed with "The Tempest." The al fresco venue just off the sweeping terrace outside the Tina Packer Playhouse has been slightly reconfigured for this year's "As You Like It."

"That space (with its 5 p.m. curtain) turned out to be a great gamble," Burrows said. "It was 92 percent sold."

Play selection is a collaborative enterprise at Shakespeare & Company but, Burrows says, "I get to make the final decision."

Burrows didn't start out building the season around a theme. But, he says, looking now at what he's put together, it strikes him that the plays all share a sense of inquiry into "how we make sense of the past in order to move into the future."

"I like to think we make choices not in reaction to but as reflection of what people are thinking or talking about," he added.

Burrows wrestles with striking a balance between theater as pure entertainment and theater as a force for change.

"It's always a question of whether to laugh or be moved or be challenged," he says.

"Look, people come here to (remove themselves) from their daily endeavors and we have to honor that. It's a two-way conversation.

"You have to find where you land on the spectrum between activism and escapism. I think that these days escapism has become the new activism."

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshireeagle,.com or 413-496-6212


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