At Barrington Stage, after 25 years it's still about the risk

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PITTSFIELD — Ask founding artistic director Julianne Boyd how she'd best characterize Barrington Stage Company's just-concluded 25th anniversary season and one word comes to mind: "Risky."

"This is probably one of the riskiest seasons we've ever done," Boyd said by telephone from her apartment in New York only a few days before Monday's annual season-ending gala in the Big Apple.

"It was a season in which we connected with the community more than we ever had before," thanks, she said to a string of socially conscious productions, chief among them "America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro" by Stacy Rose, an audacious, challenging, darkly satirical look at race relations in America; winner of BSC's first Bonnie & Terry Burman New Play Award.

On average, Boyd said, between 60 and 70 people stayed for each the post-performance talkbacks. Audiences were almost equally responsive to two other St. Germain Stage productions — the season-opening "Hold These Truths," based on the true story of Japanese-American Gordon Hirabayashi's one-man resistance to and campaign against the U.S. government's placement of Japanese-Americans in domestic internment camps during World War II; and "If I Forget," about issues of assimilation and cultural heritage, legacy, tradition passed from one generation to another.

"This really was a season of risk and reaching a broad audience./"

Risk is no stranger to Barrington Stage. It's in the DNA. Boyd took a risk founding Barrington Stage Company 25 years ago in South County. She took a risk moving BSC to Pittsfield; purchasing an old partially renovated theater on Union Street — formerly housed Berkshire Public Theater; then Berkshire Music Hall — that was serving as a venue for rock, folk, jazz, pop music performances. She took a risk purchasing a VFW Post on Linden Street and converting it into BSC's second stage and cabaret.

Barrington Stage has its seeds in a long-deserted children's camp on Lake Buel Road in Great Barrington, where the company maintained offices and rehearsal space.

"I really wanted to do theater the year round," Boyd said in an interview in May in her office at BSC's Wolfson Center on North Street. "At BTF, I had heard from a lot from people, audience members, asking why we didn't do things the year round."

Boyd and co-founder Susan Sperber met with a small group of individuals in the winter of 1995 — just months after having left Berkshire Theatre Festival (now Berkshire Theatre Group) after two years as its artistic director — and began planning. Barrington Stage Company made its debut in the summer of 1995 at Macano's Inn in Housatonic with "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," starring Gail Nelson as Billie Holiday. BSC followed "Lsdy Day" with "The Diary of Anne Frank," its first production at the Consolati Performing Arts Center at Mount Everett High School in Sheffield — BSC's home until its move to Pittsfield in 2006.

"We got great reviews," Boyd said of "Anne Frank." "No one came."

Stage 2 was a 65-seat chorus room at the school. In an effort to broaden BSC's community outreach, Boyd programmed the space with artists known in the community. The first was magician Carl Seger, "whom we found at the White Hart Inn [in nearby Salisbury, Conn.].

"Then we did the Youth Theater," Boyd said. "The community told us what they wanted. We kept on learning."

Then came season three, 1997, and the first of what Boyd defines as a series of "game-changers" over the course of BSC's 25 years — the Kander and Ebb musical, "Cabaret." It was a huge success for Barrington Stage, so much so that the production went to the eastern end of the commonwealth were it played the Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough and then the Hasty Pudding Theater in Cambridge, where it had an extended run.

For all the benefits the Consolati venue afforded, Boyd began thinking of finding a permanent home of its own for BSC — a theater, not a 500-seat school auditorium — if it was going to build respectability in the broad theater community.

"I remember being a bit embarrassed when [Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist] Jerry Herman came to see our production of [his] 'Mack & Mabel' (1999) in a high school and he said it didn't matter as long as the work is good," Boyd recalled. "We began looking [for a place of our own]."

The company productions were mounted at Mount Everett School; offices and rehearsal studios were in what is now The Marketplace in Sheffield. Boyd and her board wanted a place in which they could consolidate — or come close to consolidating — everything, including its second stage, which in 2004 had left the chorus room and moved into the school cafeteria, where BSC presented "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," another "game-changer," Boyd said, which eventually made its way Off Broadway, then Broadway, then national tour and, since, regional, summer, college and community theaters.

"That [show] gave us legitimacy in the theater community, the national theater community," Boyd said. "That was important in terms of winning grants.

"Then we did 'Follies' [on the mainstage] next season and it was then that I felt our course was set. We could have run that show all season."

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Barrington Stage Company had been eyeing the Mahaiwe Theatre in downtown Great Barrington when Hoyt's, the movie chain that owned the theater, put it up for sale but nothing materialized. But, according to Boyd, an article in The Berkshire Eagle about the City of Pittsfield appointing its first cultural commissioner caught the attention of BSC board chairman Mary Ann Quinson.

Boyd and the board decided to test audience waters and brought its production of "Hair," which it had produced at the Mahaiwe, to the Berkshire Music Hall. "We drew twice the audience we had in Great Barrington," Boyd said. A check of audience zip codes showed "one-third of our audience was in the Lenox-Pittsfield-Williamstown corridor," Boyd said.

BSC bought the building and the neighboring Octagon House and began renovating the Music Hall with an eye toward mounting BSC's 2006 season there. But because the renovations proved more problematic than anticipated, the bulk of BSC's Mainstage season that summer played out in the Robert Boland Theater at Berkshire Community College's Koussevitzky Arts Center. The Octagon House housed BSC's offices. Stage 2 was housed in the basement of the Berkshire Athenaeum. BSC moved into its new Union Street theater in August of 2006 with Boyd's production of Jean Anouilh's "Ring Around the Moon."

"We worked round the clock to have the theater ready by August," Boyd said. "We opened but we couldn't open the balcony.

"By 2007, we had the whole theater and we opened with 'West Side Story.'"

BSC's Stage 2 was still housed n the Athenaeum that year. But on a day in April 2008, "one of our staffers was on a walk and noticed that the old V.F.W. Post on Linden street was for lease," Boyd said. After lengthy negotiations, BSC entered into a lease agreement for the building which it subsequently purchased.

In addition to "Spelling Bee," "Cabaret," "Follies," Boyd cites as game-changers:

— Suzanne Bradbeer's "Full Bloom" (2000): "It showed me we had an audience for new plays. It worked wonderfully," Boyd said. "That had been my dream from the beginning; doing new work";

— "The Game" (2003): This musical based on the novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" "showed us we could do new musicals," said Boyd;

— Mark St. Germain's "Freud's Last Session" (2009) which, Boyd said, "showed we had an audience for serious drama in Pittsfield";

— "The Whipping Man" (2010), "a wonderful serious play our audiences just loved," Boyd said.

It's been a long road; longer in some ways than the roughly 21 miles between Sheffield and Pittsfield.

Boyd has her virtually year-round theater. Barrington Stage produces between February and October with the heaviest load between late May and early September.

"There is a great relief when November comes," Boyd said in May. "You don't have breathing time during the season. We spend that [post-season] time preparing for the next season, analyzing what we're doing, what we have done.

"I've learned to be patient. You can look ahead to the future but the audience may not be ready. How then," she asked rhetorically, "do you bring them along?"

Looking ahead to next season, Boyd said "I just want to laugh. I feel we need a little break; time to laugh. We are in unchartered territory. In a way. I'd like to go back to a more innocent time."

She has no immediate plans to let go. "It's still very exciting," she said in May. "I'll know when it's time."

Framed against a broader perspective, "the world around is changing faster than I would have thought possible," Boyd said this week. "I just want to catch on to that brass ring and hold on."


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