Breakfast with the Eagle: A relaxed moment with the Mahaiwe's Beryl Jolly

GREAT BARRINGTON — On just about any gjven weekday, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center executive director Beryl Jolly is up early, before her teen daughters — Charlotte, 17, an 11th grader at Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield; and Emma, 13, who attends Monument Valley Regional Middle School — and makes breakfast for herself — scrambled eggs, rye toast, coffee or tea.

"I can get ready for them," she says brightly.

On this particular day, a sunny, mild Monday in August, she settled in at a table near a window facing Main Street and let Fuel Coffee Shop do the breakfast preparation. The home fries that came with the order were a bonus for Jolly, who comes in to Fuel for coffee several times a week.

"I need a lot of caffeine in the morning," she said with a warm smile.

Weekend breakfasts are a bit more elaborate. Jolly grew up on a dairy farm in the Virginia countryside outside Washington, D.C. She's used to what she calls "big farm breakfasts." So, on weekends, Jolly and her daughters indulge in big pancake breakfasts.

During the week — "when I remember to eat," she says — she'll have lunch at Graham & Norton or Rubi's, both on Main Street, less than a block from the Mahaiwe's offices.

One meal she doesn't forget is dinner with her daughters.

"I mostly cook," Jolly said. "We talk about the day.

"Food brings people together."

For Jolly, it's not only food that brings people together. If the Mahaiwe's chief mission is anything, she says, it is to bring the community together through not only live, film and HD events but also with education and social service programs at the theater and in schools.

Jolly sees the Mahaiwe as "a gathering place for conversation, for community dialogue."

It starts with the audiences. Many of the Mahaiwe's programs — John Pizzarelli's annual winter concert; annual holiday screenings of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Wizard of Oz" — have become traditions, to the point, Jolly says, "that some people mark their calendars based on that programming."

She also is pleased with the diversity of programming at the theater. "Some people have come three nights in a row and had three different experiences."

That Jolly is running a theater feels destined. An avid reader as a child, her imagination was caught by the theater during a 6th grade field trip to see a play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Jolly got a first-hand taste of theater when she played Juliet in a 9th-grade production of "Romeo and Juliet" and then in high school, playing Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."

She graduated Brandeis University in 1991 and did a summer apprenticeship at Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she met her now ex-husband, lighting designer Matthew Adelson. They were married in 1997, "after he got his MFA," Jolly said between bites of her home fries.

The couple lived in New York for a time. Jolly worked in theater management on and off-Broadway and then landed at Brooklyn Academy of Music, first as fiscal director of the planning and development department from 2001-2003 and then as director of individual giving and development from 2003 - 2005. "Those jobs taught me so much about theater and about community outreach," she said.

"We moved from Brooklyn to the Berkshires for me to start at the Mahaiwe in April 2005," she wrote in an email, "and the Mahaiwe launched our year-round programming with the big Centennial Celebration on May 29 that year. What a journey!"

She and Adelson came back to the Berkshires, she said, "because of the quality of life for raising our kids." Indeed, she says, one of the joys of her job is being able to share the Mahaiwe with her family — her daughters, an older sister who lives and works in Vermont, her mother (her father passed away two years ago). "It's a special gift," she said, sipping her iced coffee

"There is a sense of place here," she said later, "a sense of community, of self. It all comes together here. Not everyone has that so readily.

"There is that feeling of experiencing the arts in nature. We're more relaxed, more open to experience, to supporting artists in their work."

Her girls have taken advantage of the opportunities.

"They've worked in the box office. They're friends with many of the Paul Taylor dancers [who perform annually at the Mahaiwe]. They both have been doing things with Berkshire Pulse," Jolly said, pausing for a moment as the waitress came by with coffee refills.

Jolly doesn't look like a woman on the run. Her manner is calm, reassuring, low-key, passionate when it comes to the Mahaiwe; protective but also loving and proud when it comes to her family. But there are stresses that come with administering a just-under-700-seat venue with a $2 million operating budget.

Fund-raising is an ongoing source of angst. Finding the right programming is another. Jolly works closely with advisor Chris Silva, who also books the Bardavon 1969 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"It's a 12-month story with regard to our operating budget," Jolly had said in a separate interview earlier this summer.

The programming is steady, constant. The theater was active 47 weekends last year, Jolly said during breakfast, and this year has seen a number of sellouts, among them Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, Pink Martini, and Michael Feinstein.

Her focus now — and that of her board — centers on making the Mahaiwe stronger as a cultural institution.

"We're looking hard at where we should go from here," she said.

She wants to build the not-for-profit theater's reserves "to preserve the theater and its programs. We're looking at ways to expand."

And, yes, in the midst of all this, Jolly does find time to wind down, to breathe.

She did a lot of camping and hiking while she was growing up so she makes time to walk along the Housatonic River Walk in Great Barrington. There are also trails in Stockbridge, near her home in Lee. "I can get an hour in after dropping the girls off," she said.

In addition, she and Adelson, who lives in the Berkshires, co-parent the girls "very well," Jolly said. "It makes a difference."

For all the institutional challenges she faces at the Mahaiwe, Jolly says she wouldn't have it any other way. She's not planning to leave the Mahaiwe any time soon.

"I love raising the kids here," she said, finishing the last of her iced coffee. "I love living here. I love my job."


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