Breakfast with The Eagle: Sharing a 'naked burrito' with Julianne Boyd

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PITTSFIELD — Does the "naked burrito" count as a culinary innovation? After all, it's just a burrito, unpacked.

But oh, what a little marvel it is here at Dottie's Coffee Lounge, a beany, ricey feast that leaps ahead by going backward, its fanned arcs of avocado grinning through a piquant drizzle.

Standing ovation! I say.

But since I'd just met my tablemate, Julianne Boyd, I kept my cool. Boyd tucked into her naked burrito — and me into mine. Together, we began to unpack something else: what summer's like for the artistic director of the Barrington Stage Company.

It's frenetic, naturally, given that the Pittsfield company balloons from a year-round staff of 20 to more than 160 artists, actors and support staff while mounting shows in its 2017 season. Barrington Stage rents more than two dozen houses and apartments to accommodate all those people.

"It's very very busy. You don't have time to second-guess," Boyd says between bites.

I don't know if she always spoke so fast. It's possible, since she hails from the land down under (Manhattan, that is). But in an hour of conversation, she returns answers as fast as I can swat questions at her.

She deftly slices my query about political theater versus popular entertainment. She drives a floater about her "tough boss" reputation to the baseline.

And it's an overhead slam for the lob about when she'll give up the reins.

At 72, Boyd is still enthralled by the artistic challenges that inspired her to found a theater company 22 years ago in Sheffield and then, at a time when some ponder retirement, up the ante by moving the theater to downtown Pittsfield.

This is a woman who says she wakes up happy and will retire when she feels old (though she grants it might happen in three to five years).

But it pays to look ahead. The company's board is shaping a new strategic plan. "We're looking to the future beyond me, beyond people now working there, or serving on the board.You have to think about it, about where we'll be in five years or 10 years. I'm hoping I leave — and it's not happening tomorrow — with a strong enough basis and the right people in place."

But not yet. She's got things to say. "`Love your work' is what I can pass on to the next generation. If you don't love theater, you shouldn't do it. Because it's too hard."

In the last few months, the company expanded seating at its St. Germain Theatre, renovated its Blatt Center and moved into sprawling new offices and rehearsal space in the Wolfson Theatre Center on North Street.

It's been a big year for ticking off projects for the company, which operates on a $4.7 million budget.

But each May, when the company staffs up for the summer, Boyd and her team get ready for a summer of overdrive.

"I can't guess what's going to happen tomorrow," she says of the summer-theater life. "It's like no other animal. I can't guess what's going to happen the next day. You have to deal with things very, very quickly."

Things and people alike, it seems. She wants those who work for her to be accountable. So yes, she says, she's a tough boss.

"Why? Because I'm a perfectionist. I want people always to do their best. And sometimes you have to challenge them and say, `You can do better.' I think ultimately that makes more theater leaders more people who can go out there and start theaters."

She's proud to share that a half-dozen former assistants have done just that.

"I'm a tough boss who teaches," she says. "At some point you have to share what you know."

She knows it pays to start a season with a musical, as Barrington Stage did this year with "Ragtime." The bigger audiences those productions draw help pay for the summer. And the company can market less-familiar works in its schedule.

She knows she prefers "big idea" plays, such as this summer's production of "Kunstler," the story of a civil rights attorney.

"My job is not to do political plays. My job is to do relevant plays that affect the people in the community and affect our audience and to get them talking and thinking about what's happening."

"I'm not into dysfunctional family plays. I think there are too many dysfunctional families around — why do we need to bring that onto the stage? That's a small-idea play. I'm interested in big-idea plays."

And she knows that one of the things that's hardest to do on stage is comedy.

"Something could be `rehearsal funny.' But that's because we know each other and we get it. Then you get it in front of an audience (in previews) and they don't. Laughter is sanity. You've got to laugh. The bigger the problem, it's weird, the more I laugh. Laughter means a lot. If people don't have a sense of humor I'm not attracted to them."

When she co-founded the company in 1995, the venture supplied its own drama, since there is always the question, for a start-up, of survival. "You don't know at any time in your first few years whether you are going to continue."

Now, with Barrington Stage's footprint expanding, Boyd says she still cultivates a sense of experimentation.

"You're always a pioneer in some way, as long as there are challenges. You think, `This is our next venture.'"

Still pioneering? I ask.

"Yeah. I love it."

Is it pioneering or innovation?

"Those two words in some ways overlay in my mind," she says. "Pioneering is trying things that are new. Innovating is trying things that haven't been done before. Maybe that's the difference."

I asked how important that is to a theater.

"It may not be important to all theater companies. To us it is, because we are really community-based. We're not a community theater. We're a theater based in the community. We're trying to rally the community in many ways for them to understand the importance of the arts, because the arts are leading the economy in Pittsfield right now. It's important for people to embrace that, and I think they do."

Since 2000, the company and Boyd herself have run afterschool programs to train theater artists, help young people become confident speaking in public and gain conflict-resolution skills.

"The real winners are the kids who stay in the community and become great citizens," she says of that work.

Why is it important for Barrington Stage to help make great citizens? I ask.

Boyd believes it's central to public life. Her reasons come rapid-fire, as the naked burrito gives up the ghost.

"If this community can't handle the kids, if it doesn't know what to do with the kids, if the kids want to leave, if they get involved in activities that aren't good for them, if they go to jail, then where are you?" she asks.

"What are you doing? I don't want to just put on plays. Anybody can pick six plays and put them on. That isn't as important to me as having the theater support the community and the community support the theater. It's a two-way street."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.

On the menu

Where we ate: Dottie's Coffee Lounge, 444 North St., Pittsfield.

What Julianne ordered: Naked burrito and a soy latte.

What she's looking forward to: A successful run through Sept. 2 of "Company," the Stephen Sondheim musical she directed; time with family, including her husband, three children and four grandchildren; and travel this fall to London and Italy and next March to Japan.

Price: $12.57 including tax.


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