BTG striving to lean closer to cast members, community

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PITTSFIELD — In Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Present, who beckons him and exclaims, "Come in. Come in, and know me better, man."

In recent years, Berkshire Theatre Group Artistic Director Kate Maguire and her staff members have experienced a similar calling — to lean closer to the people in the cast and their surrounding community to know how better to serve them.

"This theater must be open to the entire community," Maguire said.

The social connections that have been made and the understanding subsequently gained has tangibly manifested, particularly with the company's annual community production of "A Christmas Carol," which runs through Dec. 21.

While general admission prices stand to help make the organization an end-of-the year profit, behind the scenes, Administrative Director of Education Allison Rachele Bayles gets to play Santa Claus, giving away hundreds of tickets to children and families supported by social service agencies. Rachele Bayles also reminds agencies that through a partnership with the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Department of Transitional Assistance, EBT cardholders can get free or deeply discounted admission to cultural organizations and events across the commonwealth, including more than a dozen here in Berkshire County.

Within their own casts made up of community members, Rachele Bayles and Maguire say, there has been a spike in the number of families requesting program tuition assistance or help buying costume pieces. Staff and parents who assist with the program anecdotally report seeing more children coming to rehearsal without snacks. Rachele Bayles said the roster also includes more children from foster families and youths being raised by grandparents.

Having that spread of economic means has prompted Berkshire Theatre Group staff members to have more conversations among themselves and with the children about having empathy, compassion and how to address bullying.

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"It's always good to be exposed to different people in different ways," said "A Christmas Carol" cast member Lilliana Penna-Ward, 12.

"You learn how to accept people for who they are, and that's important. Scrooge never accepted that in his early life," said Liz Erwin, 13. "When you give people opportunities, they can lift their head up. It's important to understand why things happen in life and to help others."

This year, Berkshire Theatre Group established two additional partnerships among its other community collaborations. After hearing members of the Berkshire Immigrant Center present at a Berkshire Business Roundtable program, Maguire approached the center's executive director, Michelle Lopez, to offer show tickets and encourage their clients to audition for "A Christmas Carol." Lopez published both offers in the center's newsletters in English and Spanish.

"We believe arts, culture and education are as important [for people to have] as food, shelter and heating assistance. That importance is sometimes forgotten in the community," Lopez said. "Access to culture helps expands people's minds, helps to bring people together and brings us back to a sense of self."

The second partnership, which began informally last year, is with the Berkshire Community Action Council and its "Keep our Kids Berkshire Warm" campaign. At "A Christmas Carol" shows, patrons can select to sponsor a child age 12 and younger in the community by donating gifts of warm clothing, from hats to coats to the most-needed items — boots — according to BCAC Community Programs Administrator Melissa Baehr.

The clothing drive partnership debuted during BTG's first fall children's show, "Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka KIDS."

Baehr said that running the campaign in tandem with performances with children in them helps send a powerful message about the need to support the community's youths.

"There is a really beautiful energy and excitement about it," Baehr said.


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