Clarence Fanto: If Shakespeare & Company's plan is to succeed, broad buy-in is crucial

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LENOX — High drama this past week at Shakespeare & Company, a crown jewel in our arts and entertainment gallery.

Not only did the theater troupe issue a bold, ambitious plan to partner with a developer or another nonprofit to help clean up and revamp its 33-acre campus riddled with at least five decrepit structures, but it also put out a strategic plan for the next three years that makes a strong case for how to best sustain the company.

Here's the big news in the plan: The property on Kemble Street could be sold, partially or entirely, or leased. Affordable, market rate and artist housing may be developed to help the company and the town ease housing shortages.

In a lavishly illustrated online presentation (at shakespeare.org), S & Co. demonstrates that the stakes are high: "This plan embodies the Company's intention to solidify its financial footing; pursue innovative artistic projects; serve the public in compelling and meaningful ways; maximize the potential of a unique and multi-faceted campus, and fulfill a commitment to universal inclusiveness."

Under the artistic leadership of the animated, irrepressible actor/director Allyn Burrows and his by-the-books managing director, Adam Davis, the company that dangled on the precipice of financial ruin a dozen years ago has now broken even for two straight years on its $4.3 million annual budget.

But that's not enough for long-term survival. A financial cushion is needed to support the troupe's future. As the strategic plan emphasizes, its success unlocks "the resources to make bold decisions and allow the Company to continue to steward successive generations of patronage for live theatre and arts education."

S & Co. is much more than a pair of fine playhouses and the al fresco Roman Garden Theatre, presenting works of the Bard and of contemporary playwrights for much of the year, not just in summer.

The company wants to see its new work go national on larger stages, including New York City, positioning its campus as a laboratory for the next generation of playwrights while establishing a program to commission new plays and garnering "more attention from national media outlets to raise familiarity with our work and increase attendance."

The troupe also seeks to "engage the widest possible audience," in part by incorporating "a diversity of voices," adding digital tools to its website, and setting up "long-term and mutually beneficial partnerships with surrounding cities such as Pittsfield, North Adams, Springfield and Hudson (N.Y.) because of their proximity and diverse population."

The educational offerings encompassing the Fall Festival of Shakespeare for area high schools, the Northeast Regional Tour of Shakespeare, Shakespeare in the Courts and the summertime Riotous Youth program have won a well-deserved Mass. Cultural Council Commonwealth Award and the White House "Coming Up Taller" citation.

S & Co. aims to expand the Fall Festival, package and distribute it as its own intellectual property, build the festival's national exposure, including its teacher training program, all designed to "monetize education and training initiatives" — in other words, produce revenue.

The Center of Actor Training already has a national and worldwide impact, potentially comparable to the Tanglewood Music Center's summer institute for aspiring performers.

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The company is aiming to "expand the reach, depth and breadth" of the training program by reaching a wider audience, developing specialized workshops for universities and corporate leadership, funding scholarships for minority actors and performers from war-torn countries, and increasing the Weekend Intensive programs to at least 20 per year.

The Strategic Plan acknowledges that some goals are well underway, while others will require more than three years.

And there's a strong commitment to increasing diversity, inclusion, equity and access in all areas of its work, and to ensuring that the campus itself retains "a welcoming atmosphere of accessibility, connectivity, responsiveness to people of all ages, backgrounds, interests, and experiences."

To that end, full-time and seasonal staff, as well as artists, volunteers and the board of trustees, are undergoing "cultural competency training."

The strategic plan's key financial goals include:

- A detailed plan for the best use of the campus, including the possibility of a partial or entire sale, or a lease of the property to support the company's vision while improving and investing to achieve "a competitive advantage as a Berkshire destination."

- Funding to demolish or repurpose some of the dilapidated or condemned buildings.

- Greater financial stability through a cash reserve of at least $500,000 during times of lower revenue and a $150,000 cushion to help reduce mortgage burdens on the property.

- A new, "quiet phase" capital campaign to pay off the mortgage and enhance the campus, while additional sources of revenue are developed for an even split between earned income ($1 million annually, primarily from the box office), and contributions from new donors and foundations.

The strategic plan emphasizes the need to reverse "a historic trend of financial instability" and it acknowledges that success requires "deliberate planning and thoughtful execution" by the board of trustees, staff and community members.

"Ay, there's the rub!" as Shakespeare's Hamlet mused in his famous soliloquy: Buy-in from the town and the wider cultural community is essential if the ambitious strategy to preserve and enhance S & Co. can be transformed from vision to reality.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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