Jacob's Pillow Dance: A taste of culture - and free delivery

Navigating the long, winding roads through the Becket forest to Jacob's Pillow Dance is a rite of passage for some visitors, a gateway into the venue's rustic aura.

But for Stephen Pepper, it's a barrier.

"I'm not a big fan of driving," said Pepper, who is living at Pittsfield's Bonnie Brae Campground for the summer.

So when he saw a flyer advertising the Pittsfield-Pillow Express, the organization's new bus service that makes two trips to and from Pittsfield every Saturday during the summer season, free of charge, he was thrilled.

"The idea is to bring people to Jacob's Pillow who wouldn't otherwise come," said David Dashiell, Jacob's Pillow bus ambassador, during one recent journey.

While the Pittsfield-Pillow Express was intended to be a vehicle for driving low-income and other underrepresented audiences to the Becket dance center, turnout during the program's first seven weeks was low. On Aug. 5, Dashiell said the Pillow hadn't had more than four people sign up for any of its trips, leaving a classic yellow school bus filled with rows of empty promise.

"It's been, overall, pretty light," said Thasia Giles, director of community engagement at Jacob's Pillow, on that Saturday.

But ridership on Aug. 12 rose to 17, with 12 coming from the Rites of Passage and Empowerment (ROPE) program for adolescent girls, according to Jacob's Pillow Managing Director Andrea Sholler.

Attracting an organization like ROPE is a perfect example of the dance center's increasing outreach efforts. The community engagement department, for example, is in its first year, and the Express is one of its primary initiatives, an attempt to overcome a dearth of public transportation options to the famous site.

The bus picks up passengers at three Pittsfield locations — Morningside Community School, the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires and Conte Community School — in 10-minute intervals beginning at noon. It makes the same rounds at 3 p.m., anticipating about a 40-minute drive from Conte to the Jacob's Pillow grounds. Giles said the timing and location of the bus stops were determined following several meetings with Pittsfield community members.

Though walk-ups are welcome, Jacob's Pillow encourages individual passengers and groups to reserve seats by calling a hotline in advance. When Pepper rode the bus for the first time on Aug. 5, he boarded at the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires just after noon. Clipboard in hand, Dashiell greeted him and one other passenger as they entered the vehicle.

Along with driver Diane Carmon, Giles was also already onboard. She quickly began chatting with the new arrivals as the bus rolled down Melville Street at 12:10 p.m. She gave them a rundown of the day's schedule, which included free talks and subsequent matinees by Doug Varone & Dancers and Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion. (Matinee tickets are typically available for about $35 and up, but Pittsfield residents riding the Express are eligible for discounts, according to Jacob's Pillow's website.) Pepper repeatedly expressed his appreciation for the service and said he thought ridership would increase, citing the large number of people he saw grabbing flyers at July's Third Thursday street festival in Pittsfield. But Giles said past riders will be the program's greatest marketers.

"There's nothing as powerful as word-of-mouth," she said.

And there may not be a more vociferous supporter of the service than Deborah Mertrud Rosa, who rode the Express for the first time on July 15. During that trip, she said she didn't have access to a car this summer and was resigned to not making it to Jacob's Pillow this season.

A few years earlier, she had rented a car to see Martha Graham Dance Company perform at Jacob's Pillow and loved it. When she spotted a flyer about the Express in Pittsfield the previous Saturday, she was excited to return. In the week leading up to the trip, she had been telling her neighbors about the service, and as an instructor at the Literacy Volunteers of Berkshire County, Rosa said she also instructed Executive Director Karen Wallace to email tutors and students about the program.

"I've been your ambassador without your even knowing it!" Rosa told Dashiell during the drive to Becket.

Rosa and Pepper both opted for the late bus back to Pittsfield, which departs from Jacob's Pillow at 7:30 p.m. Dashiell said this is a common choice because riders want to view the free 6:15 p.m. performance at the Inside/Out Stage.

Indeed, on both days, the 4:15 p.m. bus was empty except for Carmon, Dashiell and a reporter.

Even before the Express' most successful weekend yet, Giles wasn't concerned about the service's slow start. She guaranteed the program would run next summer.

"We see this as the beginning," she said.

Intern Nina Cochran contributed to this report.


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