Our Opinion: With safety in mind, the shows must go on
All the world's a stage, and ours has been host to far too many tragedies of late. In the Berkshires, where summer's cup typically runs over with a rich current of artistic and cultural events, a pandemic has stricken even the simple joys of escapism — taking in a play at a local theater or enjoying music on the grass at Tanglewood. But in Pittsfield last week, hope stole the show at a humble venue.
Under a tent in the Polish Community Club parking lot, Barrington Stage Company's one-man show "Harry Clarke" opened for previews Wednesday night ("The show must go on," Eagle, Friday), the first Equity live stage performance in the nation since the coronavirus shuttered theaters in March. Quick on its heels was Berkshire Theatre Group's production of "Godspell," which began its run Thursday in an open-air tent in the Colonial Theatre parking lot, making BTG the first professional theater in the U.S. to get Equity approval for a musical since the outbreak.
That the Berkshires scene would lead in the cultural world's steady march to revitalization should surprise no one. Still, it's a testament to the tenacity of local arts groups who would dare to do what they do best, in the face of enormous headwinds, to safely bring slivers of light and levity to otherwise trying times. For "Godspell," everything from rehearsal to choreography was re-imagined to comply with strict Equity rules and state orders. Both BTG's "Godspell" and Barrington Stage's smaller-scale "Harry Clarke" had to adjust on the fly to changes in venue as the state shifted reopening guidelines in the run-up to their performances.
Even after their first-in-the-nation openings, the theater groups' adaptability was tested still. Amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has tightened the state's social restrictions ("Limit cut on outdoor gatherings," Eagle, Saturday). The order, which went into effect Tuesday, is a responsible move on the governor's part, as recent reports of sizable house parties and other social gatherings in some parts of the state suggest, as Gov. Baker puts it, "some residents feel a bit too relaxed about the seriousness of this virus."
Both theater groups have applied to the state Department of Public Health for a waiver to exempt them from the outdoor-gathering limit of 50 people. "Godspell" and "Harry Clarke," the productions of which were tailored to the state's previous gathering limit of 100, originally had audience capacities of 75 and 96, respectively.
"We are working with the state in the hope we can get the state to understand that bringing people together for a performance [in an outdoor tent] under strict safety protocols is different than a social gathering," Barrington Stage Artistic Director Julianne Boyd told The Eagle on Friday.
Ms. Boyd's distinction is correct, as a carefully managed, limited-capacity stage performance is hardly as risky as the boisterous, crowded backyard parties of the sort Gov. Baker referenced when tightening strictures. It's crucial to give communities options for creative and entertaining outings where safety is given the requisite seriousness. The desire to return to the world as before and reinvigorate local economies is tempered by a very real viral risk, and yet we must acknowledge that people simply won't lock down forever. The only real long-term solution — a vaccine — is not coming before 2021. Until then, it is only practical to offer outlets that extensively minimize risk. If people are going to venture out — and they are — better to dip one's toes in the risk pool at a carefully constructed, Equity-sanctioned, socially distanced outdoor play than dive in at a house party.
As of Tuesday, while a state waiver was not secured, both theater groups seemed bullish on their ability to roll with another punch and safely readjust their stagings, even if it means more limited capacities. "All the performances are on," for "Godspell," BTG Artistic Director Kate Maguire said Friday. Similarly, Barrington Stage Company signaled no immediate plans to cancel upcoming performances.
Berkshire County is fortunate to have audacious and hardworking cultural institutions like these ones, not least because of the herculean efforts they've made to partially restore the richness of a Berkshires summer season diminished by the viral winds of fate. What's more, they've exemplified that a bit of normalcy in a time of uncertainty is possible when a community comes together in a thoughtful and responsible way — a must if we are to responsibly chart a road to reopening. For those who would seek safe escape from the despair and monotony of these dark times, perhaps the play's just the thing.
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