Phyllis McGuire | View from the Village: As Berkshires charts a path, actors 'grateful to be back onstage'

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The Berkshires is leading the way in the reopening of theaters.

In August, both the Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company opened live productions outdoors.

The Berkshire Theatre Group is the first company in the United States to gain the approval of the Actors Equity Association to present a musical in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Godspell" is performed in an open-air tent adjacent to the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. Originally, the show's run was to end Sept. 4, but it has been extended through Sunday.

The cast and the audience adhere to pandemic health protocol. For the artists, that includes being separated by tall plexiglass partitions onstage. As an additional precaution, they reside together to form a pandemic bubble.

I caught up with a couple of the cast members and the music director, wanting to know how they felt about performing in a tent instead of a bricks-and-mortar theater.

Actor/singer Michael Wartella, 34, said it evoked memories of when he was a teenager at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

A native of the Berkshires, he moved to New York City at age 17.

"I've done shows on Broadway that drew audiences of 2,000 to 3,000 people, and regional theater for audiences of 800 people," he said.

Wartella had been cast for "Godspell" back when it was meant to be in BTG's regular season.

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"But, due to the pandemic, that had to be canceled,'' he said. "Then we needed union and state approval to do 'Godspell' outdoors.

"I am grateful to be back onstage," he added.

"The audiences are great. But, the crowd is much smaller than normal," he said. (Gov. Charlie Baker cut to 50 the number of people permitted to gather at outdoor events just as the show opened.)

"[The smaller crowd] can sometimes make them a little hesitant in terms of reacting, cheering, etc.," he said. "But, by the end of our show every night we can tell they are fully on board, and the reception at the end of the show is incredibly boisterous and wonderful!"

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For actor/singer Emily Koch, 29, it is her first time in the Berkshires and her first time performing in an outdoor production.

"It's interesting that you get to experience the season change in your body. It affects your singing," she said. "When it's hot and dry, I drink a lot of tea. And I learned when I was in 'Wicked' that Sour Patch Kids help."

Of the shutting down of theaters due to coronavirus restrictions, Koch said, "It is devastating. Spirits are low. But, the artists want to keep hope alive. And people are connecting as we go through this strange time together."

Still, her passion for performing in the theater world was evident.

"It's wonderful to be singing again, to be involved with theater," she said. "My first memory is wanting to be in theater."

Music Director Andrew Baumer is responsible for coordinating all music aspects, including the band and singers.

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"I make sure they are on the same page," he said.

Like Wartella, Baumer became involved with "Godspell'' when it was to be in BTF's regular 2020 season.

"I was thrilled when I was called back because we were going to do the show outdoors," he said. "But, you don't know how hard that it is."

In a couple of songs in the show, harmony is tight, such as in "By My Side" And Baumer recalled that after musicians rehearsed outdoors several times, he felt they still "were not together. I said to them 'Either you are not listening to each other ... ' and one of the singers chimed in, 'Because we can't hear each other.' "

Baumer explained that, in a theater space, sound reverberates.

But, challenges were overcome to produce a musical that delights audiences.

"It's great that we finally got a chance to do this," he said. "This specific production is more about the creation of theater as it starts to reopen. It's a great opportunity."

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

This story has been amended to correct Music Director Andrew Baumer's last name.


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