Shakespeare & Co. cleared for drive-in movie screenings

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LENOX — The town's zoning board has flashed a green light for a pop-up drive-in movie theater on the grounds of Shakespeare & Company this summer, where live stage performances are canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ZBA last week voted 5-0 to approve a three-month special permit for the outdoor, socially distant, limited-run screenings on Thursday through Sunday evenings. But parking spaces for the cars need to be 10 feet apart, according to special conditions unanimously approved by the board, and restrooms must be held to federal CDC standards for restaurants to protect public safety.

The drive-in season will begin either July 16 or July 23, Shakespeare & Company Artistic Director Allyn Burrows told The Eagle. "We're aiming to fit 40 cars on the parking lot for the screenings," he said.

Shakespeare & Company has lost an estimated $1.3 million in ticket sales because of the canceled summer theater season, said Managing Director Adam Davis. "That is not going to be made up by 40 cars, four times a week," he acknowledged. "But we want to stay connected with the community. The goodwill, the visibility, the use of our property is not measurable, but to us it is invaluable in keeping these connections and relationships."

Cautious zoning board members, while welcoming one of the very few public entertainment attractions planned for the season, urged that all possible precautions be taken to comply with health and safety guidelines.

The project is a collaboration between the theater and the Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF), which had to cancel its annual four-day event until June 2021.

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Programming details and specific film schedules are to be announced, but BIFF intends to offer one screening per evening — independent productions, documentaries, Shakespeare-themed films and family films on a screen 17 feet high and 24 feet wide, with audio transmitted on a vacant FM frequency.

Some of the films had been accepted for the canceled BIFF events last month, said the festival's Artistic Director and founder Kelley Vickery. She plans to include historically themed, art, dance and classical music films, in addition to classic Shakespeare movies such as "Romeo and Juliet," "Henry V," "As You Like It" and "Macbeth." Sunday nights will be devoted to family entertainment, including animated features from the Palm Springs International Film Festival, she added.

Typically, each movie would run for 90 minutes to two hours, starting at 8:30, but ticket holders would be admitted to the parking lot starting at 7 p.m. for "best spots" and all vehicles would exit by 11 p.m. No alcohol will be provided or served, but a designated local restaurant could deliver takeout meals ordered by patrons.

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The admission price would be $15 per person, or $60 per carload of four or more patrons, with tickets to be sold by BIFF online at biffma.org. Proceeds will be split between the theater company and the film festival. "It's basically a break-even venture for us," Davis acknowledged.

ZBA member Albert Harper, who ended up voting for the special permit after initial objections, emphasized his concern over a potential spread of the coronavirus, noting that "the community has worked very hard to limit the impact of the virus. Having a gathering, even in cars, of potentially 160 people at a time does nothing but circumvent the standards that we have for distancing. I don't think they've adequately demonstrated that this is not a very serious public health matter that we're being asked to be complacent about."

Burrows stressed that "we don't intend to push the envelope on people's health. The whole point of a drive-in movie theater was that we could work within the current guidelines."

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ZBA member Shawn Leary Considine asserted that the plan "is not detrimental to the neighborhood, none of the abutters have said they don't want this to happen. I would support this."

Zoning Board Chairman Robert Fuster Jr. said, "We are in unprecedented times, and given everything that's going on, and everything has been canceled, giving the public something for entertainment is a good thing. People are going stir-crazy in the house, giving somebody the opportunity to get out is not a bad thing at all. But we have to protect the public as well."

At that point, Harper decided to support the venture, despite his concerns about "the very dangerous and deadly virus that's still amongst us." But he voiced confidence in Shakespeare & Company's ability to observe social distancing while implementing health and safety precautions.

Responding to Fuster's concern about the lack of correspondence and public participation in the virtual meeting, attorney Lori Robbins, representing Shakespeare & Company, noted that about 30 neighbors had been directly contacted about the proposal. Several of them raised questions that were answered to their satisfaction, Davis, Burrows and Robbins told the board.

"I know there are some concerns about gatherings of more than 10 people, but these people will be in cars, not in a crowd," Robbins observed, noting that several towns have allowed government meetings and graduations at parking lots in drive-in settings.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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