With fewer seats and high hopes, Barrington Stage preps for August return

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PITTSFIELD — As she watched contractors remove seats from every other row at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage on Union Street, Julianne Boyd felt a sense of hope.

It was one way the company is promoting social distancing when the theater becomes one of the first in the region to reopen, with a one-person production of "Harry Clarke," in early August. This season's performances will be staged under conditions that Boyd, the company's artistic director, says likely will last until a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed.

"I was thrilled today to see the way it looked; it did not look forlorn, it looked healthy. It looked like that's the new normal for now," she said.

On Thursday afternoon, Chris Adams, Shamir Tillery and Brandon Kingsbury of AJ Schnopp Jr. Construction unbolted dozens of seats and loaded them into a truck parked outside, to be carted away to storage, all part of the company's plan to reduce audience capacity from 520 to 163.

Small performance venues are allowed to reopen in phase three of Gov. Charlie Baker's reopening plan, which could begin, at the earliest, in July. If everything goes according to Barrington Stage's plan, face-masked patrons will filter in to the first show of the summer season Aug. 5.

Those patrons will encounter a new set of protocols tailored to fit the age of the coronavirus, said Director of Marketing and Communications Jonathan Hed, who outlined some of the health and safety measures the company has put in place.

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To reduce person-to-person contact, the company is avoiding paper tickets, removing and spacing out audience seats and requesting that only individuals who have been self-quarantining together sit side by side. The theater spent thousands of dollars to install touchless fixtures in its bathrooms, according to Director of Production and Operations Joe Martin, and this summer it will not open the gift shop, concession stand or break for intermissions.

"I think people are hungry for it," Hed said of the company's scheduled summer program. "One of our performances is already sold out at this point; we're hoping to add more performances if we can."

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Barrington Stage began contingency planning in January, several weeks before Baker declared a state of emergency, he said. The company is working with the Actors' Equity Association, the labor union that represents performers and stage managers, which released what it calls a set of "core principles" to protect members during the pandemic.

Patrons will have their temperatures taken with no-touch thermometers before entering the theater and will be required to cover their faces inside. Onstage, a white line of tape is a visual cue to performers, who will remain at least 12 feet from the front-row audience.

Jobless claims in United States are soaring, and Barrington Stage, too, has been hit hard by the pandemic. Boyd said that in a typical year, the company would do $2 million in ticket sales this season, but she estimates this summer's sales will be one-tenth that amount.

About half of the company's 21 full-time employees and two part-time employees will be furloughed for two weeks before the limited summer season begins, she said. This summer's scheduled performances will allow the company to bring those employees back to work after their furlough, she said.

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But, the coming run of shows isn't a salvo. Barrington Stage will launch a donation campaign called "The Next Act," Boyd said, with a fundraising goal of $1 million.

"By next summer, for us all to not only survive, but to survive and do well, to pay our staff and our artists, we need to do more than break even," she said.

She highlighted the importance of the arts to the economy of the Berkshires and said the company's limited restart also could buoy other industries, such as restaurants. In a time marked by social dislocation, Boyd said Barrington Stage has the opportunity to create connection as the pandemic stretches on.

"Self-isolation has taken a toll on people," she said. "What the arts can do right now is give people hope. That's the most important thing. It can give people hope by seeing our shared humanity on the stage."

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com.


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