Pittsfield: The birthplace of post-pandemic theater

When the nation — and world — shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the creative economy was devastated as the lights dimmed on Broadway, and everywhere else, for the first time in recent memory.

By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media

Courtesy of Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware      
Claire Saunders and Alanna Saunders in Berkshire Theatre Group’s “White Christmas,”  in 2021.

PITTSFIELD — When the nation — and world — shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the creative economy was devastated as the lights dimmed on Broadway, and everywhere else, for the first time in recent memory.

As the lockdown continued, productions were canceled, performers and stage crews lost their jobs, and the creative spirit went dormant.

But two Pittsfield groups were determined to revive the soul of live theater that is so vital to the Berkshires.

Courtesy of Jacey Rae Russell    
Corinna May in Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Shirley Valentine.”

In fact, they were the first two theater groups in the country to return to live performances, and it brought their audiences to tears.

Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group blazed a new trail in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, paving the way for others to follow.

In a typical year, the Barrington Stage Company puts on eight live productions on its two stages in the summer, and in the fall stages a show aimed at getting youth interested in live theater. In February, the group does a “10×10 New Play Festival,” featuring ten 10-minute plays.
“We have a 520-seat Main Stage and a 136-seat Stage 2,” said founder and Artistic Director Julianne Boyd. “The Main Stage is for bigger shows like musicals, maybe Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning shows, shows that people already know and want to see. At our Stage 2, we do more new plays, things that are perhaps more experimental. We have been able to find an audience for both.”

Courtesy of Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware     
Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Godspell” was the first musical performed live on stage in the country after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in 2020.    

“We basically do May through October, and then the month of February,” she added.
But all that stopped when the COVID pandemic hit in 2020.

Like everything else in the country, Barrington Stage Company shut down in March 2020, but by summer they were ready to venture back into live theater, with strict health and safety precautions in place, Boyd said.

And they were the first to do so in the nation, she said.

Courtesy of Jacey Rae Russell    
The cast of Berkshire Theatre Group’s “The Wizard of Oz” performing in 2021.

“We were the very first,” Boyd said. “We started with ‘Harry Clarke’, a one-person show, outside under a tent, and then Berkshire Theatre Group opened the next night.”

Barrington Stage Company wanted to keep it simple for its first post-lockdown production and staged a one-person show with minimal crew to ensure social distancing and other COVID protocols were possible.

“We were very careful — we didn’t want dressers or actors backstage, we wanted it to be a very simple show and we did it outdoors under a tent,” she said.

Courtesy of Jacey Rae Russell    
Sasha Hutchings, Najah Hetsberger, Felicia Curry and Darlesia Cearoy perform in “Nina Simone: Four Women” at the Berkshire Theatre Group in 2021.

The group worked in conjunction with Berkshire Theatre Group, which opened its first post-shutdown production — a musical — the very next day, Boyd said.

“We worked very closely with them so we would have the same seating protocol and all, so if people went to one, they would be very comfortable going to the other,” Boyd said. “We had seating pods of two or three seats, and then other seats would be 6-feet apart.”

They followed “Harry Clarke” with a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue, and then in the summer of 2021, staged a full season of productions, with the same safety protocols in place. For indoor performances at the Main Stage, a meticulous cleaning and staging system kept everyone safe and healthy.

Courtesy of Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware    
Harriet Harris in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s 2021 performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 2021.

“Last summer we did a whole season,” she said. “We did shows under a tent, and at our Main Stage theater we had two seats in between seating pods and had all the safety protocols in place, including HEPA filters, we redid our air filtration system, every night after the show we purged all the air out of the theater and brought in fresh air, and we used much more fresh air in our air conditioning. Most air conditioning systems are generally 10% to 20% fresh air and the rest is recirculated air. We used 50/50.”

At the end of each performance, electrostatic cleaners were used to clean every surface in the theater, including the lobby, bathrooms and seats.

“We will continue doing all this until we are told there is no more COVID,” Boyd said.

Contributed photo    
The exterior of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.

The day after Barrington Stage Company put on the first live theater production in the country after the shutdown, Berkshire Theatre Group staged the first musical.

The group has four theater spaces in two different locations in Berkshire County, Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group, said.

“One campus is in Stockbridge. We have two theaters there in two buildings — the Playhouse, which is going to celebrate its 100th anniversary, which is one of the oldest theaters in the country, and the Unicorn Theatre, which is a small theater attached to the barn where we build scenery. So there is nine acres in Stockbridge with two theaters — a 300-seat space and a 120-seat space.”

Courtesy of Daniel Rader    
Tyler Hanes and the ensemble in Barrington Stage Company’s “West Side Story.”

The second campus is in Pittsfield, Maguire said.

“We have the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, and there is space there that is a little over 700 seats, a beautiful, renovated theater, very traditional, very similar to Broadway houses,” she said. “And then there is another space that we call The Garage that is very transformable, and we can seat 25 to 100 people and we do comedy, musicians and storytelling in that space.”

The Stockbridge campus is in production mostly over the summer months, and the Pittsfield campus stages shows year-round.

Courtesy of Daniel Rader    
Sarah Crane, Magdalena Rodriguez, Skyler Volpe, Tamrin Goldberg and Jerusha Cavazos in “West Side Story,” performed at Barrington Stage Company.

Like everywhere else, COVID shut them down in March 2020.

“We stopped production on everything that we were working on and like the rest of the world, we went into lockdown,” Maguire said.

But they were itching to get back to the live theater they love so much.

Courtesy of Daniel Rader    
Alan H. Green, Alysha Umphress, Jacob Tischler, Allison Blackwell and Britney Coleman in Barrington Stage Company’s “Who Could Ask for Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin” in 2021.

“I really felt like we would be able to present something in one of our spaces — we have nine acres in Stockbridge, so I figured surely we would be able to do something outdoors, and we also have lots of space in Pittsfield as well, and surely we can do something outdoors there as well. It wound up we had one production done in the summertime on the campus in Pittsfield in what was traditionally our parking lot, surrounded by buildings, so we were able to surround the space, with plenty of air space above.”

Their first production of 2020 was the musical, “Godspell,” which ran for about a month, extending beyond its original timetable “because it was so successful,” Maguire said.
“We could only have 50 people in the audience because of state regulations, but we were the only theater in the country that was sanctioned by the Actors Equity Association to present a musical,” Maguire said.

Berkshire Theatre Group continued live productions in the winter — outdoors.

Courtesy of Daniel Rader Danny Bevins, Sean Ewing and Julio Catano-Yee in “West Side Story” at Barrington Stage Company.

“In December of that year we presented a piece called ‘Holiday Memories’ by Truman Capote, which is based on his short stories about a lovely woman and her experiences around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we presented those outdoors on the grounds in Stockbridge, literally in 13- to 20-degree weather,” Maguire said. “Again, the show was sold out. Those brave people turned out and it was a beautiful production.”

Again, health and safety protocols were stringent, particularly in light of the fact that vaccines were not yet available.

“It was all treacherous because we were performing in the middle of COVID — we were testing the actors three times a week,” she said. “They were also isolated. We had created all these bubbles — the production staff were in their own bubble, the actors were in another bubble.”

Courtesy of Daniel Rader Allison Blackwell and Alan H. Green perform in Barrington Stage Company’s “Who Could Ask for Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin.”

Both theater groups were intent on returning live theater to their audiences. And the audiences couldn’t get enough of it.

“In my mind, I get paid to do a job and I wanted to do it,” Maguire said. “I have been working in theater for a long time and I just imagined that it was possible. And indeed, I have never seen audiences so moved — at the start of every single performance, I would see the audience, their heads would drop and I would see the tears streaming over their masks because they were hearing music and hearing this story that was so inspiring. After all these years of doing theater, it was truly amazing and cathartic.”

Boyd saw the same emotional response in her audiences.

Contributed photo The exterior of the Barrington Stage Company theater.

“There is a shared humanity in theater. You sit in the audience with a group of people and you are sharing the same experience with what is on the stage. I was so aware that people were just hunkered down in their houses, they couldn’t go out, there was such a frustration level,” she said. “And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could offer people, with the right safety protocols, the ability to go and see a show. And people would come to the theater and start crying — they would say they can’t believe they are here, they can’t believe there are stage lights. We had more donations given to us that summer than we have ever had.”

Both theater groups worked with local and state health officials to ensure the health and safety protections were adequate and in place.

“None of it was done haphazardly,” Boyd said. “Every single thing was checked out.”
Bringing back live theater in the wake of a global health emergency infused the community with new spirit and showed the vitality of the creative economy in the Berkshires.

“The creative economy contributes literally millions of dollars to the Pittsfield economy,” Maguire said. “Everyone that comes to our theater then goes out to eat or they go shopping. The Berkshires is a cultural destination — where else can you go in the country and find Jacob’s Pillow, Berkshire Theatre Group, Tanglewood, Barrington Stage Company — it is a mecca, a cultural resort. We ARE the economy in Berkshire County.”