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Berkshire theaters make history: Partial summer season approved

It seems that both Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company are on the right track to restoring our sense of what is beautiful and possible in our lives starting in August.

Pittsfield — For the first time since the pandemic closed down theaters country-wide, Actors’ Equity Association has granted permission for new summer productions, this time to two Berkshire County companies, both located in Pittsfield. Barrington Stage Company, under the direction of Julianne Boyd, and Berkshire Theatre Group, managed by Kate Maguire, have each gotten permission to go ahead with their partial summer seasons, beginning imminently in August.

Berkshire Theatre Group and Kate Maguire (artistic director, CEO) are excited and proud to announce they will be producing “Godspell” this summer, the first musical in the United States to be approved by Actors’ Equity Association in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After careful consideration with the local and state government, Mayor Linda Tyer of Pittsfield and Actors’ Equity Association, BTG relocated “Godspell” from its original site at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge to outside under an open-air, 96-seat tent at the Colonial Theatre at 111 South St. in Pittsfield. The show is scheduled to run Thursday, Aug. 6, through Friday, Sept. 4. Tickets are available for purchase and are $100 ($75 for previews).

On the other hand, Barrington Stage Company is producing “Harry Clarke,” directed by Julianne Boyd, a one-man show by David Cale starring Mark H. Dold that will employ two Equity members: a performer and a stage manager. Dold, an associate artist with the company, will be performing the 70-minute, one-person play on the company’s main stage theater for two weeks beginning Wednesday, Aug. 5. Billy Crudup starred in the off-Broadway production of this play at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2018. It is the story of a shy Midwestern man leading an outrageous double life as a cocky Londoner. Moving to New York City and presenting himself as an Englishman, he charms his way into a wealthy family’s life as the seductive and precocious Harry, whose increasingly risky and dangerous behavior threatens to undo more than his persona. Ticket prices range from $25 to $65.

BTG board of trustees co-president Lee Perlman said: “We could not bear the thought of a Berkshire summer without live theater to support our community, so we jumped through every hoop to create a safe way to make this happen. I hope our production gives hope to the tens of thousands of theatre professionals who are on the sidelines this summer. Theater is unstoppable and will be back!”

Maguire said: “’Godspell’ (the Stephen Schwartz musical loosely based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew) got the green light after establishing a strict protocol to protect the health and safety of the audience, the performers and others involved in the show. We have been working daily and in the true spirit of care and collaboration with Actors’ Equity Association for the past several weeks.”

Michael Wartella and Ruby Rakos in the Goodspeed Musicals production of ‘Chasing Rainbows’ in 2016. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

Maguire continued: “Guided by Executive Director of Actors’ Equity Association Mary McColl and her extraordinary team, I have learned much about how to lead a theatre in the new world. Our industry, which has been devastated by this global pandemic, will be served by their seriousness, data-driven wisdom, and profound understanding of the need for artists to rebuild. I am so proud that Berkshire Theatre Group, in its 92nd season, will be authorized and granted the responsibility to produce this musical.”

The cast of 11 players includes Pittsfield native son Michael Wartella, who has been making a name for himself in New York City and at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut where, in 2016, he played Mickey Rooney in the bio-musical “Chasing Rainbows” about Judy Garland. The show will be helmed by director Alan Filderman (BTG: “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown”) and choreographer Gerry McIntyre.

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“It has been a long road figuring out all of the social distancing and safety protocols that were needed for both the actor and the audience,” said Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company. “We are delighted that we will be able to reopen the theatre with ‘Harry Clarke’.”

Speaking to Barrington Stage Company’s board President Marita O’Dea Glodt gives one a unique perspective on that company’s full involvement with this project. “Hopefully,” she said, “Berkshire County will continue to keep things safe so that we all can continue. From the very beginning, the staff at Barrington has been eager in its desire to have some semblance of a season and they’ve just kept at it. It’s been a tireless team effort. It’s just marvelous — all this through months of negotiations with Actors’ Equity Association. One of our goals, naturally, is to stay financially solvent this season, for we want another 25 seasons to come.”

Both of these theaters came to Equity in the spirit of collaboration and partnership, and worked closely with the union as all parties continued to learn more about the virus and its impact on theater. This process also included working closely with local authorities. For example, the city of Pittsfield’s board of health and mayor’s office provided guidance and information to both theaters, as infection rates in Massachusetts remain lower than almost anywhere else in the country. According to the guidelines established by Equity’s public health consultant, Dr. David Michaels, low infection rates are a prerequisite for theater being able to return.

Equity continues to review safety plans and questions on health and safety from producers on a daily basis, according to executive director of Actors’ Equity Association Mary McColl. McColl, in a written statement, said: “Equity staff around the country have been collaborating daily with producers on health and safety questions and now we can reveal the results of that work. Every production is different and will be evaluated on a case by case basis focusing on the safety of our members. We will continue to collaborate on safety plans where the epidemic is under control and where employers can maintain a safe work environment for their employees.”

Notably, Equity hired Dr. David Michaels, the former head of OSHA during the Obama administration, to serve as health and safety consultant for the union. Dr. Michaels has so far released a memo stipulating the four conditions that must be met before theaters should consider resuming production. Equity’s other work regarding the coronavirus includes advocacy to increase unemployment and COBRA coverage and launching the Curtain Up Fund to provide members with emergency financial relief.

BTG has outlined procedures and protocols in a manner that is consistent with current Actors’ Equity Association and state and local mandated health and safety guidelines. Temperature scans will be done for patrons at their point of entry. No-contact scanning stations for tickets will be placed at point of entry, spaced at least 6 feet from the temperature scan. Freestanding hand sanitizer stations will be placed at various locations throughout the space. Patrons will be required to wear masks, which is true for both theater companies.

One-way traffic patterns will be enforced with arrows and 6-foot markers on the floor, as well as lines down the center of hallways to and from the tent, restrooms and concessions. The restrooms will have entrances and exits that are separate and one-way. Every other stall, urinal and sink will be marked not usable. A doctor/nurse will be on duty for all performances. Additional safeguards will also be in place.

Barrington Stage, using its Boyd-Quinson Mainstage located at 30 Union St., is instituting some extreme measures to protect its audience. The entire theater, including seats, armrests, countertops and other high-touch surfaces, will be sanitized after each performance using a combination of hi-tech electrostatic sprayers, disinfectant sprays and wipes. ‘We have made major upgrades to our air ventilation system,” said Boyd. “We are now using MERV-13 filters that will be replaced monthly (normally we would be changing MERV-8 filters quarterly). Every night the entire theater will have 100 percent of the air inside purged and swapped with 100 percent fresh air from outside. During performances, the ratio to fresh outside air to recirculated air will go from 20:80 to 50:50.”

There will be three entry-points to reduce traffic; temperatures will be taken on entrance and masks will be required. All shows will be in one act to reduce traffic to restrooms, and staff will be on hand to control numbers in public spaces. In addition, entire rows of seats have been removed and blocks of seats are blocked off from use, reducing the theater from 520 seats to 163 seats. No one will be within easy reach of others except for two- and three-seat blocks for people attending the show together.

“We’ve been working on getting this done since mid-May,” Boyd said in a telephone interview, “and I think what we came up with is a very strong set of detailed safety measures for both the company and the audience.” Her smile could be heard through the phone as she continued: “We can find a way, if we’re careful, to bring live theater back to our public. Going to a play, you can feel different from when you went in, and it gives you hope for a better world. It’s so important to go, and it can be as safe as going to a restaurant or a store, and we’ve worked with experts in the field to come up with the safest possible results.”

It seems that both BTG and BSC are on the right track to restoring our sense of what is beautiful and possible in our lives starting in August.


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