IT’S OPENING NIGHT for On the Town at Barrington Stage Company, and theatergoers mill about in downtown Pittsfield on this mild June evening. Most of the men wear sport coats or suits, ladies look casually elegant in cocktail dresses, teenagers take photos of one another with their iPhones. There’s a buzz in the air.
Inside the 520-seat theater, The Wall Street Journal’s critic occupies a seat on the aisle. At the other end of the row sits Ben Brantley, chief theater critic for The New York Times. His enthusiastic review of the Leonard Bernstein revival will run on the front of the Arts & Leisure section a few days later. This is not the Berkshires theater scene of old.
Although summer theater has been part of the Berkshires for nearly a century, most of that history was dominated by two companies: Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge and, about an hour’s drive north, Williamstown Theatre Festival. The two forged a popular if genteel summer tradition, trafficking mainly in imported stars and familiar plays.
But over the years those storied theaters were joined by two newcomers, Shakespeare & Company in Lenox and Barrington Stage Company. The four cooperated occasionally, competed often, and together raised the profile of the region, which today is a place where the work onstage feels part of a conversation with the rest of the theater world — not an artistic cul-de-sac.
Williamstown Theatre has been a force in its own right, but much of the region’s evolution can be traced to three uncommonly connected women: Tina Packer, Julianne Boyd, and Kate Maguire. Two of them founded groundbreaking theater companies; the third took the most tradition-bound company of all and gently coaxed it to new artistic heights. They’ve premiered important new plays and put fresh spins on old ones. They’ve planted roots, then yanked them from the ground, crossed bridges, then sometimes burned them. And along the way they’ve taken Berkshires theater from the backwoods to the front row.
The shift started with Tina Packer and her Shakespeare & Company back in 1978. That year, the charismatic British actress turned director gathered a cadre of young actors and master teachers in New York and led them to the Berkshires for an experiment in communal living and theater-making.
Packer’s troupe moved into The Mount, the Edith Wharton estate in Lenox that had fallen into disrepair. After each performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that first summer, Packer came out to solicit donations from the crowd. (For the record, I worked in the press office of Shakespeare & Company between 2007 and 2010.)
The excitement around Packer’s work was a magnet for actors and audiences alike. “In the Berkshires I felt like a creative artist, living with other artists, finding new ways to think about the language,” one actor told The New York Times about that first summer. Adds actor John Douglas Thompson, who has worked with Packer in more recent years: “I found her vision for the plays and her passion for the plays to be extraordinary, and I think everybody else who works with her feeds off of that.”
In the mid-’80s, Kate Maguire, a Lowell native and single mom of twin daughters, was working at the now-defunct Boston Shakespeare Company. A stage actress herself, Maguire more often paid the bills with a job in the company’s box office. When she met Packer, who was serving a stint as the company’s interim artistic director, the two hit it off.
Packer invited Maguire to move west to join Shakespeare & Company. She accepted, doing some acting and working a variety of administrative jobs, eventually managing “vast areas” of the company, as Packer puts it.
Maguire learned about the nuts and bolts of running a theater enterprise, but also knew she’d one day return to the artistic side of things. Her mentor did, too. “She wasn’t going to disappear down the moors of management,” Packer says. “She’s an artistic soul.”
Ahead of the 1993 season, a stage director from Manhattan named Julianne Boyd arrived in Stockbridge to take over the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
Founded nearly seven decades earlier, Berkshire Theatre had helped invent summer stock. Its stage had been graced by Lunts and Barrymores, and later by film-greats-in-the-making — Katharine Hepburn, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, among them — on break from their Hollywood duties. Specializing as it did in light, uncontroversial fare, summer stock was a kind of break for audiences, too.
But Boyd wanted to sharpen the theater’s edges. She pressed its dormant second stage into service as a showcase for edgy, experimental work. On the main stage, she programmed one politically charged drama that struck some as a tad too sympathetic to an IRA bomber.
Board members overseeing Boyd began to harbor doubts about their new hire.
Meanwhile, after nearly eight years, Maguire had left Shakespeare & Company to become managing director at Stage West in Springfield. But that move wasn’t working out, either. “It just didn’t feel like home,” Maguire says. “The Berkshires felt like home.”
Julianne Boyd lasted just two seasons with Berkshire Theatre. “I wanted not to be so bound by tradition,” she says. “If I was going to make a permanent contribution to theater, it would be really great if I could find a way to do it in a new environment with people who agreed.”
She’d have to. After departing in 1994, she cofounded Barrington Stage Company with Susan Sperber, who’d been her number two.
The shake-up at Berkshire Theatre offered Kate Maguire the route back home she was looking for. She replaced Sperber and, three years later, was named artistic director.
Seemingly unaware of the resistance to change Boyd had encountered, Maguire was eager to get to work. Let’s change it all, she thought. Let’s do theater that is challenging and provocative.
After a performance that included some adult language, Maguire was milling around the audience when she felt a firm grip on her forearm. It was a longtime subscriber. “This stage is sacred,” the woman intoned. “I don’t expect to hear foul language on this stage.”
Board member Bobbie Hallig saw her fellow members lining up against Maguire. History was repeating itself. “I’d already gone through that experience with Julianne Boyd,” Hallig recalls, “so when Kate came along, and again we hit the wall, I said, ‘We can’t keep doing this.’ ” Someone needed to talk to her.
Around the same time, things at Shakespeare & Company were reaching crisis level. A series of nasty court disputes in the mid-’90s finally culminated with the troupe’s ejection from The Mount after more than two decades.
Packer was heartbroken. “The Mount is not just a playing space; it has been our home,” she said. “We’ve had people married there, babies born there.”
Packer and her colleagues set out on a fund-raising blitz, amassing $5 million in just a year. In 2000, they bought 63 acres of property about a mile away, then set out retrofitting a gymnasium into a theater for about 400 people.
With a reprimand from longtime board president Jane Fitzpatrick still ringing in her ears, Kate Maguire opened Berkshire Theatre Festival’s 2000 season with a work neither challenging nor provocative. She chose Camelot, the polite, perennial crowd pleaser.
But it was a course correction, not a capitulation — unlike Boyd, Maguire would learn to bend. “I had taken the audience to a place too abruptly,” Maguire explains. “One needs to be patient, to walk alongside the audience — maybe a couple steps ahead.”
Within a few years, she’d bring in a foulmouthed play by David Mamet and another by Terrence McNally that flaunted full nudity. Afterward, nobody grabbed her arm to complain.
At Barrington Stage, Boyd was finding her own kind of balance. She staged plays that touched on teenage cutting and the Holocaust but had an ear for lighter musicals, too. In 2004, she and composer/lyricist William Finn would debut The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a show that would go on to win two Tonys on Broadway.
Following this unprecedented success, Boyd announced the company would pull up stakes in bucolic Sheffield — where it performed in a high school auditorium — and move north to Pittsfield, a city still gasping for a second wind long after the departure of its biggest employer, General Electric.
At a dinner party, one longtime donor argued so vehemently about the plan with Boyd that another guest had to intervene. “People loved us down there and they were very loyal to us,” Boyd says now. “So in a way they felt a little left behind.”
Barrington Stage bought and renovated a run-down theater downtown, opening it in August 2006. Doubling down on their Pittsfield bet, Boyd and her husband bought a house in the city. Finn, the composer, moved in across the street.
In 2007, then 68-year-old Tina Packer raised eyebrows and divided critics by casting herself as the sex-symbol lead in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The Globe called Packer “absolutely magnificent,” while Variety’s tough review called her “queen of denial.” But the show was a big hit. And the fact Variety weighed in at all was evidence of how much the region mattered.
Then, in late July 2008, founding member Tony Simotes directed John Douglas Thompson as the lead in Othello. The show became a phenomenon. Theater producers from New York made pilgrimages to the Berkshires to scout the suddenly red-hot lead. Thompson landed a series of key roles in New York directly from the run, going on to earn an Obie award and, later, an approving profile in The New Yorker.
In Berkshires summer theater, stars had long parachuted in, wowed the locals, then returned to the big city. Now it was clear that a remarkable performance in the Berkshires could turn an actor into a superstar.
A month after Othello closed in August 2008, the US economy began its worst plunge since the Great Depression. As the market dropped, so did attendance and corporate donations.
In the months ahead, Kate Maguire would cut Berkshire Theatre Festival’s budget by 25 percent.
Shakespeare & Company sometimes seemed in danger of sinking beneath the weight of its mortgage and loans — a feeling familiar to homeowners the country over — and just as Packer was handing off her leadership duties to Tony Simotes and polishing her show Women of Will, a tour de force devoted to Shakespeare’s female characters.
Barrington Stage started a pay-what-you-can program for audience members under 35.
In 2009, the three companies — plus Williamstown Theatre Festival, the fourth player in the region — decided to cooperate on a discount-ticket marketing partnership. They might usually compete, but in times like this, everyone needed to pull together.
Among the hardest hit of organizations was the Colonial Theatre, just a few blocks from Barrington Stage Company’s own theater in Pittsfield. After a more than $20 million investment, the long shuttered landmark had reopened to great fanfare in 2006. But now, in late summer 2010, it struggled to make payroll and its executive director had abruptly quit.
As the Colonial’s president, Mike MacDonald, awaited a meeting with Maguire, who had expressed some interest in collaborating, he contacted Boyd. He wondered whether the Colonial and Barrington Stage might merge.
It was an alluring overture, but Boyd ultimately passed. It looked like too much risk, too fast. “I think Julie and the board decided rightly that it would kill us,” says Finn.
Two weeks later, MacDonald had his meeting with Kate Maguire and floated the idea of a merger. She was interested.
Soon, the Berkshire Theatre Festival and Colonial Theatre joined to become the Berkshire Theatre Group, a performing arts giant with well over 1,200 seats across five stages.
In the summer of 2011 the new organization put on The Who’s Tommy, its first big musical at the Colonial. It overlapped with Guys and Dolls just up the street at Boyd’s Barrington Stage. “I was surprised they did a big musical at the same time,” Boyd says diplomatically. Could Pittsfield support that much musical theater?
It turns out it could. Berkshire Theatre’s A Chorus Line played an extended run in the 2012 season, while Fiddler on the Roof became Barrington Stage’s highest-grossing musical ever.
After nearly 35 years spent establishing herself as a world-class Shakespearean in Lenox, Packer finally made her debut on a New York stage in spring 2013 when Women of Will played off-Broadway. After the last Sunday matinee, she looked tired but ready for more. Audiences had been encouraged to scrawl bits of the Bard on the wall in markers, and someone had chosen a fitting line from Antony and Cleopatra, with which Packer had caused such a ruckus years earlier: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale, / her infinite variety.”
Back in the Berkshires, at the company she founded, Packer was scheduled to star inThe Beauty Queen of Leenane opening with a preview on August 8. (It runs through September 15). That same night, 8 miles away, Boyd, now 68, was to unveil her production of Much Ado About Nothing at Barrington Stage (it runs through August 25). Shakespeare & Company had been considering building its season around the same play, but it was forced to shift gears when Barrington Stage announced its season first. In October, Berkshire Theatre’s Maguire, 57, will act in an Edith Wharton adaptation, one that might just stir memories of her days at The Mount with Shakespeare & Company. They are all as busy as they have ever been.
For much of the rise of the Berkshires’ grandes dames, Ben Brantley of The New York Times has had an aisle seat. “Those ladies’ tenacity is very impressive — especially in this climate, to keep those theaters going all this time,” he says. “They have to be very strong women.”
Jeremy D. Goodwin is a frequent Boston Globe contributor based in Great Barrington. Send comments to email@example.com.