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THEATER

Stages going dark in the Berkshires

Williamstown Theatre Festival cancels its summer season while other theaters postpone productions.

Williamstown Theatre Festival's Mandy Greenfield said the 2020 season's seven plays and musicals will be produced on Audible.
Williamstown Theatre Festival's Mandy Greenfield said the 2020 season's seven plays and musicals will be produced on Audible.Nancy Palmieri/file 2015

One after another, major regional theaters in Berkshire County are canceling or drastically shortening their summer seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant blow to a region that is heavily dependent on culture as a tourist attraction.

The powerhouse Williamstown Theatre Festival, which often premieres Broadway-bound works, announced Tuesday that it is canceling its summer season, including a high-profile revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Audra McDonald and Bobby Cannavale.

In what the company described as a theatrical first, recordings of all seven plays and musicals scheduled for the Williamstown season will be produced on Audible, featuring McDonald, Cannavale, Dylan Baker, Kate Burton, Anna Chlumsky, Taylor Schilling, Carla Gugino, and other actors who had been scheduled to appear in live performance this summer.

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“This virus might get to tell us what we cannot do but it does not get to dictate what we can do,” Williamstown artistic director Mandy Greenfield said in a statement. “The voices of these artists will be heard.”

They will not be seen, though, and that innovative step will do little to cushion the economic hit to the Berkshires, where restaurants, hotels, and other businesses are heavily reliant on cultural institutions like Williamstown Theatre Festival and the renowned dance festival Jacob’s Pillow, which recently canceled its season for the first time in its 88-year history.

In addition, Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company, both based in Pittsfield, said Tuesday they are postponing numerous productions, while Chester Theatre Company announced the cancellation of the first three shows of its season. Questions also hang over the season of Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company. Artistic director Allyn Burrows said by e-mail Tuesday that an announcement will be made April 14, noting: “Right now COVID-19 seems to be running the show, and we’ll need to adjust to the uncertainties of that accordingly.”

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Meanwhile, many in the Berkshires are waiting for the biggest shoe of all to drop, or not: the Tanglewood Music Festival. A spokesperson for the Boston Symphony Orchestra said Tuesday that the BSO will make a final decision in mid-May on whether Tanglewood will take place this summer.

For theaters and other cultural institutions, the pandemic has created logistical nightmares as they wrestle with whether to go ahead with productions they’ve been building toward for months, not to mention when and how to begin rehearsals even for shows scheduled for later in the summer. For the Berkshires, where culture is a cornerstone of regional identity and an economic engine, the spate of cancellations and postponements will be a gut-punch. Globe phone calls and e-mails to 1Berkshire, the regional economic development and tourism organization, were not returned Tuesday.

Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of the Berkshire Theatre Group, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that she postponed two of the company’s summer productions but is moving ahead with plans to stage “They’re Playing Our Song” and “Godspell” in August, saying it was possible to begin rehearsing those musicals online. Maguire acknowledged, though, that the circumstances of the pandemic have accelerated so quickly that an air of uncertainty surrounds any theater’s summer plans.

Charlie Siedenburg, a spokesman for Barrington Stage Company, said by e-mail that artistic director Julianne Boyd decided to postpone three productions — “The Great Leap,” “The Assembled Parties,” and “Anna in the Tropics” — and that a production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is “still to be decided.” Productions of “South Pacific,” “Chester Bailey,” “A Crossing,” and “The Price” are “still on tap and awaiting new production dates,” Siedenburg said.

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The statement from Williamstown’s Greenfield cited Governor Charlie Baker’s order limiting all gatherings to 10 people or fewer as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to let patrons know if official guidelines “affect our ability to mount the season in Williamstown, as planned.” If not, Audible will be the only option for a season that had been scheduled to kick off on June 30 with “Streetcar,” directed by Robert O’Hara.

The works available on Audible will also include five world premieres (four plays and a musical), as well as a new production of Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” directed by Broadway veteran Susan Stroman (“The Producers”). One of the world-premiere plays is “Cult of Love,” written by “Russian Doll” cocreator Leslye Headland, directed by Trip Cullman.

Summertime traditionally brings a flood of tourists to Western Massachusetts for the region’s bountiful offerings of topflight theater, music, dance, and art. But the pandemic has upended that tradition, at least for the near future. BTG’s Maguire said when she met recently with Berkshires businesspeople, one of them asked: “How is it possible that the theater could survive this?”

Maguire expressed confidence that it will. “Out of need will come the way,” she said. Once the pandemic ebbs, whenever that is, “There will be an incredible need to gather again.”

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Jeremy Eichler of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.