Nestled amid the Berkshire Hills, Great Barrington is a charmingly hip and diverse little town, once ranked by Smithsonian Magazine as “America’s Best Small Town.”
No small part of that appeal is the area’s rich arts community. And according to cellist and arts executive-turned-entrepreneur Eugene Carr, the pandemic has left area artists “bursting with anticipation to perform in front of live audiences.”
Likewise, audiences are just as eager for the communal experience of hearing music and seeing dance and theater in-person. That’s where Berkshire Busk! comes in. The new summer series promises to enliven weekends through Sept. 4 with outdoor performers all around downtown Great Barrington.
On Friday and Saturday nights, from 6 to 8:30 p.m., a wide range of performers will share their artistry from one end of Main Street to the other, plus Railroad Street and at the town’s gazebo.
Each weekend features a different lineup of up to two dozen acts ranging from folk music and jazz to an acrobatic circus duo and Irish dancing. “The town should be bursting with a variety of performers no matter where you go,” Carr said in a phone interview, “an immersive cultural experience you wouldn’t get anywhere else in the Berkshires. I think of it as a cultural smorgasbord.”
Though Berkshire Busk! was scheduled to kick off last weekend, the weather refused to cooperate, so if all goes well, the festival gets into full swing this weekend. It’s such a major concern week-to-week that Carr has weather reporter Dave Hayes as a consultant on his team.
Carr also has major backing from town businesses and government. Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said in an interview that Great Barrington sees the festival as “an innovative and creative way to help ensure that the stores and restaurants in our downtown district recover from the pandemic.”
In fact, that was one of Carr’s three main goals in launching the festival. In addition to bringing people downtown to help revitalize the economy, the festival would create a new way to build community in the area while providing opportunities for performers to share their artistry. He got the idea last summer while sitting in with the band Mary Ann Palermo and First Take in front of the Triplex Cinema one night. “There was this moment when the sun was setting, the breeze was going, people were sitting outside dining, and I thought, ‘How magical this is,’” he recalled.
Carr approached the town with the idea of expanding outdoor performance into “a real Berkshire experience” that would showcase the charm of Great Barrington. “I think in the last decade, the town has only gotten more interesting and special,” he said. “In the last three weeks alone, a new coffee shop, a new wine store, a new book store have opened. Some local stores have moved to new locations. There’s a real evolution, a more interesting tapestry than 10 years ago.”
Carr has long split his time between New York City and the Berkshires, living in Great Barrington full time since March 2020. He said Berkshire Busk! is a perfect fusion of his interests and background as a musician (he has a cello performance degree from Oberlin Conservatory), arts administrator (he served as executive director of New York’s American Symphony Orchestra), and tech entrepreneur (most recently in ticketing and marketing for cultural organizations).
Carr and his team began spreading the word about Berkshire Busk!, and by March of this year applications were flooding in. “We have performers who were finalists on ‘American Idol,’ have Grammy nominations, are touring performers. Some are dancers, acrobats, [in] theater, music theater, hip-hop. … There’s a lot of talent hidden just beneath the surface in this area who are really excited to get out and perform in public,” he said.
The festival’s website outlines the schedule and maps the locations of “mini-stages.” In addition to outdoor performances, the restaurant 20 Railroad Street also will host select groups from 9 to 10:30 p.m. And on Aug. 7, the festival plans a family afternoon event with clowns and a drum circle. Carr said they are spreading the word through a festival blog, preview videos and interviews, and an active Instagram account (www.instagram.com/berkshirebusk) that will livestream some performances.
“We’re infusing the town with what busking is all about,” Carr said. “It’s well developed in Europe and Australia, so we’re trying to develop a new busking culture here.”
He added, “I was hoping to create another ‘must-see’ experience in the Berkshires, not only [from] inside a museum or at a performance venue but also outside in an open, enjoyable way, experiencing the wealth of talent that’s living in the area. I’m hoping this becomes something that people say, ‘When you go to the Berkshires, you gotta take in Berkshire Busk! in Great Barrington.’”
6-8:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 4. www.berkshirebusk.com
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.