GREAT BARRINGTON — It wasn’t your typical evening of theater in the Berkshires. The instructions on the play’s flier sounded almost like those of a 1990s-era outlaw rave: Assemble in a certain parking lot, where organizers will appear and lead you, on foot, to the undisclosed location of the festivities.
On the third and final night of producer-director Pooja Ru Prema's "Isis-Chernobyl," about 100 theatergoers assembled in that Housatonic parking lot. Guides appeared and walked them over to a nearby warehouse, where each attendee signed a liability waiver before strolling through the first floor to the outdoor site of the play, beneath a railroad overpass.
Based on ancient Egyptian myths and a vision of the end of the world, the show was part theater, part dance, with an improvised cello accompaniment thrown in for good measure.
"When people come to one of my things they don't know what the hell they're getting into," admits Prema, 30, reflecting on the 2012 production. "It strikes a chord and it has a niche here, but at the same time it's not the standard. People are expecting a much more comfortable experience than what I give them."
This ethos was reflected in the one amenity offered. At intermission, audience members were poured hot cups of "uncertain-tea."
The bustling Berkshires theater scene is largely dominated by the "big four" companies: Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Shakespeare & Company, and Williamstown Theatre Festival. Smaller, traditional companies have found a foothold as well, but an increasing number of so-called fringe theater troupes are now also at work here, bringing their offbeat shows with limited commercial potential. Their intent? Break new boundaries and draw a new audience to Western Massachusetts.
Populated with artists in their 20s and early 30s, this emerging scene seeks to draw younger patrons to a cultural milieu where the median audience age otherwise seems to lurk somewhere in late middle age. The movement reaches a peak this week, with the newly launched Mass Live Arts festival bringing three leading, New York-based progressive theater companies to the same playing space of the Berkshire Fringe festival, which launches its ninth season Monday.
Berkshire audiences will get the first look at Half Straddle Theatre's creative "Seagull (Thinking of You)," a cut-and-mix reimagining of Chekhov's play, since its January premiere in New York. This first offering of Mass Live Arts is followed by a workshop performance of a new collaboration between Half Straddle artistic director Tina Satter and the New York City Players. "Inflatable Frankenstein" follows, a Technicolor, flubber-drenched eruption by the innovative troupe Radiohole.
In an adjacent black-box theater at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Berkshire Fringe unfurls its most crowded season yet, with nine visiting companies. It launches with "Dead Letter Office," a speculative prelude to Herman Melville's story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" composed mainly of text from old letters and atlases.
Sara Katzoff, 32, one of three founding artistic directors there, says she and her colleagues set out to bridge the gap between their 20-something friends and the more gray-haired Berkshires theater world.
"We realized that some of our peers weren't really patronizing the arts, except maybe as a special event or a once-a-summer thing," Katzoff says. "We want them to think of it as an activity that can happen quite frequently. We wanted to develop audiences for the Fringe, but eventually those audiences serve all the arts organizations, not just us. When people develop a curiosity and an interest in something, it expands beyond just one venue — hopefully."
Berkshire Fringe has led the way upon this wing of the regional stage, but other arts entrepreneurs are emerging. Sometime Shakespeare & Company actor Robert Biggs used the raw space of North Adams's Topia Arts Center as staging ground for his experimental clown play about infanticide. Its props included more than a dozen puppet children and a 15-foot phallus. (The 2011 Berkshire showcase preceded a trip to that most famous of fringe theater festivals in Edinburgh, before an engagement at the New York International Fringe Festival last summer.)
Rue's most recent production, last month, was a fanatically detailed performance/installation at an 1865 Pittsfield mansion, the longtime site of a women's club. Audience members wandered through a celebration of the female stages of life, observing vignettes like a pair of young lovers teasingly exchanging each other's clothing in a stairwell, and an elderly foursome playing cards.
Last summer Heather Fisch, 28, packed Great Barrington's Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center with 480 patrons for her "opera nouveau" about an everyman's journey through the underworld, complete with a cast of 30, a bearded Cupid figure in high heels, and dashes of burlesque. She returns to the venue Aug. 10 for "La Belle Epoque," which she describes as three-person vaudeville.
Fisch says progressive experiments like her own offer the path to long-term viability for theater in the Berkshires. "It's sexier, it appeals, it's more relevant in terms of content," she says. "Young people want their minds blown and they want to see cool stuff that they've never seen before. There's got to be a new thing that happens, or it's all going down."
Prema, Fisch, Katzoff, and the two other Fringe founders — Peter Wise and Timothy Ryan Olson — all overlapped as students at Simon's Rock. They've also sometimes appeared in one another's shows, suggesting a nascent network of fringe theater-makers.
That's not to say the more traditional theater offerings here are in danger of being eclipsed by the scrappy avant-garde. Biggs found rehearsal space in local churches, but was unable to book his show at one of the established theaters. "I'm not surprised some people do not want to grab onto this material," he acknowledges, "but it's doing exactly what I think it should do." Other similar efforts tend to be short-run events oozing the cathartic sense of a mission fulfilled, but not necessarily laying the foundations for a sustainable enterprise.
Mass Live Arts founder Ilan Bachrach, 31, speaks with a showman's bombast as he makes the case for his efforts.
"I would like to contribute to making the Berkshires synonymous with American cutting-edge art," he says, contending that the often-adventurous programming at Mass MoCA in North Adams and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket far outpaces the interest in experimental work among the leading theater companies. "The fact that Berkshire Fringe has been doing it for nine years means there is an appetite for new and exciting work here. It is very heartening."
Audiences are proving receptive. Satter's Chekhov remix enjoyed a residency and workshop showing at Mass MoCA last December; a post-show chat session convinced her that audiences here are ready for the edgy messiness of unpolished works. "With that Berkshire audience, there really was a sense that they were open, that they were excited to see a little bit of nuts-and-bolts in a really receptive, intelligent way," she says.
So, as Berkshire Fringe inspires others on the edges of the region's theater, while chugging toward a milestone anniversary next year, is it transitioning from upstart to institution?
"Wow, that's a strong word — institution," Katzoff says, bursting into self-reflective laughter at the unfamiliar notion. "Maybe a fringe-stitution?"
Mass Live Arts
At: Daniel Arts Center of Bard College at Simon's Rock, Thursday through
Aug. 3.Tickets: $25-$35. www.masslivearts.org
La Belle Epoque
At: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Aug. 10. Tickets: $19-$35. 413-528-0100, www.mahaiwe.org
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.