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Me#First in the Berkshires - Where Able and Ambitious Female Theater makers Have Thrived Long Before the Me#Too Movement and the Wave of Women Running for Government Jobs . . .
By Elyse Sommer
The current New York theater season has seen something a mini-invasion of plays that first saw life in the theater-rich Berkshire Mountains of western Masachusetts. There's usually at least one transfer from there. But this season has brought three fine productions in the course of just one month ( Mother of the Maidin October; American Son and Chinese Lady during the first week of November).
These Berkshire-born theater experiences and the fact that Curtainup was born there in 1996 set me to pondering about the preponderance of women who are in charge, which makes this beautiful area a place that not only nurtures theatrical excellence but glass-ceiling breakthrough opportunities for women.
The area has long been an incubator for new plays and innovative revivals that often transfer to New York. And women were in charge, as founders and artistic directors of its most influential companies well before the Me#Too movement and the current wave of women running for political office.
Kate Maguire was at the helm of the venerable Berkshire Theatre Festival to help modernize and expand it. The dynamic and somewhat younger Shakespeare & Company and Barrington Stage were founded by two talented, can-do women, Tina Packer and Julianne Boyd. Besides spearheading innovative programming and casting choices they tackled the fund raising and planning involved in building their own modern spaces; all this without neglecting the talents that first sparked their theatrical passion— Boyd as a director, and the British born Packer as an actress.
Packer's charisma and tour-de-force acting, made her an especially successful fund raiser for her actor-manager run company. When she took to the stage to sell seat naming rights to the company's own two-theater home in Lenox (after years as tenants on the Edith Wharton estate), those seats were sold as if priced like a Sabret hot dog on a Manhattan street wagon. Since retiring as the company's artistic director Packer has gone back to full-time acting, but the Lenox venue is still her home base. She originated the titular character in the world premiere of Mother of the Maid, one of the three Berkshire premieres now enjoying New York productions. Women of Will, her epic exploration of Shakespeare's women transferred from Lenox to downtown Manhattan in 2013.
Barrington's Boyd was not someone to easily cave in to the dictates of controlling bosses. While no sexual harassment was involved in her 1993 departure from her job as Berkshire Theatre Festival's first female artistic director, she refused to tone down her penchant for cutting edge productions and formed her own company. Even though most of Barrington's first ten years were spent at a High School in Sheffield, their innovative productions had more and more Manhattan theater lovers heading to that high school. The world premiere of The Putnam County Spelling Bee was a turning point. It was Barrington's first show to make the leap to New York — first off-Broadway, then Broadway, and from there all over the globe. It also enabled Boyd and her company to settle into the first of its two permanent homes in Pittsfield.
Kate Maguire followed Boyd as Berkshire Theatre Festival's chief. the company's chief. The Stockbridge company's second stage got a completely new building under her watch. Her job got even busier since BTF took over the grand old Colonial Theater in Pittsfield when it was restored after years of being hidden away in a paint store. Maguire does, however, occasionally take time out for her own first love, acting.
What about the Berkshires' other old-time summer theater jewel, the Williamstown Theater Festival? It was launched in 1954 by the director and drama department chairman of Williams College—alma mater of Stephen Sondheim and William Finn who currently runs Barrington's musical theater lab program, The Festival's prestige and reputation for star-studded productions, many presented as Broadway trial runs productions was built during its long tenure min the college's Adams Memorial Theatre and a smaller space around the corner. By the time the Festival too installed a female Artistic Director (Jenny Gersten) in 2010, the old theaters had morphed into a state of the art theatrical complex.
Of course Julianne Boyd and Tina Packer aren't the first women ever to found and run their own theater companies. One of the best known early examples is the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, currently the subject of Theresa Rebeck's Bernhardt/Hamlet. But rarely has there been this rare a confluence of neighboring cultural institutions founded and/or headed by women.
Not to be overlooked as part of this glass ceiling breaking environment is that home to spectacular dancing, Jacob's Pillow in Beckett. And, yes, it too owes much of its success to a woman, its long-time artistic director Ella Baff.
Though the Pillow's female leadership continued with Pamela Tatge when Baff moved on to another venture, the fact that Shakespeare & Company now has one of its former star actors, Alan Burrows, in the top job, points to another interesting aspect of the Berkshires being very much a Me-First place for theater founders and chief executives. Unlike the old, white guys who've so long denied equal opportunity to women, these Berkshire women have found common ground with others regardless of gender. In fact, they've provided lots of guys with writing, directing and acting opportunities not open to them in a less nurturing environment. Christopher Innvar, Mark H. Dold, Brad Oscar are just a few actors who've enjoyed unique opportunities to shine at Barrington Stage. Shakespeare & Company shepherded a Berkshire based playwright, the late William Gibson, to revamp his not especially successful multi-character Golda's Balcony into a hit solo play that moved to Broadway after a successful run in Lenox.
As for the granddaddy of classic music festivals, the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, despite James Lavine's health and sexual harassment problems, so far the top conducting post has always been filled by men. However, one of the Festival's most charismatic and talented conducting fellows, Marin Alsop, did become the first female conductor to lead a major American orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony.
Ultimately, when a Berkshire-born play or musical moves to New York, ticket buyers don't ask whether the originating theater was run by a woman. What fills the seats— in the Berkshires, in New York, anywhere— is the quality of what's on offer. Excellence has no gender, color or ethnic tag.
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