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Berkshire Theatre Group

Berkshire Theatre Group

90 Years Old; 90 Years New

by KATHRYN BOUGHTON

For nearly a century, some of the best-known names in American entertainment have trod the boards in Berkshire County. This summer the Berkshire Theatre Group celebrates its 90th anniversary with a sold-out anniversary gala and a varied schedule of productions, some classics—like Hair and The Petrified Forest—others cutting edge such as Church and State and a reading of Taming the Lion, the story of Hollywood superstar Billy Haines who gave up fame for the man he loved.

“As the 90th season, I thought about the productions with what each stage has come to mean,” said Artistic Director Kate Maguire. The Fitzpatrick Main Stage has always held our more traditional works and everyone in the history of American theatre has been on it.”

With that in mind, she chose the world premiere of Coming Back Like a Song! for the Main Stage. Written by Emmy Award-winner Lee Kalcheim, it tells the story of three of America’s greatest songwriters, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen as they reach a crossroads in their careers.

“It’s a play about how musical theatre began, a reflection of the growth of American theatre and I felt like this play was right to do.”

She reached back into the history of the theatre for another selection, The Petrified Forest. Written by four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Sherwood, this production is a nod to Berkshire Theatre’s illustrious past. Sherwood often visited his sister, Rosamond Sherwood, who was an early champion of the Berkshire Theatre Festival.

“Robert Sherwood visited Stockbridge often,” said Maguire. “His sister had a home here so it felt natural to go to The Petrified Forest. “It’s a wonderful play about a time when people were aching and longing and there was lots of tumult—a sense not unlike what we are feeling now. I feel it is an important piece and the Sherwoods were important to our history.”

At the same time, she had an eye focused on the Unicorn stage on the Stockbridge campus. “The Unicorn has always been a space where we can present pieces that provoke, that present young ideas in American theatre,” Maguire said. “Church and State [by Emmy Award-nominated Jason Odell Williams] is very much about issues facing us today—it is also very witty. And Hair, which is celebrating 50 years, is one of the great American musicals and is also about revolution. So, I was, indeed, thinking about what our stages mean in planning this season.”

In the course of its long history, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, has faced all the financial challenges endemic to regional theatre. It has, nevertheless, grown and matured and, in its most recent incarnation as the Berkshire Theatre Group, merged with The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield MA.

The Colonial’s stage will have its own unique production this summer in Tarzan, featuring a cast of more than 100 talented Berkshire youth. Maguire noted that the Berkshire Theatre Group’s educational mission now reaches some 13,000 of the 16,000 school children in Berkshire County. “We will turn over the stage to them—and air, because Tarzan will be flying. That play is also representative of the work we do,” she said.

Indeed, theatrical education is a 90-year tradition for the BTG. From the first summer, interns from Yale University were employed to work as production crews. The Acting Apprentice program was established in 1929 and continues today.

When Maguire says that anyone and everyone who has been a name in American Theatre has appeared on the BTG’s stages, she is not exaggerating. The Colonial Theatre, designed by J. B. McElfatrick—who designed 220 theaters in all, 39 of which were on Broadway—opened its doors in 1903. In 1912, the Colonial Players was founded, an in-house company that produced weekly shows. Edith Luckett, Ronald Reagan’s mother-in-law, was the original star of the Players.

Ethel and John Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, Eubie Blake, Billie Burke, George M.Cohan, Irene Dunne, Helen Hayes, Al Jolson, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Will Rogers, Ed Wynn and many others performed on the Colonial stage throughout its life.

Both the Colonial and the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, established in 1928, entertained performances by the Barrymores, often referred to as America’s Royal Family of American Theatre. The BTF has also had appearances by the likes of Jane Wyatt, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Anne Bancroft, Frank Langella, Sigourney Weaver, Kim Hunter, Dorothy McGuire, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino and Chris Noth.

Both cultural venues were pulled back from the brink of oblivion, however. The Fitzpatrick Main Stage is housed in the former Stockbridge Casino, built in 1888. By the 1920s it had fallen into disuse and was acquired by the Three Arts Society. A new home for the structure was found at the foot of Yale Hill Road and the building was carefully taken apart and pulled by horses to its new location. The Casino was overhauled to create the Berkshire Playhouse, which seated 450.

In the 1920s, the Three Arts Society also bought the Mellon Barn for a scene and prop shop. The pigsty (devoid of actual farm animals) was transformed into living quarters for the interns who came to work at the theater—including Jane Wyatt and Katharine Hepburn. The barn, now the Unicorn Theatre, was also used as an informal stage and functioned as a workshop space for new and experimental theatre.

The Main Stage was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

The Colonial Theater after three decades as a popular cultural landmark, ended its years as a playhouse in 1934 and closed its doors as a result of the Great Depression. It reopened three years later as a movie theater, a role it filled until 1951 when it again was closed.

Although it was subsequently used as an art supply store, it’s important architectural details were preserved by its new owners, George and Sally Ruth Miller. They are credited with preserving the structural and decorative integrity of The Colonial until the community was ready to bring it back into service as a community entertainment center.

In 1994 a Friends of the Colonial Theatre Restoration was formed. After decades of building public support, the theater was purchased from the Miller Family in 2001 and The Colonial Theatre Association began the process of restoration. The theater, now listed on the National Register, reopened to the public in 2006.

The 22-month construction process preserved all historically significant architectural and design features while creating a modern performance center equipped to handle the needs of artists and audiences alike. In 2007, singer-songwriter James Taylor returned to the Colonial for three days to record his One Man Band tour for television and home video release.

In Stockbridge, progress was also being made. In 1996, The Unicorn Theatre was reopened after a lengthy renovation and became BTF’s official second stage, the venue for new and experimental works.

In 2010 the two venerable theatre venues merged, but the changes were not over yet. In 2011, Berkshire Theatre Group opened The Garage located in the lobby of the Colonial. Its name pays homage to its former owner, Berkshire Auto Company Garage. This newly developed venue, complete with stage, lights and sound system, is BTG’s dedicated venue for local and regional music performers.

The BTF Campus is located at 6 East Street, Stockbridge. The Colonial is at BTG’s Pittsfield Campus, 111 South Street in Pittsfield. For more information about the BTG’s summer season, please visit the link below.

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