Live performances revive outdoors in the Berkshires

A woman is singing in a low, strong alto. She is calling for a time of new beginning, seeds in the rain, and people seeing each other eye to eye. A group of people are gathering outside, questioning authority and looking for action rooted in love.

In August, Berkshire Theatre Group opens a revival of Godspell set in 2020, in the coronavirus pandemic — and shaped by it. Each actor has their own song. And Najah Hetsberger, who sings All Good Gifts, feels she is telling her own story. She looks across the last months, at the Black Lives Matter movement, at injustice, protest and loss, and at the same time she sees solidarity and strength.

Then thank the Lord, thank the Lord, for all his love …

Since Covid-19 closed theaters across the U.S., Godspell has become the first musical in the country to win approval from Actors Equity, and one of the first two plays. And the other is also in the Berkshires, less than a mile away, as the one-man show Harry Clarke opens at Barrington Stage Company. 

Live performances are stirring here, as the state begins to allow small gatherings with careful guidelines for safety. Outdoor concerts are taking root in gardens and downtown greens, and live shows with one or two artists are emerging.

And Hetsberger and Jordan feel the world watching.

“We’re the starting point of theater,” Hetsberger said. Accomplishing this one show will (mean) theater coming back again. We take this very seriously, because we know it is affecting theater as a whole.”

The outcome of this show can influence a revival of performance across the country, she said, and beyond.

“We’ve been talking about this,” her fellow actor Isabel Jordan agreed. “After this, theaters will feel confident approaching Actors Equity — or not. We want to do this for everyone who has had a show taken away. We have all lost this thing that we love. And thank God we’re safe here, in this house together. But so many people have lost so much.”

Parables for a pandemic

Jordan and Hetsberger, Nicholas Edwards as Jesus, and all eight actors in the cast have come to the Berkshires to live together while rehearse in masks, too far apart to touch. But they feel the theater is taking care to protect them, and they are protecting each other.

“It’s definitely a change,” Hetsberger said. “These are crazy times. Everything’s changing. … We are seeing a revolution too. It’s so crazy that this is the show that’s happening now — it relates, it’s so to the point, down to the T. It will be so moving.”

The cast are talking in rehearsal about the songs they sing and the stories they tell, and finding new perspectives.

“The parables mean so much when we represent them accurately,” Jordan said.

She sings a commitment “to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly day by day …” and she also thinks of the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We are taking this day by day,” she said. “What I’m pledging to Jesus (in the play) is what we should be pledging to each other, so we can come out the other side with a better country and a better society. I’m pledging that to the cast and to everyone around us. We have to put ourselves aside. We have to do whatever we can to help.”

Kimberly Immanuel performs Learn Your Lessons Well in Godspell with Berkshire Theatre Group. Press photo courtesy of BTG.
Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Kimberly Immanuel performs Learn Your Lessons Well in Godspell with Berkshire Theatre Group. Press photo courtesy of BTG.

“It’s all about coming together,” Hetsberger said, “and learning together, so that we (come through to an) ending point, bringing our thoughts and feelings on everything that is happening, on coronavirus, on social injustice, politics, anything you are feeling. So all we’ve been learning leads the show to a resolution and a happier ending.”

The cast are writing a new introduction and a new conclusion in their own words, she said, with permission from the writers. They have cut the Tower of Babel, the first song in the original, which touches on a range of philosophies and understandings. They will come in with their own.

“We present our hopes and thoughts and ways of being connected as human beings,” Jordan said, “because if the world could be this way, then this would be the result.”

Hetsberger thinks of We beseech thee, a song that has become powerful for her in new ways. In many performances, it becomes a glad call, she said.

“We relate it to today, and for us it is a protest. We beseech thee, hear us. Hear our problem — we are coming together to find a solution, a hope.”

“There are times when everyone singing together,” Jordan said, “and a burst of power comes from it. … I’m so profoundly thankful and looking forward to this. It feels like a dream.”

Nicholas Edwards performs as Jesus in Godspell with Berkshire Theatre Group. Press photo courtesy of BTG.
Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Nicholas Edwards performs as Jesus in Godspell with Berkshire Theatre Group. Press photo courtesy of BTG.

Live theater on a national stage

Across town, Barrington Stage is bringing theater indoors. Artistic director Julianne Boyd has created one of the first two plays in the country to win Actors Equity approval, and the first one inside a theater. BSC has extensively re-designed their main stage for physically distanced seating, but as state guidelines have evolved fluidly, responding to the pandemic, their a one-man performance of Harry Clarke will open outdoors, running August 5 to 16.

Mark H. Dold plays 19 roles in an hour and a half, a feat of strength and technique.

Boyd chose the play in March, when Covid-19 was radically reshaping summer plans across the Berkshires, and Barrington Stage postponed their 2020 season to 2021. She wanted a one-person show, she said, because she knew she would need to invest in the theater, to turn an auditorium large enough to seat 500 into a space for 160 people.

“I knew Harry Clarke,” she said. “I saw it in New York, and he’s funny, he’s sexy, he’s dangerous in the way conmen are dangerous.”

But Harry’s double life is complicated, she said. He is a shy, midwestern boy who takes on an alter-ego when he is eight years old. It gives him a kind of freedom from his brutal father. A British accent feels like a layer of protection and an escape. He develops the character of an outgoing Londoner with Cockney roots.

Years later, he is trying to make his way in New York. Adrift and short of funds, he meets a wealthy family and draws on the familiar role for strength. He can play a gregarious and charming traveler with no connection to his real past.

“He’s quiet and awkward,” Boyd said. “The alter-ego gets him friends and attention … and it takes over.”

And it will have a cost.

“He’s not the talented Mr. Ripley,” she said, “which is deadly, or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which is light and comic. He’s in between.”

Mark H. Dold performs as Harry Clarke with Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Mark H. Dold performs as Harry Clarke with Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

A series of performances follow in August, the longest an outdoor evening of music — The Hills Are Alive will run August 19 to 23.

Under a tent at the Polish Community Club, a cast of warmly acclaimed Broadway and Off Broadway actors will perform songs drawn from Rogers and Hammerstein musicals — Alan H. Green, who has performed from Radio City Music Hall to the Mount of Olives; Storm Lever, known among many roles for originating Donna Summer in Summer, a musical tribute to the Queen of Disco; Nicholas Rodriguez, awardwinning veteran of stage and film; Alexandra Silber, well-known from the West End to the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof; and Alysha Umphress, belting proudly in Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

Boyd imagines it as a celebratory evening. On opening night she is offering free tickets to health care workers, doctors and nurses and first responders.

She recognizes the challenges Covid-19 has brought to many, as she looks forward to this summer Barrington Stage has re-created.

“It’s as much work as putting on a regular season,” she said. BSC would usually have 250 people aboard on their summer crew to run the theater season. This summer they have 40, and at least half are year-round staff. And their budget is frugal. These are not performances for profit.

“It’s for the community,” she said, “because the community needs and wants it.”

And it’s for the actors.

“No one’s working,” she said. “We have to give the artists a chance to work.”

The community has responded with excitement. Barrington Stage announced the Hills Alive performance in late July, Boyd said, and almost immediately filled their first night and extended the run.

A one-woman staged reading of Eleanor, an homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, scheduled for two days in early September, is already sold out, and Boyd said she does not expect to extend this one. But around it, the main stage will host evenings of music on the Main Stage with Marilynne Maye, Ann Hampton Calloway and Leslie Kritzer.

“Art has healing powers,” she said, “and we want to start now.”

Live music reawakens independent venues

Lights gleam over the patio bar at the Foundry in West Stockbridge.

People are talking in small groups. They can hear the river running a few feet away. They bring in spring rolls and sweet and sour shrimp, Tom Chua Ngot and frozen lemon mousse as takeout from Truc, the family-owned Vietnamese restaurant across the way.

It’s quiet in a small town at dusk, in a world running on Pandemic time. But here a diverse group is sitting back together to listen to two Berkshire singer-songwriters perform original songs. Crystal Moore sang over loops of her own music, and Briana Nicola with her boyfriend, Dylan Bell, on guitar.

They are both recent graduates of Pittsfield High School. Moore performed in WAM Theatre’s youth ensemble last summer, and she planned to donate any proceeds from her performance that night to the NAACP.

Founder and artistic director Amy Brentano has re-imagined her summer season in a series of performances: an emerging artists series brings a diverse group of Berkshire voices on Thursdays. Classic movie nights on Fridays alternate comedy and horror Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Concerts and performances on Saturdays bring established artists, some nearby and some from as easy a distance as Brooklyn.

The Fremonts, a performance team and married couple who moved to the Berkshires more than a year ago from Boulder, Colorado, create a contemporary cabaret with original music.

Folk-rock musician Uncle Stash has performed regionally with the Riverside Brothers and is creating a new solo identity.

And on August 22, the Foundry will host a dance performance on the green where the farmers market meets. Fern Katz and Taylor King, two of the three co-founders of the Western Mass. collaborative dance company VEERdance, will perform a duo work, You Can’t See Me, accompanied by vocalist Sandy Baily.

“It’s an invitation to look into two varied human experiences,” Brentano said. 

It began as an exploration of relationships, she said, and in the wake of George Floyd it has shifted, as they are thinking about what the audience might see in each of them:  two dancers, one white and one black. King has studied classic ballet from the age of 2, as well as rhythm tap, jazz, capoiera and Hip-Hop.

It is a challenge to launch a performance series knowing that the Covid-19 rules can change fluidly, Brentano said. And she has already had to postpone a performance for thunderstorms.

“We are hoping to book through the end of September,” she said, “but we are easing forward, making sure the civid numbers don’t go up and people are comfortable coming and will behave (respectfully). Our artists and our staff and our audience have to be safe.”

Jazz on the lawn in an old mill town

In downtown Dalton, the Kashmir Souls are performing on the steps of a historic house in a wide lawn. Three agile women, Marisa Massery, Chantell McFarland and C Rell McFarland, are rocking covers from Aretha Franklin to Shut Up and Dance, with a warm touch of gospel in the music. 

Chantell Rodriguez on piano and vocals, Charell McKenzie on guitar and vocals, and Olivia Davis on percussion perform as a Berkshire trio at Mill + Main, a new summer music series in downtown Dalton.

“We’re selling out weekly,” said Carrie Holland, Managing Director of Mill Town Capital, which has founded the new venue. ‘We have room for 100 people, and we’re selling out.”

She reached out to Andy Wrba, founder of the Berkshire Jazz Collective and a well-known Berkshire musician on double bass, to curate the series. He is the music director of the Darrow School, and they are old friends.

“I grew up playing soccer with him,” she said.

He is bringing in Berkshire artists he admires. He performed in the opening concert with friends, and the next weekend welcomed the Misty Blues Band. 

“I posted the concert to Facebook, and it sold out in an hour,” she said. 

And it was beautiful, Gina Coleman singing songs from their new album as it moves high up the blues billboard charts, and Beatles covers and Joe Cocker.

The series has grown out of long and careful planning, Holland said 

“It began as an experiment last summer,”with live music under the big tree in the middle of the lawn.”

They bought the former Crane family estate two years ago, she said. It’s a big old house in the center of the Dalton Community Recreation Association (CRA) campus, and Mill Town means to gift it to the CRA, to keep that area connected. 

It sits downtown near the library and the town hall, and the Dalton Stationery Factory that now holds artists studios and a distillery, local businesses and the Shire Breu Haus restaurant and microbrewery. 

People are bringing picnics from them as they settle into their reserved circle of grass. Mill Town has developed strict guidance for safety, Holland said. The band performs on an accessible walkway with room to spread out, and the audience sits at least 25 feet back from them in carefully marked circles on the grass. A small group can reserve a circle, and within a circle they can take off masks; if they leave the circle, masks go back on.

People have cooperated willingly so far, she said. And the musicians have embraced it gladly.

“They are so eager to get back out and share their music again,” she said. “… Outdoor live music is so central to the Berkshire summer experience. I’ve been impressed with the Berkshire community as a whole. People came in wearing masks, took their picnics out and stayed put. Some people were dancing in their circles.”

And as they set up their picnics and dinners from local restaurants, it felt in a small, informal way like the Tanglewood lawn. “People roll up their folding chairs and put out their cheese boards and sandwiches.”

Mill + Main hosts a physically distanced live concert in downtown Dalton. Press photo courtesy of Mill Town Capital.
Mill + Main

Mill + Main hosts a physically distanced live concert in downtown Dalton. Press photo courtesy of Mill Town Capital.

Shakespeare and solidarity in the park

Community theater and community gathering places are also carefully coming together. Hubbard Hall is opening an outdoor Shakespeare performance with All’s Well that Ends Well. 

“It’s one I’ve never done,” said artistic director David Snyder. “It’s an adventure and a play people don’t know well.” 

He and his team have created a one-hour adaptation with eight actors, and he is looking at ways to work with a new sound system to reach a spread-out audience.

Hubbard Hall is a gathering point in the small town of Cambridge, N.Y., and Snider is concentrating on finding ways for people in the community to gather safely.

One ongoing event, the Hall’s Breaking Bread potlucks, have returned as picnics on the lawn, he said. People are not sharing food between groups. They are sitting on blankets, six feet away, and wearing masks. And they are talking together.

Snyder offered these gatherings as a safe place, he said, to meet a need he saw around him. He realized several years ago, as Hubbard Hall grew as a center for dance and theater and youth programs, that he saw gay and trans students trying to talk with their parents, and gay couples married for decades with long loving relationships — but the generations had no place to connect. So he began a gathering for the LGBTQ community. 

Some of the potlucks are for them, he said, and some are open to allies. A group leader coordinates then now, and they have taken on a life of their own. 

“A space dedicated to the LGBTQ community,” he said, “with cross-generation dialog, celebrating together and struggling together — we thought, what can we do to activate that support, because it’s not here? The closest Pride center is in Albany — where do youth go? Albany’s too far for a 15-year-old.” 

People have responded generously from the first, he said, and the picnics plan to return regularly in September.

This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer in August 2020. My thanks to editor Fred Daly.

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