On a winter morning in Williamstown, Tara Franklin sees herself in the kitchen with her mother and husband and son, baking spritz cookies the way her mother used to, forming shapes with buttery almond-flavored dough, and wrapping them gently into care packages with homemade peanut butter cups.
Franklin is well known throughout the Berkshires and well beyond as an actor, theater artist and teacher — Berkshire audiences have known her work for years with Chester Theatre and WAM Theatre and Berkshire Theatre Group, among many more.
She and her husband, the actor and theater artist James Barry, are beginning to feel the theater world stirring out of its pandemic dormancy, she says — this fall they have just become co-artistic directors of Chester Theatre. Sitting outside Tunnel City Coffee on a quiet fall morning, she looks forward to a winter of planning for their new theater season ahead.
And as the holidays come, they will also work together in the kitchen. In the past few changeable years, Franklin has been growing another business alongside her theater work, as Sweet Sam Bakes.
She has become part of a growing tide of new bakeries in and around the Berkshires, from the Bohemian Nouveaux Bakery in North Adams and the Shire Cottage Bakery in Adams and Stacie’s Cookie World in Cheshire to the Pixie Boulangerie and the Sweetish Baker in Great Barrington. With all of its deep challenges, Franklin said, the pandemic has also offered some people opportunities.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” she said. But a hard time can lead to self-discovery, and in the face of it people can learn new ways to sustain themselves and help others.
Franklin finds homemade sweetness a powerful gift. She has always made cookies for family and friends, she said. The move toward a business began gently ten years ago. When her son was a year and a half old, in 2012, she and her husband, the actor James Barry, had given up their New York apartment while he was working out of town, and she was staying with her mother in Pittsfield for a time.
Etsy was becoming better known, she said, and that winter, in the quietest season for acting and teaching, she set up a shop online. She would bake around the fall and winter holidays. She named the fledgling business for her son, Sam, she said. As a toddler and small boy he loved to measure and stir.
“It’s meditative,” she said. “I love it.”
She will listen to music and bring in her family to help. Her son and her husband and her mother all take a hand.
“When I’m doing something at the holidays, I want to feel my family is part of it,” she said. “That feels like what holidays are for.”
She makes spritz cookies because she remembers them from her own childhood. Her mother had a traditional tin cookie press, the kind that pipes the soft dough like frosting through metal disks inset with different shapes. She began with traditional fir trees, she said, and she has now found an artisan who will make new disks by hand — pumpkins in the fall, a Pride set she made with rainbow colors.
She turned to shortbread one day when she had promised cookies to someone and found she had run out of eggs, and from then on she made it a staple. Rich, buttery, lightly sweet, it lends itself to many flavors and colors, orange and dark chocolate, coconut, macha, pumpkin spice with white chocolate and cinnamon.
In that informal way, the business kept on quietly growing, chiefly online, until the pandemic. When Covid hit, Franklin said, the theater season, year-round teaching and travel all were put on hold. She began to offer college care packages and holiday samplers and gifts for people who simply wanted to give comfort across distance.
And her baking began steadily to expand.
Franklin has grown her business locally through community. She has led her baking into efforts to support forward movement, she said — in 2020, a benefit for Black Lives Matter organizations, last spring for the Ukraine. They have spread by word of mouth, she said, among people who wanted to give.
And her gifts have opened new collaborations. Anne Kennedy at the Williams College Museum of Art invited her for the opening of their Sol LeWitt exhibit in March 2022 to make lemon shortbread decorated with his vivid geometric patterns.
Since she began her business online, and people often give her cookies as gifts, in the past she has most often interacted with her customers at a distance, putting together simple, graceful and ecologically friendly packages to send by mail.
Here in the last few years, she said, as another new outgrowth, she has increasingly talked with people in person. This year she will come to the Holiday Shindy, and she welcomes the time to meet people, as she feels they welcome the chance to give or get something real and consumable, in a time when many people feel aware of having a weight of things.
She looks back to a Covid time when she and her husband were seeing few people, even family, and live theater was almost completely on hold, or struggling to hold on with streaming video and outdoor shows. They both found ways to create and explore, she said. Barry has raised funds by recording songs by request, more than 200 of them.
She sees self reflection in this time, she said, and now that the frame is shifting again, people are beginning to emerge, saying ‘we got through, and now we’re tired.’
Locally, this is a time to build, she said. She and her husband are focusing on their new leadership at Chester Theatre, where they have performed for 20 years, as they are looking toward curating their first theater season with the leadership in their hands. Though they have performed, directed and worked with the former artistic director, and held talks with their audiences on current events and timely, new and challenging plays, she feels a new kind of potential and adventure in having the freedom to choose which plays and playwrights to support.
On a fall mild day, at an outdoor table, she looks ahead into the next year as a time to broaden outward, challenge worn ideas and open new conversations … and offer quiet comfort along the way.