Howard Sherman: the Berkshires – a summer retreat for artists and audiences
If I told you that the Berkshires is a region in Western Massachusetts, named for a range of low mountains that start in Connecticut as the Litchfield Hills and rise in Vermont as the Green Mountains, you might make the fair assumption that it’s an idyllic spot for hiking and communing with nature. And I suppose it is. But tell the average New York or Boston culture buff that you’re heading for the Berkshires and they’ll likely ask you: “What are you seeing?”
Dating to the era when air conditioning was scarce and city dwellers headed for the hills seeking cooler climate in the summers, the Berkshires have long been a place of escape for artists and those that follow them.
As a result, each summer this region – three hours from New York, two hours from Boston and an hour from Albany – becomes a centre for those who want quality cultural entertainment mixed with the calm of country days and cool nights.
The colonisation of the Berkshires by artists dates back almost a century. It started with the Berkshire Theatre Festival (now part of the Berkshire Theatre Group) which opened in 1928. Five years later dance centre Jacob’s Pillow arrived, followed in 1936 by the first performance of Boston Symphony Orchestra which made Tanglewood its summer home.
Newer cultural residents in the region include the Williamstown Theatre Festival, founded on the campus of Williams College in 1954; Shakespeare and Company, which began in 1978; and Barrington Stage, dating to 1995.
There are other arts endeavours as well, but there are hundreds of thousands of admissions each summer for just those named. Some of the companies have expanded operations to become more year-round, even though summer is the high season for activity and audiences. On rainy days when one can’t find a matinee, hours can be whiled away by viewing fine art on the walls of the Clark Art Institute, founded in 1950, the Norman Rockwell Museum (1969), or the cutting edge Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened three decades later.
This past weekend, I spent almost six hours driving to and from New York to see the world premiere of The Chinese Lady at Barrington Stage. I was enticed by the idea of a road trip, and the opportunity to see a new play written by a friend, Lloyd Suh, in its earliest stages. As the show was a co-production between Barrington Stage and Ma-Yi Theatre in New York, I’ll see its next iteration when it plays in New York in October, and have the opportunity to discover what Lloyd and director Ralph B Pena learned from audiences in the Berkshires.
I will be doing the same drive again this coming weekend to see another world premiere, of the musical Lempicka at Williamstown Theatre Festival – no I’m not going mad – the new work from Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould, directed by Rachel Chavkin, whose production of Hadestown will soon be seen at the National.
It’s not as if new productions are lacking in New York, and I need to travel to keep up my theatergoing habit. This week alone I’ve seen the new Broadway musical Head Over Heels, finally caught up with Soho Rep’s much discussed production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, and taken in New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand.
To be honest, there are certain, subtle bragging rights to saying you made the trek to see new work, and to be ahead of so many in the field by catching a play at its earliest stage. I still regret not seeing Hamilton in its developmental production at New York Stage and Film in Poughkeepsie, because I wonder about the scenes that didn’t make Broadway that I may have seen during their fleeting time on stage during development.
In every country, there are destination theatres and arts institutions in scenic, and sometimes unlikely, locales that draw audiences from many miles away. In Canada, there are the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. In the UK, I think of the Chichester Festival Theatre which lures patrons from London despite a not-always-convenient train schedule (as of my last visit). For the past two decades, I’ve also regularly made the pilgrimage from New York to Scarborough to see what Alan Ayckbourn has in store at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
But for trips that don’t require me to buy an airline ticket or make a multi-day commitment, I think the Berkshires may well offer the single greatest collection of arts activity in the north east of the US every summer. While it’s not as centralised as New York or Boston’s theatre district – the companies I’ve mentioned are within a 45-minute drive of one another – they collectively form an arts ecosystem that seems to prove the theory that a rising tide floats all boats. Instead of cannibalising one another, each serves to complement the others, adding appeal and variety from June to August that equals what most major cities can offer.
These companies demonstrate that not only can the arts help to revive flagging urban centres, as has been seen in so many locations, but they can be the centre unto themselves, proving that beyond their cultural value, they are powerful economic engines wherever good work is on offer, even in the country hills.
This week in US theatre
The new musical Dave, based on the 1993 film of the same name, opens tonight at Arena Stage in Washington DC. It’s an appropriate debut locale for the fantasy of an average Joe who, as a doppelganger for the US president, is put into the Oval Office when the commander-in-chief suddenly becomes ill. The book is by Nell Benjamin and Thomas Meehan, the music is by Tom Kitt, and the lyrics by Nell Benjamin; Tina Landau directs.
Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s musical version of Twelfth Night returns to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for a full run this week, opening Tuesday, having first been seen there for a handful of performances as part of the The Public’s Public Works programme. This is the same Twelfth Night that will be seen, in a separate production, at the Young Vic in October, though both are directed by Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis.