hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture April 2018


Out of the tent, into the theater

New building lets PS21 expand season, host larger audiences


PS1 new theater buidingThe new theater building at PS21 will allow the performing arts venue, which previously hosted summer performances in a tent, to offer programming year-round. Courtesy photo


Contributing writer


After holding its events in a tent for 12 years, PS21 is about to undergo a major expansion with the official opening on April 14 of an innovative new theater building.

Until now, the nonprofit arts organization – the acronym stands for Performance Spaces for the 21st Century -- has presented performances only in the summer months under a saddle span concert tent on its 100-acre property on Route 66, just outside the village of Chatham.

The new theater will increase PS21’s outdoor seating capacity from 150 to 300. It also includes an enclosed “black box” theater that enables it to operate throughout the year and offer more diverse programming.

“Our mission is the same as it’s always been, but it will be easier to operate and allow us to do more,” said Judy Grunberg, PS21’s founder and board president. “This will allow us to seat larger audiences in the summer and give us the flexibility to hold more intimate events, such as readings, in the winter.”

PS21 offers live theater, dance and concerts from a range of cultural traditions. It also provides residencies by professional artists and ensembles, and it sponsors youth and children’s programming as well as workshops and other cultural education opportunities for all ages.

“One of the benefits of the new theater is it will enable us to increase our workshops in the winter and enable us to expand our work with schools,” Grunberg said.

The New Lebanon-based architect Evan Stoller designed the new theater, which is situated on the upper portion of a hill on the property. It is built primarily of wood, concrete and steel.
A centerpiece of the structure is the enclosed theater, a flexible 40-foot-by-60-foot empty performance space that can be adapted to diverse configurations of staging and seating. It is capable of seating up to 99 people, and in the winter this space is enclosed.

In the warmer seasons, the theater’s eastern wall will be slid open, with the space converted into an outdoor stage for a 14,000-square-foot, 300-seat open-air pavilion theater. The building includes platforms that can be extended outward with seating for the summer season.

“The completed building is a metamorphosis rather than a singular development, and the result is a design that is grounded,” Stoller explained. “The theater is planted into the hill, rather than sitting on the hillside, and it plays off the design of ancient Greek theaters. The audience feels the hill rising up and surrounding them.”

The building also includes a green room, dressing rooms, a small kitchen, a gift shop and a ticket office, as well as staff offices and an elevator.

Grunberg said the theater cost less than $9 million, although the exact figures are still being tabulated. Financed through donations and a capital campaign, it has been under construction for two years.


Upgrades for audiences, performers
Grunberg founded PS21 in 1999, and the venue hosted its first performances in 2006. She said the organization opted to hold its initial activities in a tent with the idea of creating a permanent structure eventually. When PS21 had to replace its tent several years ago, its leaders decided to focus more seriously on planning and raising funds for an alternative.

“We first thought of a pavilion that would be outside but still protected,” Grunberg said. “Then we decided, ‘Why go through all of that for something seasonal, when we could make something we could also use in winter?’ That led to this design.”

In addition to better serving its audiences, the new theater also is likely to be appreciated by the visiting artists who perform in it, Grunberg said.

“The companies who come here are excited,” she said. “They loved performing in the tent, but there have been challenges, such as the uneven flooring that served as our stages. The accommodations for them were also less than perfect. Now we have beautiful dressing rooms and showers in the new theater.”

Although the building is fully functional now, Grunberg said it is still a work in progress.
“It was important that this be financially sustainable,” she said. “To make it affordable, we focused on the basics, so it’s still a bare-bones structure. This is like a blank slate, and it has the flexibility to make it into what we want as we go along and resources become available.”

Among the features they hope to add are a cafe and additional furnishings and amenities in the dressing rooms.


From the ground up
Grunberg is a native of New York City who moved to Chatham with her late husband, Paul Grunberg, in 1965. He had been an architect in New York.

“He wanted to move out of the city and become a landowner,” Grunberg said. “We looked at various places before we found a property in Chatham. It was affordable for a young family to buy a large property back then.”

Paul pursued various business interests and also became a painter. Judy owns the Blue Plate restaurant in the village center.

In the mid-1990s, Paul proposed an idea.
“He said Chatham could use a theater, a performing arts space,” Grunberg recalled. “I liked the idea, but we got sidetracked by other things. However, after his death in 1997, I decided to take his idea and move it forward.”

She initially bought a 60-acre commercial apple farm in 1999. Later, an adjoining 40-acre farm that included a house and barn came onto the market. Grunberg bought that property too, and its buildings later were converted to housing and rehearsal space for visiting artists.

She assembled a board of directors, and PS21 held its first summer performances of classical music and modern dance in 2006.

The venue is funded by ticket sales, donations and grants. It also operates ReWraps, a used-clothing store in downtown Chatham.

Grunberg said PS21 draws its audience primarily from Chatham and Columbia County, and slso from the Albany area and the Berkshires.


An evolving vision
PS21 produces its own programming. Grunberg said it does not have a specific focus but has grown organically.

“With an organization like this, we had to start by booking what we wanted to see and hoped would attract an audience, and we learned by experience as we went along,” she said.
One of its original mainstays was the annual Paul Grunberg Memorial Bach Concert, which she started to honor her husband’s love of chamber music.

Grunberg noted that a primary goal is to offer alternatives to other venues in the region.
“Berkshire County is so culturally rich, and we can’t compete with that,” she said. “For example, with Tanglewood and other organizations, there is a lot of classical music available. While our annual Bach Concert is an important part of our season, we generally steer away from classical music otherwise.”

In its scheduling, PS21 also tries to balance diversity with audience appeal.
“We generally try to offer artists and genres that don’t get huge exposure elsewhere,” Grunberg said. “As a result, we feature some things that could be described as edgy.”

The new theater will be inaugurated in two phases. The indoor space will be christened with a ribbon-cutting and gala on April 14 and a dance performance by Caleb Teicher and Nic Gareiss, followed by a spring season that will include three live theater productions: a staged reading of Erma Bombeck’s “At Wit’s End,” and two plays presented by The Actors’ Ensemble, “The Gun Show” and “The Chairs.” The spring season also features dance performances by Jamal Jackson Dance Company and by Larry Keigwin and Nicole Wolcott.

On June 30, the full outdoor theater will make its debut with a gala and show to launch the summer season.

Grunberg sees the opening of the new theater as a milestone and a time for reflection.
“We’ve gone from operating in a tent to a facility with things like elevators,” she said. “That’s a big leap. Looking back, I sometimes think, ‘How did this all happen?’”

More information about PS21 and its programming is available at ps21chatham.org or by calling 518-392-6121.