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


Arts & Culture August 2020


Performing artists begin to step out

Theater, music shows resume with caution, and nearly all outdoors



Cast members rehearse under an outdoor tent in July for Berkshire Th.eatre Group’s upcoming production of “Godspell.” The show runs Aug. 6-Sept. 4 in the tent outside the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. Courtesy photo


Contributing writer


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.

This month, Berkshire Theatre Group will set “Godspell” in 2020, in the coronavirus pandemic. 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 United States, the local production of “Godspell,” which runs from Aug. 6 through Sept. 4, has become the first musical in the nation to win approval from Actors Equity, and one of the first two plays. The other is also in the Berkshires: The one-man show “Harry Clarke” opens Aug. 5 at Barrington Stage Company.

Other performing arts groups have begun to stir around the region as well, as states begin to allow small gatherings with careful guidelines for safety. Outdoor concerts are taking root in gardens and downtown greens in the Berkshires, and live shows with one or two artists are emerging. Across the state line in Cambridge, N.Y., Hubbard Hall will perform Shakespeare outdoors.

Hetsberger and her fellow actor Isabel 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 production of “Godspell,” she and Jordan said, can influence a revival of performing arts across the country, and beyond.

“We’ve been talking about this,” Jordan said. “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.”
So many people, she added, have lost so much.


Singing, seeing more clearly
Berkshire Theatre Group will present “Godspell” under a tent in the parking lot of the Colonial Theatre.

Jordan and Hetsberger and all eight actors in the cast, including Nicholas Edwards as Jesus, have come to the Berkshires to live together while rehearsing 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.”

Cast members 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 thinks of the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests.
“We are taking this day by day,” Jordan said.

“What I’m pledging to Jesus” in the play, she added, “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.”

Jordan and Hetsberger said cast members are writing a new introduction and a new conclusion in their own words, with permission from the writers. They have cut “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 said the song “We Beseech Thee” has become powerful for her in new ways.
“We relate it to today, and for us it is a protest,” she said. “We beseech thee, hear us, hear our problem -- we are coming together to find a solution, a hope.”

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


A one-man show
Across town, Barrington Stage is bringing theater indoors. Artistic director Julianne Boyd has created the a play that joins “Godspell” in being the first two to win Actors Equity approval since the pandemic struck. And this one is the first to be performed inside a theater.

Barrington Stage has redesigned its main venue for physically distanced seating for its one-man performance of “Harry Clarke,” which runs Aug. 5-16. Mark H. Dold plays 19 roles in the 90-minute show in a feat of strength and technique.

Boyd chose the play in March, when Covid-19 was radically reshaping summer plans across the Berkshires. Barrington Stage postponed what had been its planned 2020 season to 2021.
As she worked to develop an alternative plan for this summer, she said she wanted a one-person show, 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 8. 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,’ which is deadly,” she said, “or ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,’ which is light and comic. He’s in between.”

After “Harry Clarke,” Barrington Stage plans a series of performances in August, the longest -- an outdoor evening of music, “The Hills Are Alive” -- running Aug. 19-23. The show, to be performed under a tent at the Polish Community Club in downtown Pittsfield, offers a cast of warmly acclaimed Broadway and off-Broadway actors performing songs drawn from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

Boyd imagines it as a celebratory evening and is offering free tickets on opening night to health care workers and first responders. She said she recognizes the challenges Covid-19 has brought to many, as she looks forward to Barrington Stage’s revamped, shortened season.
“It’s as much work as putting on a regular season,” she said.

In a typical summer, Barrington Stage would have had 250 people in its summer crew. This summer it has 40, at least half of whom are year-round staff. And budget is frugal; these performances are not for profit.

“It’s for the community, because the community needs and wants it,” Boyd said.
It’s also 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. A one-woman staged reading of “Eleanor,” which honors Eleanor Roosevelt, has already sold out its two dates in early September.


Music and film outdoors
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 as they dine on spring rolls, sweet-and-sour shrimp and frozen lemon mousse -- takeout from Truc, the family owned Vietnamese restaurant across the way.

It’s quiet in a small town at dusk, especially 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 sings over loops of her own music, and Briana Nicola is accompanied by 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 Foundry performance to the NAACP.

Amy Brentano, the venue’s founder and artistic director, 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. Concerts and performances on Saturdays bring established artists from the region or from New York City.

The Fremonts, a performance team and married couple who moved to the Berkshires more than a year ago from Boulder, Colo., 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 Aug. 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 Massachusetts 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 the performers think 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 Covid-19 rules can change rapidly, Brentano said. And with all shows outdoors, she has already had to postpone one performance because of thunderstorms.

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


Soul, jazz and a picnic
In downtown Dalton, the Kashmir Souls are performing on the steps of a historic house with a wide lawn. Three agile women, Chantell Rodriguez, Charell McKenzie and Olivia Davis, are rocking covers from Aretha Franklin to “Shut Up and Dance.”

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

Holland reached out to Andy Wrba, founder of the Berkshire Jazz Collective and a well-known bassist, to curate the series. He is the music director at the Darrow School, and they are old friends.

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

“I posted the concert to Facebook, and it sold out in an hour,” Holland said.
Mill Town Capital created Mill + Main at the former Crane family estate it bought two years ago. It’s a big old house in the center of the Dalton Community Recreation Association campus, and Mill Town intends to donate it to the association, Holland said.

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

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.

People are bringing picnic meals with them. 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. Visitors 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,” Holland 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 feels in a small, informal way like the Tanglewood lawn.

“People roll up their folding chairs and put out their cheese boards and sandwiches,” Holland said.


Shakespeare on the lawn
In Cambridge, N.Y., Hubbard Hall is planning an outdoor Shakespeare performance Aug. 4-8 with “All’s Well that Ends Well.”

“It’s one I’ve never done,” said David Snider, the hall’s artistic director. “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. Performances will be outdoors, under a big tent, on the Great Lawn behind the hall.

Snider said Hubbard Hall has been working to find ways for people in the local community to gather safely. It is resuming its Breaking Bread events, which originally were organized as potluck dinners but now are being reborn as picnics on the lawn. Participants will no longer share food but may sit on blankets, six feet apart, wearing masks.

Snider said he began organizing the potlucks several years ago as Hubbard Hall was growing its dance and theater and youth programs. 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 them now, and they have taken on a life of their own.