Kate Maguire of the Berkshire Theatre Festival

Dramatic Changes for Nation's Third Oldest Company

By: - Apr 11, 2009


The Berkshire Theatre Festival, the nation's third oldest professional theatre company, was founded in 1928 when the Casino, designed by Stanford White of the firm McKim, Mead and White, was moved by horse and buggy from the main drag of historic Stockbridge, Mass. to its current location and generous campus, with a big red barn, just up the street.

In these difficult financial times, however, the historic theatre company has made financial adjustments to ensure its long term survival while not compromising on superb aesthetic standards. Kate Maguire, the artistic director and CEO, met with us recently to discuss painful cuts across the board, plans going forward with half of a million dollar upgrade of the campus, and to dispel some rumors.

"What rumors?" seemed to be her feisty response. She was in a lively, upbeat mood as we engaged in a dialogue that included a capsule history of BTF, with some remarkable details, comments on her own career and artistic development, as well as, an overview of the unique artistic mandate of one of the nation's best know and respected regional theatre companies.

Last fall, as the economy started to tank, the weekly staff meetings, normally about forty five minutes, stretched to two and a half hours. "I walk straight toward a problem," Maguire said. "The issue was how to cut 20% from the annual budget while maintaining our artistic integrity and retaining our essential, year round staff of nine. Some of these individuals have been with BTF for as long as fifteen years. You can't get the work done if you don't look at the reality of the situation. If the train gets off track you can't pay attention to the work that needs to be done. I wanted to know the reality of what we faced right away."

The budget cut of 20% is remarkably consistent with changes all across the spectrum of Berkshire based arts organizations which include three other theatre companies: Barrington Stage Company, in Pittsfield, Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Rather than competition, however, this depth of theatre, in Maguire's analysis, creates an informed and eager audience. People are used to coming to theatre and it is a primary reason why summer residents and tourists visit the Berkshires.They come for theatre, as well as Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, and the programming of the museums: Mass MoCA, The Berkshire Museum, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art. With that critical mass the arts represent the engine that drives the economy of the Berkshires.

The changes that Maguire initiated last September resulted from a tsunami of bad news. With gas at $4 a gallon, a failing economy, and unseasonably cold and rainy weather, last summer was tough for arts presenters. Nobody likes to quote hard figures but cultural tourism was off peak in 2008. Then the bottom fell out of the market which is struggling to end its freefall. Nobody has a crystal ball to predict what will happen this season but, like other arts presenters, Maguire who has made tough cuts, is sanguine about a  season which will extend into December. If you offer superb programming, people will come.

Already, a couple of months in anticipation of the launch of the 2009 season,  Maguire is reading the tea leaves for encouraging signs. Advance ticket sales in March are up 10% from where they were last year. It helps to have super star, Randy Harrison, back for his fourth season; this time in Ibsen's "Ghosts" on the Main Stage. Last season Harrison was simply riveting as Lucky in a cutting edge production of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." As another indicator applications for the intern program, which costs students $3,000 to attend, have doubled this year.

Being well established  BTF has attracted an informal but consistent company. Its brightest star and top box office attraction, in recent years, has been Richard Chamberlain. But there was a glitch last summer when a planned production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" was cancelled. Problems arose when Chamberlain's intended co star, Jan Maxwell, pulled out because of an offer to appear in a Broadway play. Other actresses were suggested but ultimately Chamberlain balked. "Noel Coward in Two Keys" was substituted and drew mixed reviews. There was talk of hard feelings and that a long term association  with the popular actor was jeopardized. Maguire appeared surprised at that "rumor."

"Richard will be back" she assured us. Not this season as the now 75-year-old actor is on tour and not available. " I spoke with Martin (Rabette) last week. I had dinner with Richard and Martin a couple of months ago. We talk regularly on the phone."

In the absence of Chamberlain, BTF's top attraction, we asked Maguire "Is Randy Harrison the new Richard Chamberlain for Berkshire Theatre Festival?"

She seemed surprised but pleased at the question. "Randy would love to hear that" she said.  But the answer was clearly written all over her face as she stated "We love Randy." Maguire beamed at the mention of Harrison who she describes as a regular member of the company. She explained that taking on the tough and demanding "Godot"  would not have been possible without a company of actors and a director who are used to working with each other. It was a bold experiment that paid off even though it was essentially underbooked in the smaller Unicorn theatre rather than on the main stage.

Clearly, Maguire has enormous respect for Harrison as an artist as well for as his ability to fill seats. "I had never seen a single episode of 'Queer as Folk' (Justin Taylor in the long running, gay themed series on Showtime) when he asked to audition for  'Equus.'  I was amazed by his performance." Beyond celebrity for the television series, which earned him global fans, Harrison's first love is theatre and he is committed to taking on difficult roles. The famous "Lucky Speech" is one of the most challenging in all of contemporary theatre and his performance created a new paradigm. Harrison is emerging as one of the finest actors of his generation.

But Ibsen, I suggested, can't that be deadly? "Not really" Maguire responded "Harrison in 'Ghosts' will be sexy." To which I replied "Yes, sex, but it's about syphilis, isn't that dated?" "No" she said "It's about relationships and that's sexy." What she seemed to suggest is that 'Ghosts' will prove to be a boffo hit this summer. In these difficult times that puts a smile on her face.

Last summer she programmed Beckett and Pinter and this season we will see Ibsen. Shakespeare & Company will also present Pinter this season. Isn't that tough for summer stock? Barrington Stage Company, for example, opens with the musical "Carousel." That seems more appealing to general audiences than demanding dramas.

When Maguire arrived several years ago the audience was used to shows like "My Fair Lady." She described how she took a "...left turn in a new direction that veered off to a level of discomfort for the audience" at first with mixed results. "Half of the audience was in heaven and the other half in open rebellion. You have to be a step or two ahead of the audience. The mandate for a not for profit theatre company involves education. There is the education of students and school children, education of an audience, and training of the next generation of artists and performers." Because many who come to the Berkshires are New Yorkers, with access to Broadway and Off Broadway, she views her audience as "very sophisticated."

That core of sophisticated summer visitors changes during the ever expanding shoulder seasons when the strategy of  arts groups is to try harder developing year round audiences. One encouraging sign was the strong support for the winter production of the one woman show "Bad Dates," with rave reviews for Elizabeth Aspenlieder, at Shakespeare & Company. In the synergy of theatre companies this success helps everyone to build and expand audiences. 

The comparison to Shakespeare & Company is hardly a stretch as early on Maguire worked for and trained under its founder, Tina Packer, who she continues to view as a mentor and friend. Kate has been on stage since she was four and appeared in some of Packer's productions but early on decided to focus on management. "I started with Tina, for eight years, when she was in Boston. I trained before that at Boston College."

She was married at 21, and had twin girls at 22, followed not long after by divorce. Raising her daughters would prove too difficult as an actress. To pay the bills she took on a variety of off stage positions.  For a time she worked as an actress and did PR for Lyric Stage in Boston. Prior to moving to the Berkshires she was the managing director of Stage West in Springfield which she discussed as a less than happy memory. It was not a supportive environment in which to do ambitious theatre.

Compared to Tina Packer, Julianne Boyd, of Barrington Stage, and Nicholas Martin, of Williamstown Theatre Festival, she is the only artistic director and CEO who does not direct. As she put it "I'm not a director. I love directors. I'm married to one (Eric Hill). I love directing directors. I wanted to help build a director's theatre."

While focused on management, marketing and fund raising, it is clear that she has passion and strong ideas about what happens on stage. She emphasized the importance of training that is rooted in the Greeks and Shakespeare. "If you can perform Greek tragedy you can do anything" she said. This is a point of view that she shares with Packer and the kind of classical training that is central to Berkshire Theatre Festival. She has built a company of actors and directors who share that vision. Maguire discussed the difference between training for the stage compared to performing for the camera in television and cinema. Agreeing with her I discussed disappointment with the recent Broadway performances of "camera actors" Jane Fonda in "33 Variations" and Susan Sarandon in "Exit the King." She agreed but argued for the performance of Geoffrey Rush in "Exit the King." "He was trained in the theatre" she commented.

We wondered how she felt about sustaining the legacy of such a distinguished company particularly through these hard times. Producing a ground plan she pointed out improvements in process. Half of the $1 million for renovation has already been secured in grants from state and federal arts councils. She hopes that leveling the ground, creating new parking, and putting lights on the buildings will contribute to a better experience for visitors. She also saw through the creation of the Unicorn Theatre which is perfect for smaller, experimental productions. Presiding over a very old campus, and an annex with rehearsal spaces and lodging for summer interns, just up the street, as well as several rental properties, requires a lot of renovation and management.

There is a rag tag quality to what Maguire presides over. It all dates back to 1928 when Mabel Choate wanted to found a mission house for the Stockbridge Indians. That meant moving the "sinful" casino. "Her father was a reverend who dealt with Indians" Maguire said. "The former casino was converted at first into the Berkshire Playhouse. It was founded by Alexander Kirkland who was an actor in the Civic Repertory Company (1926-1932) of the actress Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991). My uncle, the late Frederick Giuliano, performed with her company under the WPA.  "She was here a lot" Maquire said. "The Unicorn Theatre was created in what is known as the Mellon Barn. It was named for either Andrew, or Charles, who was the founder of the New York-New Haven Railroad. There were several Yale men who started the company. At first, they slept in the pig stalls when they cleaned out the barn. That seems appropriate for those in theatre."

Looking forward to the coming season she said in a passionate outburst "I can't wait to get started." But there is that dark cloud over the economy that gives us pause. Like President Obama, she sees glimmers of hope but deep concerns particularly about contributions from patrons and friends. "These individuals have been devastated." She is less concerned about ticket sales about which "I am feeling slightly optimistic." She observed that looking at seasonal rental properties the high end is moving briskly. This is reflected in the fact that the most expensive seats are selling well. The real concern is the mid level and grass roots audiences. The general analysis is that arts groups may sell tickets as usual this season but will have a tougher time reaching endowment and debt service goals. With endowments down on average a third to a half of what they were a couple of years ago this is tough time to ask patrons to dig deeper.

She pointed to the stack of papers on her desk that included a 20 page budget. There is not one line item which has not taken a hit. In a period of recession/ depression it is very hard to argue about support for the arts. On "60 Minutes," for example, there was a devastating report on the closing of a chemotherapy treatment program for indigent patients in hard hit Las Vegas. Patients who were interviewed described it as a "death sentence." In the face of such harsh realities, at the state and federal level, the arts are the first to go.

During the debate surrounding the congressional stimulus package, museums, dance, and theatre companies were lumped with gambling casinos, aquariums, amusement parks and other entertainment facilities to be denied funding. It was only after an enormous lobbying effort that a miniscule $50 million was included to be added to the National Endowment for the Arts raising the total to some $200 million. This compared to stimulus packages for the arts in the billions in France and Germany.

Mention of this got Maguire's dander up. She noted that every time the Republicans mentioned the NEA or the arts there was a Pavlovian reference to "sex" and "contraceptives." Because the stimulus bill also included money for education, and sex education, this was a window to smear and denigrate the arts. For society in general Maguire sees this conservative "framework as horrible."

Again, returning to the classical Greeks, she pointed out that "Democracy was founded at the same time as theatre. We must have theatre as a means to show how humans speak and behave." In that sense she defines theatre as an integral expression of democracy. That having the arts is as important as funding research to cure cancer. "The founding fathers, Jefferson and Adams, spoke to the importance of the arts and their lasting significance for human development. You can't have democracy without the arts to show us how humans behave." Right on sister.