Julianne Boyd of Barrington Stage Company

Celebrating Twenty Years in the Berkshires

By: - May 15, 2014

Arriving at Dottie's in Pittsfield for breakfast with Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company, several individuals notified me that she was running late. She had been up all night texting with family and friends about the birth of her fourth grandchild. Eventually she arrived both exhausted and energized to discuss the upcoming 20th season of the company.

Charles Giuliano Grandma!

Julianne Boyd There have been maybe a hundred texts since she went into labor yesterday. (After ordering she settled down starting with obligatory, excited baby talk.)

CG Since joining American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) we have attended conferences in Chicago, Indianapolis, Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and most recently the Humana Festival in Louisville. Next year ATCA will meet in New Orleans then after that Philadelphia. These intense experiences, with a number of performances over several days, have given us a greater understanding of regional theatre in America. That’s relevant to Barrington Stage and the four major theatre companies of the Berkshires with even more companies within reach in the region.

The members of ATCA vote on the annual recommendation for the Tony award for a distinguished regional theatre company. During recent meetings of the organization there has been lively debate to include New York City in the voting. That happened this year and the Tony is being awarded to NY’s Signature Theatre which many feel is richly deserved. But it raises a debate about what is meant by regional theatre and why it is important to be separated from the dominance of Broadway and Off Broadway.

We were recently on the road for a month driving some 4,000 miles. Through the malling of America there is a feeling of homogenization. There is a dominance of restaurant and hotel chains. It is more difficult to experience regional differences. That also represents a threat to distinct cultural uniqueness. There are threats to regionalism particularly when so many national theatre companies are performing the same short list of recent New York hits or touring road companies of Broadway musicals. Often the programming of local companies, in addition to remounting recent New York theatre, fill their schedules with safe and familiar chestnuts.

Driving around America other than topography and changes of climate, from a cultural and sociological point of view it all seems the same. In a sense there is consistence and standardization as you know what to expect. As an artist friend speculated eventually all the malls will connect and you can drive cross country through the parking lots.

How does that impact culture? When in Georgia or Alabama I want to taste regional cuisine. Often we find that the local, family owned restaurants have closed because they can’t compete with the chains. If we attend local theatre I want to see what that community is doing.

JB I don’t know what New York theatre is. I don’t think it’s a problem if New York realizes that there is regional theatre in New York. I think the regional theatre movement is the most exciting thing happening in America today and over the past fifty years. If regional theatre happens to be in New York? Fabulous. Somewhere else? Great.

CG How do you define regional theater?

JB It started with Nina Vance in Texas.

(Nina Eloise Whittington Vance (1914–1980) was the founder and first artistic director of the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. In the 1947, Vance and some friends decided to start a theatre group. In 1968, the Alley Theatre moved to its present home, on the corner of Texas and Smith in downtown Houston. The Alley is now one of the nation's leading regional repertory theatres and one of its oldest.)

There’s Zelda Fichandler of Arena Stage.

(Arena Stage was founded August 16, 1950 in Washington by Zelda Fichandler, Tom Fichandler and Edward Mangum It is a flagship of American theater. It was one of the first nonprofit theaters in the U.S. and a pioneer of the regional theater movement. It was the first regional theater to transfer a production to Broadway and the first to receive the Regional Theater Tony Award.)

These are intrepid, fearless theatre companies. The Guthrie certainly.

(The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is a center for theater performance, production, education, and professional training in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1959 Sir Tyrone Guthrie published a small invitation in the drama page of The New York Times soliciting communities' interest and involvement in a resident theater. Out of the seven cities that responded, the Twin Cities showed not only interest but also eagerness for the project.)

You could go back to the Old Globe in San Diego.

(The Old Globe Theatre was built in 1935, designed by Richard Requa as part of the California Pacific International Exposition. It produces about 15 plays and musicals annually in summer and winter seasons. Plays are performed in three separate theatres in the complex, which is collectively called the Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts.)

These are theatres that serve the people where they live. They put on top notch drama. I think of regional theatre as serving the people where they live. So what’s the difference if it’s Dallas or Washington or New York? Or Pittsfield!

Maybe the people in New York need to go to Signature Theatre which charges $25 a ticket. Just $25 to see an up and coming new playwright. This is very exciting. Signature is doing something that almost no other theatre in New York is doing. They have gotten major underwriting to keep the ticket prices inexpensive. They have found ways to not only commission playwrights but to give them health benefits.

These are some major things that are happening. To me I admire any theatre company anywhere in the country that can do that.

Barrington Stage considers itself as a regional theatre. Because we do the same quality of work that is done in New York and around the country. Because we are closer to New York we have a larger pool of talent because so many of our actors come from New York. We have our own set and costume shops. We build our own things and run our shows for three to four weeks. We’re active seven months a year.

I think that regional theatre needs to serve the people for more than just a few weeks. It serves the people and the people know that it’s there for them. If there is a problem in their community they have someone write a play about it. That’s great. It’s another focus. A political focus is also a value of regional theatre. It’s something that Broadway and even large Off Broadway theatres can’t do.

If you’re in Tennessee and there’s a problem a local playwright who can write about it. Because then there is a discussion. For me regional theatre is when the theatre has a dialogue with the community. That’s regional.

We start our season with a serious play. It’s not a play for tourists. This year it happens to be a serious play. (Sharr White's The Other Place starring Marg Helgenberger directed by Christopher Innvar) The season begins with something for the community and always ends in October with a play that’s good for the community but more importantly for students. We do a lot of work with schools. We do three weeks in February. I just want us to do good theatre. I want us to do great relevant theatre.

CG The first show is a community based soft launch for the season. But as we have discussed in the past the season is front loaded with what is hoped and projected to be a popular musical. This summer Kiss Me Kate and last summer On the Town which is moving to New York. Year after year there is an identifiable template in place.

JB I’m feeling really happy because we just went into rehearsal and I’m focusing on this season. As I think every theatre does we are trying to put on the best possible theatre with the best possible artists. When I started a long time ago I felt that I don’t want to do plays just to fill a slot. I want to put on a play that means something to me and that I can talk about for at least six months. That I feel can excite an audience.

CG Well Grandma. (laughing)

JB Four times over. Nana is the word I prefer.

CG This joyous news also raises the issue of legacy. The company is now twenty years old. Reflecting on that and looking back what did you do right and perhaps what might have been done differently? Running a regional theatre over 20 years would seem to be precarious. What were the obstacles that had to be overcome?

JB In 20 years, you’re not going to believe it, the greatest obstacle was not being able to find a permanent home for the first eleven years. We had a great starting place at the Thomas A. Consolati Performing Arts Center (491 Berkshire School Rd., Sheffield, MA, 01257 at Mt. Everett High School)

CG Is there still theatre there?

JB I don’t know. They have an auditorium there but I haven’t kept up with it. I think it was a great place for us to start with a 500 seat auditorium. They had two cafeterias and we made them into theatres. We started Spelling Bee in a Middle School cafeteria. (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee the Tony Award-winning musical by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn) We always did youth theatre and we took it to Broadway.

We were fearless but always evaluating the risks. We were never foolish. There is a difference between being foolish and fearless.

After our eighth year we realized we could have a season longer than the eight or nine weeks they were giving us. If the company was going to grow we needed to have more ticket income. That would only happen if we stretched our season longer. I told our board I really want to be in our own theater by our tenth year. I felt that was really important.

We missed it by a year. We were in our 11th year which is fine. It’s frustrating because we wanted to stay in South County but it wasn’t possible.

It turned into a fabulous opportunity. Things that you think are the worst turn out to be the best. Moving to Pittsfield was the best thing that ever happened to us.

CG Previously you had worked on Broadway.

JB Yes. I directed Eubie on Broadway and worked Off Broadway.

(Eubie! a revue featuring the music of Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle, Andy Razaf, Johnny Brandon, F. E. Miller, and Jim Europe. After seven previews, the Broadway production, conceived and directed by Boyd and choreographed by Billy Wilson and Henry LeTang, opened on September 20, 1978 at the Ambassador Theatre where it ran for 439 performances.)

CG Why didn’t you continue to work in New York?

JB I worked in New York but also realized that I worked around the country. I worked at Old Globe, Syracuse Stage and what I most strongly felt was that in regional theatre the theatre belonged to the community. The community felt ownership and was very proud of what that theatre was.

At Old Globe I had directed a play called Tea about Japanese war brides. I had done it at Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage Two. I never knew how the audience felt about it. There was a lot of script development and we were very busy but we didn’t speak to an audience. When I did Eubie on Broadway you don’t speak to your audiences. When I went out to Old Globe I would be standing on the back. People would say “Are you the director? I want to talk to you about the play.” They were used to talking to the creative team and the artistic director. There was a relationship with the community. I loved that because I found it hard to do theatre in a void. You need feedback. In Pittsfield we get it back in spades. It’s fabulous. People come up to us. That’s one of the reasons I give a speech in the beginning. I want to have people to know that I care about them as artistic director. I’m there at intermission and usually at the end of the show. When I was in Sheffield I was always there.

So that’s why I wanted to do theatre outside of New York. I had no desire to do theatre in New York. I never have.

CG In a sense we are seeing that process all over again in the development of WAM which has now used your stage as well as others.

(WAM (Women’s Action Movement) Theatre was co-founded in 2010 by Artistic Director  Kristen van Ginhoven and theatre professional Leigh Strimbeck. Inspired by the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, WAM Theatre is based in Berkshire County, Massachusetts and has non-profit status in Massachusetts and New York State.)

JB I love that WAM is here. We met with Berkshire Fringe last week. We asked if there is anything we can do to work together. We haven’t met yet with Shakespeare in the Park in Pittsfield. I love that theatre is alive and well in Pittsfield. When we do Stage Two, The St. Germain Theatre, people wait after and stand in the parking lot where they talk and they talk and they talk. For me that’s more exciting than doing a play in a big city.

I just hired an artistic associate Stephanie Yankwitt who will essentially be producing for Stage Two. We’re going to do more commissions and get to know more new playwrights. The direction we are going in is for more new plays and hearing more and different new voices. We already have a commission for a new musical. And I’m in the midst of commissioning a new play.

The musical is by Joel Wagner and Eric Price called Presto Changeo. It’s about three generations of musicians. We’re doing a reading at the end of July. Next year we’ll do a magic workshop probably in the city. Then a full production here next summer if it’s ready. If not we’ll wait until the next summer. It takes a long time. I don’t want to give a commission and then ignore the person. We just met with the playwright but I can’t say who as it isn’t set yet. A really, really interesting voice and different from anything we’re done.

We’ll keep doing the big musicals and wonderful dramas and so forth. We’re getting more involved in developing stuff and not just picking it off the tree. We say to that playwright come up and write for a few weeks in residence. They’re going to get to know the community. Just think if we have a bunch of playwrights working here. That’s really our dream.

CG Talk about the risk factor.

JB Big. Big. I come from a family with three older brothers, a dictatorial Italian father, and a younger sister. There was no differentiation in what was expected of us. I kind of liked that.

I was born with the passion that theatre can change people’s lives.

CG We encounter artistic directors with one eye on the stage and the other on the audience. Often one overshadows and dictates to the other. If you look too much at the audience you start responding to what they want and that influences the programming.

JB That doesn’t work.

CG It becomes predictable and less interesting. Today there are so many options that it presents audiences with making difficult decisions particularly as during high season there are numerous conflicts. Not all of your shows succeed and reviews reflect that.

JB That’s what risk is about. You have to be able to take the bad with the good.

CG What happens when a show bombs?

JB Do you mean financially or artistically?

CG You reached for something and didn’t get there.

JB I think that’s fabulous. Better to have reached for the stars then never to have done that.

CG Ad astra per aspera.

JB You have to reach. That’s our business. Theatre is a gamble. If you’re not a gambler you shouldn’t be in this business. It doesn’t make any sense. Through this business I now have a great number of advisers and associate artists. I talk with them a lot. I have a team that’s very strong.

CG Who are your go to guys?

JB I have a number of them. It depends on what it’s about. I wait until I kind of figure it out more. You don’t go to someone unless you can offer them three different solutions. I don’t freak out. I have a problem and now let me think this out. I get up in the morning and it becomes clear. I have one, two or three. Then I’ll talk to various people. If it’s in the musical theatre lab I’ll talk to Bill Finn. If it’s something about a play it will be Mark St. Germain. If it’s for a sense of something general to do and does this fit into that I’ll talk to Chris Innvar. We look at plays the same way and they affect us emotionally the same way. The other person is Pat McCorkle for casting. She knows many more actors than I do. I don’t watch television.

CG So how did Marg Halgenberger get cast?

JB Pat McCorkle suggested her.

CG You didn’t know her work.

JB I did not. I looked her up on YouTube then an agent sent a tape of her work. Then I went OMG she’s fabulous. From a five minute selection of work I could see that she is sensational. In that case Pat suggested her because Marg’s agent had gotten in touch and suggested that she was interested in doing live theatre. Chris and I talked and he did a Skype interview. He happened to be going to LA so he said “I’ll meet her.” He met her and said “Yeah, I like her a lot.” So I said “Great.” What I needed to do then was see her work on tape and I said “Fabulous.” A lot of other people knew her work and said you have to consider her seriously.

Yesterday we just had our first reading. Rarely am I speechless. Rarely am I speechless after a reading. Do you know the play? OMG. Unbelievable.

The other person I talk to of course is Tristan my managing director. I can’t do anything if we can’t afford it.

CG We seem to be past nickel and dimeing musicals with twin pianos.

JB We had to. That was 2008. We had to cut our budget by twenty something percent. We’re nothing if not fiscally conservative. We’re in the black because I have a great board, a great finance committee, and they basically say “you’ve got to make ends meet.” It’s not just about the art because theatre is a business. It’s about making sure that we can financially afford it. The other thing is that we’re not afraid of going to consultants. I know what I don’t know. We’ve been working with a group called TRG which is about how we can sell more tickets. We’re working with a digital firm to get an understanding of all of the possibilities of social media. We just met with a Canadian group which the Berkshire Visitors Bureau brought in. At the end of it the BVC said to me “You’re always learning aren’t you.” Every step of the way if I can change something. Now you can print tickets on line. We’re getting scanners to move people through the lobby quicker. We’re always solving problems and are very patron service oriented. I don’t want people waiting forever in the lobby.

Link to Part Two.