Julianne Boyd on 20 Years of Barrington Stage
A Commitment to Serious Theatre in the Berkshires
By: Charles Giuliano - May 17, 2014
Charles Giuliano Following Barrington Stage over a number of seasons you seem to have a variety of genres and styles. Of course there is always an elaborately staged revival of a musical. This season that will be a production of Kiss Me Kate. In the past few seasons there have been productions with Jewish themes- Asher Lev, The Chosen, Fiddler on the Roof.
Julianne Boyd That’s because they’ve been the most soulful writers in the last 50 years. I’m not defensive. I’m agreeing. Yeah.
CG There is a slot for new theatre and political orientation. Last year’s Southern Comfort combined music and political edge. There are new musicals from Bill Finn. Last summer for the first time you explored Shakespeare with a successful production of Much Ado About Nothing. There seem to be several streams that feed into forming seasons. With this mix of genres, keeping a number of balls in the air at the same time, as a colleague commented “She’s very careful about what she directs.”
JB What I personally direct? Well, if someone brings me something. This year, Dancing Lessons (Mark St. Germain) which deals with autism (aspberger’s syndrome) is a hot social issue and another show deals with poisoned water (Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) which couldn’t be more political. Mark’s Best of Enemies was one of our most political shows.
A lot of our work has to do with social issues. It can be poisoned water, the digital age like Muckrakers, it can be autism and it can be about Alan Turning in Breaking the Code. All of them are social issues. Some of them are more political than others.
But I also love to have a good time. I like to laugh.
CG If there are these different themes and streams how do they conflate to become the program for a season? We’re talking about a theatrical salad bar. How do you combine the ingredients?
JB As you know I start with a musical. I have to know how many people it entails and how expensive it is. How big is the band? I start with a musical and then I talk with my associate artists. Many of them come to me at the end of the summer. Mark Dold came to me and said “Here are some plays I would love to do.” I looked at them and said “Ok. I’ll get back to you.” We had done Breaking the Code when I was here with Berkshire Theatre Festival. I said let me read it and then I said that’s the play for Mark. Other than Freud’s Last Session Mark has not had a leading role here. So his time is now to have a leading role and that’s a perfect play for him.
I’m interested in the development of the artists. I’m basically a teacher at heart. Whether it’s Chris Innvar directing (The Other Place) because that’s something he wants to do. Or Mark Dold doing this play. Of the four Main Stage plays Kiss Me Kate, Breaking the Code, Dancing Lessons, Enemy of the People, three of them have social and political themes.
CG When has Kiss Me Kate been done?
JB Not in the Berkshires. In 1999 on Broadway.
CG How did it do?
JB Fabulous. They redid the book. It’s a great revision. We’re using that.
CG Last summer you had problems making changes to the now dated aspects of On the Town.
JB That was different. This is published. The 1999 version of Kiss Me Kate is published so there is no problem getting it. Let’s go back to the question about risk. What some people view as risk I see as common sense. Why wouldn’t you expand your season if people continue to want to see your plays when they are selling out? You can either not grow or you can take that next step. I have been so fortunate to have a board president, Mary Ann Quinson, behind me for twenty years who would say yes. Or why not? The word no is not in my vocabulary and it’s not in her vocabulary. She moved up to chair so we have a new board president. She encouraged us to move to Pittsfield. When I started the playwright mentoring project and we had no money she encouraged us. She said you’ll always find the money. If you believe in it do it.
I spend a lot of time explaining to the board what we are trying to do at Barrington. The board has to know and understand what you’re trying to do. If you try to do something and it’s not successful they know you’ve given it your all and thought it out. If it does work they’re cheering you on.
CG During the conferences of ATCA (American Theatre Critics Association) there is an ongoing dialogue about the role of criticism. For the first time in Louisville the keynote address was given by a playwright, Lauren Gunderson, (who won this year’s ATCA Steinberg Award link to text of her keynote address) rather than a critic. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, for example, was the keynote speaker in Chicago. It was very refreshing to hear her views from the other side so to speak. She discussed the impact of criticism and the difference between put downs and negative reviews compared to ones that offer constructive insights. With the decline of print journalism and expansion of on line reviews there are dialogues about standards for criticism. There is a lot of cheer leading and plot exposition by bloggers who have little depth in the field. She touched on the difficulty of communication in theatre between the artists and those who write about them. It makes one wonder about relationships. Like our communication for example. Should the lion lie down with the lamb?
JB (laughing) Oh I’m a lamb. How nice. Or are you the lamb and I’m the lion? Which one’s the lamb and which one’s the lion? I haven’t figured that one out yet.
You know. You’re not going to believe this. I don’t think that much about critics.
CG I hear that all the time.
JB It’s the age old problem. Every critic brings it up to me. The critics bring it up more than I think about it. It’s not that I don’t respect critics. It’s not that I don’t want great reviews of course. It helps us tremendously when we get great reviews.
CG What do you call a great review?
JB When they love the production and the actors. A great review is when they understand what the director and theatre is trying to do. They admire it. They love it. The same was that you can’t pander to an audience you can’t pander to the critics. You can’t pander to anyone. You have to think about what it is that you want to do. If you believe in it and your board understands it and you staff understands it. If the director and actors do then it’s exciting.
You’re going to know if you’re successful three ways. One is critical success. One is box office success. The third thing is what does it do for your theatre in the long run? If someone sees that play and says I’m going to give them money because they took a chance. Or, I’m going to submit my play because I love that they took that risk. So there are ancillary things that you don’t know at the time.
CG Let’s reverse the conversation for a moment and look at this from my point of view. I’m sitting in an audience surrounded by people who are laughing and cheering for a play that just doesn’t move me. Or I can be experiencing a play that I feel and the audience just doesn’t get. This winter I had the unfortunate experience of sitting next to a guy who loudly laughed and cheered for every line. He was obnoxiously interfering with my experience. At the end he was yelling in my ear and then charged the stage to congratulate his actor friend. There are times during opening nights when it seems that the audience is stocked with staff and interns who act as a cheering section. Then every performance gets the obligatory standing ovation. I feel that should happen rarely and must be earned. The audience seems to be applauding itself. We don’t see that in London but it’s all too common on Broadway.
JB There are claques on opening night and I always try not to have one. One time we had a group from youth theatre and they were applauding. Someone accused us of having a claque. No, we had a group from youth theatre. We didn’t say anything to them, Sometimes you have a group that you can’t control their enthusiastic reactions.
I agree. It sometimes ruins it for me if I hear someone guffawing. Usually they’re in the back. They’re laughing their heads off. They’re sitting next to a critic. I say, no, they’re interfering with the experience. Every now and then you get that outrageous laughter and you think OMG do the critics think I brought that person in here? Usually a friend of a friend.
CG Earlier I was talking about the dumbing down and homogenization of American culture.
JB I don’t agree that it’s homogenized. There could be a dumbing down on Broadway because audiences seem a lot different than they used to. They seem less sophisticated and on business accounts. I can’t figure out what the New York Broadway audience is about. I’m a Tony voter so I go to all the Broadway shows.
For Barrington Stage it’s the opposite of dumbing down. Moving to Pittsfield we asked what kind of plays are going to appeal? It crossed my mind even though I’m not playing to a certain audience. I wondered what it is and then I didn’t do too much. The first thing we did was The Library. Then Burnt Part Boys and A Picasso which are serious musicals.
(“ “The Burnt Part Boys” is the first public performance of a show developed by Barrington Stage Company’s newly launched Musical Theatre Lab, mentored by William Finn. It is a work in progress, which, if like its older sibling The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee it has a life beyond the Berkshires, will go through several more iterations. While Burnt Part Boys doesn’t have the obvious commercial appeal of ...Spelling Bee it has a lot going for it, notably an intriguing score by Chris Miller and, in this incarnation, really creative staging by director Joe Calarco on an inventive set by Brian Prather…” Gail Burns, June 2006.)
It then moved to Playwright’s Horizon (2010) and was very successful. Our audience loved it. A Picasso (“The Jeffrey Hatcher play will officially open May 20 and will play a limited engagement through June 3. Directed by Tyler Marchant, A Picasso will co-star Emmy Award winner Thom Christopher as Picasso with Gretchen Egolf…” Playbill, 2007) may have been the first show and Burnt Part Boys was the second one.
I was delighted that Pittsfield was a place for serious theatre. We wanted to have some comedy and so forth but serious theatre was kind of wonderful. A few years later we did Whipping Man (with Christopher Innvar directing his first full length play).
CG That was tough.
JB We could have run it weeks and weeks and weeks more. It sold out its run.
CG We saw a production of Whipping Man at Indiana Repertory Theatre.
JB I read that. Then Freud’s Last Session was going to run two weeks. It ran eight weeks that summer. Then two weeks the following summer getting it ready to open in New York. I thought, come on, a conversation between Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis! Who knew? So what I realized is that our audience loves serious theatre.
Our ticket sales are growing and growing. Our subscription sales are growing beyond belief.
CG The audience trusts you.
JB I want people to say I’m going to Barrington Stage. I may not know that play but I know that it will be a great experience. If they believe in the quality of our work and the kinds of shows that we do. What I’ve learned is that there is a place for serious theatre. If carefully done we can find ways to buck national trends.
We spend a lot of time on this. I have a meeting this afternoon with our department heads. We talk about issues and trends in the country. In addition to Main Stage subscriptions we sell Stage Two subscriptions. We put them together with combo packages.
CG A lot of theatre companies repackage Broadway.
JB We don’t do that.
CG But you have a policy of giving second productions to plays that have been underexposed. Like taking a play from California and bringing it to New England.
JB Like The North Pool by Rajiv Joseph (2012).
CG Barrington is not unique in that there is a lot of original theatre being done all over the country. In addition to restaging Broadway. Many companies are striving to have a mix of established and new plays.
JB I’m not interested in reworking Broadway. First we’re not so far from New York and secondly someone in the area will do it.
CG But that would be easy.
JB I’m not interested in easy. I’ll do it another way by offering something original. If they come to Barrington Stage they won’t have seen it last year or the year before. A couple of times that we did this people said to us why are you doing this? We love that you do original programming.
I almost didn’t do The Other Place because it was done two years ago in New York. But I realized that not that many people saw it. Sharr White is such an interesting playwright that my desire to introduce his work to our audiences was really strong. The fact that an associate artist (Christopher Innvar) wanted to direct it was also strong. When you see it you’re going to say I don’t get her. I don’t get her at all. You’ll see.
CG Every artistic director I talk with is in denial that they are developing work for New York or Broadway. But it seems so important to the visibility of the company and giving sustained life to the artists and productions. Established actors think twice about coming to the Berkshires during the summer and putting so much effort into a production. Three weeks of intensive rehearsal and then just a three week run. It makes such a difference when Mark’s shows like Freud and Dr. Ruth travel or On the Town makes it to Broadway.
JB When it happens it’s wonderful but I never do it to do it. You would be having a terrible time if that was all you thought of. You have to do it for your audience.
CG But when it works.
JB Like On the Town. It’s euphoric. It opens October 16 in New York at the Lyric Theatre. There’s some of the original cast directed by John Rando who did it here.
CG What changes when it’s scaled up from here to Broadway?
JB We’re not involved. Somebody else is producing it. We have a producer. We could never do that and a season as well.
CG Is it your show or not?
JB The concept is the same and the three sailors are the same. We’ll get credit on the cover page.
What was different about our production is that often there were three actors and then three dancers. Because of the necessity of financing we couldn’t do it with six guys. We were literally in auditions and John (Rando) said, “Wait, there are just these three guys?” And I said, “You got it.”
When a show moves on that’s another confirmation that other people like your work. Your work holds up with other people wanting to do it and appreciating it. It feels good. But it’s not a necessity.
CG Through knowing Mark St. Germain I have come to realize what it takes to develop a play. At Humana Lauren Gunderson described how her award winning play I and You initially opened to negative reviews. That might have been the end of it but prior to opening it was already scheduled to move on to another company. She had the opportunity between productions to fix the play which of course became a success. Too often, however, for new plays and lesser known playwrights, it’s one and done if it isn’t an immediate success. It’s an intensive process, sometimes taking years of development, that makes no sense.
JB They’re committed which is why I love them. I want to work with a group of artists who can’t do anything else but what they do. I want to work with a playwright who has to write plays. An actor who has to act. If we’re totally committed to what we do in life that’s a room of people I want to be in with.
CG Address the issue of the frustration of a one off production for a playwright.
JB Charles think of all the playwrights who never get their shows up ever. They are often good plays. I read a lot of plays as a lot get submitted. We also do the 10 x 10 plays which is OMG. I read thirty to forty and other people read the rest, sixty or seventy something like that. My assistant reads a lot of them and Stephanie and Meghan. There are a lot of not good plays then a few good plays which I can’t do for one reason or another. The cast is too big. It doesn’t fit into the season. If it’s a musical we already have a musical.
CG Are most of these 90 minute one act plays?
JB Today that’s the attention span of audiences. It’s like the ten minute plays that’s the concentration span. They want to be out in 90 minutes. Playwrights are writing plays that can be produced. Last week I saw Sharr White’s Annapurna which is being done here at Chester Theatre. It’s a mountain range in the Himalayas. I loved it and Chester Theatre is doing it. How fabulous. It’s a wonderful play. Very different.
CG Are you working three years out or year to year?
JB One year out.
CG You’re talking about developing a new musical over several seasons.
JB I would like to plan further out than I do. Opera companies plan years in advance. I sort of can’t do that. We tend to go year by year. We analyze every year. What worked? What didn’t work? What did we like? What didn’t we like. And we meet new artists. Last year how fortunate we met John Cariani in Much Ado. When he auditioned I thought Dancing Lessons. So each year we wait for the artists we meet. The writers we work with. And the relationships we build so I can’t plan too much. I’m already thinking of the musical, the big musical. Because I have to have that set by August or September.
CG Legacy. I’m feeling my mortality. The aches and pains and I’m sure you must too. What happens to Barrington when you step down? Will Barrington be here for future generations?
JB How do I know?
CG How do you want to set it up? What’s the planning?
JB The board and I are talking about that. I don’t believe in just letting things happen. I think it’s very imprudent not to think about legacy. What I’m hoping is to have enough in place to leave a new artistic director a really good organization. To me it was very important that we got the Main Stage paid off. Down the line all the renovations that we’re doing are paid off as well. Not only have we paid for the buildings but we also create an artistic endowment as well as a more general endowment for any problems that come up.
Now that we’re twenty years old people are saying “You’re going to be around.” It’s no longer like you’re going to close your doors tomorrow. It’s the twenty year mark. People are more willing to invest in your future. I want the staff and basis to be strong enough that I can pass that on to someone. It would be imprudent not to. That’s not any time soon. I still have more energy than anyone on the staff.
I work 16 hour days. I had no sleep last night because we were texting about the baby. This morning I got up and said, ok, I’m just going to do my thing. It’s a great life and I love the artists I work with. I talk to my associates every day and we see theatre the same way. You can’t do it alone.
Have you thought about your legacy Charles?
Link to Part One.
February 1995 -- Julianne Boyd and Susan Sperber announce the formation of Barrington Stage, a new theater company based at the 500-seat Consolati Performing Arts Center at Mount Everett High School in Sheffield.
June 1995 -- "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" opens at the Macano Inn in Housatonic, selling out, causing BSC to reprise it in the fall. BSC reprises the show twice more over the next few years. 1995 -- "The Diary of Anne Frank" opens at the Consolati PAC, moves to the Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough, wins two Elliot Norton Awards.
1997 -- BSC revives "Cabaret," which moves to the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge where it wins several Elliot Norton Awards.
1999 -- "Mack and Mabel" is the season-opener, with book rewritten and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman attending final rehearsals and openin
2000 -- BSC produces "subUrbia" in the winter, the first time working with disenfranchised youth, leading to the Playwright Mentoring Project created by Artistic Director Julianne Boyd.
2002 -- BSC produces William Finn's "Falsettos," the start of an enduring artistic relationship with the playwright.
2003 -- BSC produces first of many world premieres by Mark St. Germain, "Ears on a Beatle," which moves to off-Broadway.
2004 -- William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" becomes a hit, beginning as a February workshop and then a summer production at Mount Everett High. Production moves on to off-Broadway and then Broadway, where it runs for 1,136 performances(May 2, 2005-Jan. 20, 2008) and wins two Tony Awards (best book of a musical; best actor in a featured role -- musical).
2005 -- Following the opening of the well-received, sold out "Follies," BSC purchases the Berkshire Music Hall and Octagon House in Pittsfield for $785,000.
January 2006 -- Renovation of Main Stage at 30 Union Street begins. August 2006 -- After performances at various sites caused by construction delays at the Mainstage, the new venue opens with "Ring ‘Round the Moon," with only the orchestra section of the building open.
April 2007 -- The Playwright Mentoring Project receives the national "Coming Up Taller Award," given by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
June 2007 -- Main Stage mezzanine completed; "West Side Story" opens in the completely renovated theater.
2008 -- BSC begins five-year lease at the former Pittsfield VFW as Stage 2.
2009 -- Mark St. Germain's "Freud's Last Session" opens on Stage 2 for prolonged run.
2010 -- BSC reprises "Freud's Last Session" prior to its move to off-Broadway for a two-year run.
2011 -- BSC productions of "Guys and Dolls" and "Best of Enemies" set box-office records.
2012 -- BSC wins four Boston Broadway World Awards for "All My Sons" and three for "Fiddler on the Roof." Purchases the VFW building for Stage 2, where St. Germain's "Dr. Ruth, All the Way" opens.
2013 -- BSC's "On the Town" revival, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Josh Bergasse, sells out, with a Broadway opening planned for October 2014. The retitled "Becoming Dr. Ruth" opens off-Broadway.
June 2014 -- Company opens 20th anniversary season on Mainstage with "Kiss Me, Kate" revival.