Community theaters are alive and well in the Berkshires
Monica Bliss has been acting in the Berkshires on and off for 21 years, and she can’t see herself doing anything else.
“I have like this passion and absolute desire to be onstage and performing,” she says. “And if not, my soul is dead.”
Bliss isn’t a member of any theater festival that arrives in the county each summer, nor is she in any of the year-round companies. She gets her acting fix as president of the Town Players of Pittsfield, a community-theater company that has been entertaining the city for almost a century.
Community theaters have been part of the Berkshire cultural milieu for longer than some of its most prestigious cultural institutions. In fact, the Town Players believe they are one of the oldest continually running community theaters in the country. “It was founded in 1921, and what makes it unique is that we have been continually active,” says vice president Laura Gardner. The Town Players’s roots actually date back to 1840—fans can view the group’s production history on its website. The 95-year-old company will be presenting its annual holiday variety show this December.
Several other Berkshire communities have followed Pittsfield’s theatrical lead. Mill City Productions of North Adams celebrated its decade anniversary in 2014. The company was formed by a group of theater-loving friends looking to bring more accessible, quality entertainment to their community. “We saw that disconnect between a lot of artistic opportunities that locals sometimes felt weren’t available to them—whether that was because of economics or just kind of a feeling of not fitting in—and we really wanted to do something that was a little bit more homegrown and at a lower price point so that people would feel that it was more accessible,” says Marissa Carlson, a founding member of Mill City and director of this month’s production of Clue: The Musical.
In south county, a group calling themselves the Sandisfield Players came together to produce a theatrical pageant for the town’s 250th-anniversary celebration in 2012 at the Sandisfield Arts Center. There was no plan to continue producing theater after that show, says director Benjamin Luxon, but following a successful run, many of the players were eager to get back on the stage.
“It’s basically a lot of fun for this group of people, and it’s a real community,” Luxon adds. The Sandisfield Players will be presenting Hansel & Gretel in December.
For those looking for a less traditional theater experience, Rogue Angel Theatre, founded and directed by Pooja Ru Prema, focuses on ritual theater, a tradition Prema brought from her home in south India. Her works are site-specific, often outdoors, and can range from one- to over 60-person casts of professional, amateur, and first-time actors. The company’s most recent production, The Lift, took place inside an elevator in an abandoned industrial building in Pittsfield.
“You’re in an experience that is multi-sensory and more interactive,” Prema explains of the company’s shows. “There is a level of intimacy that happens with ritual theater that’s very different. The goal of that shared experience is to transform.”
In general, these community companies will produce two to four large shows a year, ranging from drama and comedy to musicals and cabarets, often with smaller productions, such as staged readings, poetry nights, and opera dinners, in between. The goal is to make the shows accessible and affordable to the public—most shows fall under the $15 mark, with some asking only for a suggested donation. Even with the low cost, audiences can expect a high-quality theater experience, complete with beautifully designed sets, costumes, and live musicians—all in an intimate setting.
Despite a range of material and cast sizes, these companies are never short of people to fill diverse roles. “It’s nice to see people onstage and performing that you didn’t know that they had that,” says Prema. “All different ages, all different walks of life, as opposed to just only the professionals.”
Mill City’s performers encompass all experience levels, from seasoned actors to those who haven’t been on a stage since grade school. At a recent audition, Amy Van Dusen-Shapiro tried to remember all of her roles over the past six years as she filled out a form. Sitting next to her, Morgan Middlebrook of Adams, had come out for her first audition, hoping to get more onstage experience while she studies opera.
In Pittsfield, Gardner, a retired speech and language pathologist, has been involved with the Town Players for ten years and can’t imagine filling her time any other way. “I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to do an audition anywhere else if it weren’t for the encouragement and the support of a community theater like this,” she says.
And Luxon, who has plentiful stage experience as a retired baritone, truly enjoys seeing his players improve over time. “It’s a pleasure to watch people become more confident,” he says, “and watch them walk out on the stage as if they belong there. I think that’s one of the satisfying things.”
Community theater is plentiful in the Berkshires, with productions year round.
Building 4 North, Western Gateway Heritage State Park, North Adams
Town Players of Pittsfield
Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
Sandisfield Arts Center, 5 Hammertown Rd., Sandisfield
Rogue Angel Theatre
National Theater of Opera Nouveau
Homespun Theatre Company