Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

Berkshires - Year 20 & Still Counting

May, 2015

Shera Cohen

In mid-May of each year, I sit at my dining room table in front of at least 12 flyers, schedules, and promotional pieces from as many performing and visual arts venues in the Berkshires. This is my layout and plan to create three summer weeks of enjoyment entrenched in everything cultural for approximately six to eight people.

I have written my annual Berkshire article in different formats, perhaps not for the readers’ sake, but selfishly to give myself some new angles. I’ve done the diary, lumping similar genres, Best Of, and even alphabetical. This article will be true to my actual planning process -- what are we going to do in the mornings? The afternoons? The evenings?

Mornings: what to do?

Tanglewood rehearsal: Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new conductor Andris Nelsons premiered his talent before his audience in the Koussevitzky Shed and on the lawn on this cool, slightly windy, yet sunny Saturday. This is not a full concert (although sometimes it is), yet a learning experience as the conductor starts a movement, then stops, then proceeds. Nelsons is effusive with arms spread wide. The musicians are dressed casually. And who is this audience? Music lovers or novices, picnickers and frisbee flyers, toddlers and seniors. I have seen spontaneous waltzes by couples in bare feet. The rehearsals offer an “anything goes” atmosphere. Perhaps equal to the joy of the music is a walk along the grounds, which include contemporary sculpture, the Visitors’ House photo exhibit, and sweet-smelling grape arbors.

Church on the Hill Craft Fair: I suggest googling for this year’s dates in July. It’s a little fair in the center of Lenox with about 50 fine artists. We never miss it.

Shop the Outlets: Actually, this is a wonderful afternoon activity as well. We went more often than was  planned. What else can you do in the morning on a rainy day?

Go Hiking: For my friends, not me. They seem to enjoy the rustic medium-size mountains and trails.

Sleep late: For me -- the large bed or pull-out sofa works best.

Afternoons: what to do?

Shakespeare & Company: I can’t think of many entertainments better than Shakespeare in the afternoon, except the spoof “The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare - abridged.” This uproarious comedy is a primer for Elizabethan theatre lovers. And, it was safe to say that all in the audience loved “Complete Works.”

When a play isn’t on stage, there is usually a talk, tour, or skits. A scholar on Julius Caesar was the guest speaker, and excellent prep for the play of the same name which immediately followed. Called the Bare Bard Series, the venue often mounts an entire play with six or so actors portraying dozens of characters, as was done here. Believe it or not, it is never confusing to the audience.

Jacob’s Pillow: The Pillow is a venue for dance lovers and dance “window shoppers” like myself. Admittedly, I know little about the genre except what I like. And, Dance Theatre of Harlem was a joy to watch. I have to say, that the audiences at the Pillow are the most enthusiastic in the entire Berkshires. My guess would be that they also boast the largest number of youth in the audience. How wonderful to see these kids so excited by seeing art.

The summer’s Barn exhibit was “Gotta’ Dance: The Art of the Dance Movie Poster,” of course, “starring” the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, along with Shirley Temple and Elvis. 

Williamstown Theatre Festival: We always purposely plan a Williamstown matinee rather than an evening performance. This offers time to stop in Pittsfield and to take in the gorgeous view from atop the mountains. Situated in the middle of Williams College’s luscious campus, there are two side-by-side theatres. At the time, we didn’t realize our coupe of seeing a play which, within months, went straight to Broadway. You’ll find that this wonderful step over the New York border happens quite often -- Berkshire theatre is THAT good. Renee Fleming’s name pulled in the full house (although the only musical notes were hummed) to this comedy. “Living on Love” was lovely fluff with many laughs.

Clark Art Institute: It’s glass and steel and big. Looking out the window to see the lily pod, there is a real Monet. One of the most beautiful art museums in the New England, and perhaps in the country, is Clark. The trip up north bears repeating annually, especially now. Last July, the museum expanded significantly, and looks like a near-remodeling of its former self. Interior and exterior designs are new, as are many exhibits. No worries, however, as Clark’s permanent collection (particularly the Impressionist) is very much there.

Berkshire Museum: On each of my Berkshire trips, I have become increasingly impressed with this museum. In fact, I was so taken aback by the 180 degree turn around from the days when I hadn’t given this venue the courtesy of making it on my “to do list,” that I wrote a separate feature article on Berkshire Museum. So, if you wish, read what I have already wrote at HERE.

Norman Rockwell Museum: It seemed that many Berkshires venues celebrated anniversaries; i.e. Rockwell’s 45th. Always worth a return trip, not only for the pleasure of appreciating and, perhaps, smiling at Rockwell’s whimsy, or pondering his Four Freedoms, but to experience touring exhibits by other artists. Illustrator Edward Hopper, was the “guest” of choice. Both artists had had the same art teacher, but interestingly and in spite of their works seeming similar (to this untrained non-artist’s eyes), they had never met or even knew of each other. Who’s Hopper, you ask. Trust me, you know his art, you’ve seen it, but probably most do not know his name.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
The Mount: I remember the years, not long ago, when this former home of author Edith Wharton was, frankly, a relatively short climb along a stone pathway cut into a small forest culminating in an outside view of a big white house. Hmm, not much. Things have changed!

The Monday Lecture Series by authors whose topics are often biographies (we listened to the story of Barbara Stanwyck) are selling out well in advance of any promotion. The Sculpture Now Exhibit covers the acres of land with huge pieces of modern art. Hear readings from the author’s novels while seated on the porch sipping wine, or listen to music every weekend at 5pm. Most important, however, are the house tours.

Last year, the venue played host to Shakespeare & Co.’s “Romeo and Juliet” on an outdoor stage. This summer’s work is “Hamlet”.

Tanglewood: This might seem odd to mention, but I devour Tanglewood’s program books, reading the composers’ bios, the venue’s history, and the donor list. I am probably among the few who read this list of names in completion. Without financial help from individuals, especially, Tanglewood could not be sustained. Certainly, that fact applies to all of the art venues. The BSO booklet makes for a nice read.

You’ll never know what you learn when reading programs; i.e. Tanglewood offers free grounds’ tours. If you’re able to traverse the luscious lawn and small hills and dales, your guide will discuss the site’s history and statistics; i.e. there are 500+ acres. FYI, I had broken my L leg and R foot the winter prior, and the walk was not a strain. While on tour, music is heard, performed by soloists and small groups constantly rehearsing in many nooks and crannies on this naturally beautiful property.

Third Thursday in Pittsfield: This is precisely what the title says, taking place on the late afternoon to early evening every third Thursday in Pittsfield, featuring music on nearly every block corner, farmers’ markets, giant sandboxes, bicycle races, shopping (stores are open late), food vendors, strolling entertainment, and families with strollers. In other words, family-friendly fun. It had rained just a bit, then the sun, and a bright bonus was a double rainbow. There seem to be a lot of rainbows in the Berkshires.

Miniature Golf: Mandatory for all who visit me is a game or two, even though we are all pretty terrible at the sport, and I am the worst.

Town Fairs: Book & Craft Fair (Stockbridge), Town Festival (Lee, early July), Greek Fest (Pittsfield), et al. Again, google for the dates. Some sort of celebration, festival, or fair occurs on every summer weekend.

Evenings: what to do?

Shakespeare & Company: We seem to take residence here that Shakes & Co.’s staff might think about charging us rent. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” starring several of the troupe’s best actors, was updated to the 1920’s New Orleans jazz club setting. Equally funny and bawdy was “A  Servant of Two Masters.” This group often literally gets down ‘n dirty with physical humor aplenty.

And there’s more. A new play, “Shakespeare’s Will,” became a tour-de-force performance by Kristin Wold in the role of the Bard’s wife. Whoever says that one-person plays are boring, not up to “regular” play status, and/or not worth buying a ticket, did not see this wonderful piece of theatre.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
Barrington Stage Company: It has been no secret that theatre ranks #1for my tastes in the arts, and also no secret that Shakespeare & Co. is my #1. However, and not that this is a contest, the talent and exceptional seasons presented by BSC have boosted my accolades to a tie for First Place.

Each year, BSC’s big musical tops the year before -- and, yes, I have said that before. I have no doubt, that I will again, anticipating “Man of La Mancha” topping “Kiss Me Kate” which topped “On the Town” (currently on Broadway) in 2013. BSC is on a role and won’t stop. Bravo.

Musicals may fill the houses, but it’s the little plays (primarily dramas) that make BSC special. Before the release of the movie hit, “The Imitation Game,” whose subject was master mathematician Alan Turing, Barrington produced “Breaking the Code.” Actor Mark H. Dold, as Turing, is becoming a regular at BSC. See him! It doesn’t matter what play he is in -- he makes it so much better.

Tanglewood: I confess that I am in awe of musical composition. How can a composer pull all of those notes together, from each of the orchestra’s sections, performing simultaneously and/or overlapping in rhythm and texture?

The highlight of one of our Berkshire weeks was the Tanglewood Gala, celebrating the professional BSO musicians, students of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, vocal soloists, opera, Rachmaninoff, Ravel’s “Bolero,” and fireworks. Thousands sat on the grass on what was a lovely cool night.

Capitol Steps: Don’t worry and don’t even try -- you won’t “get” it all -- all the satire, laughs, ribbing, lyrics, innuendoes, and/or politics in this ever-changing lightning-speed comedy show with song and dance. People ask me why I go every year. Well, doesn’t the news change yearly, let alone daily? Capitol Steps spins the news, and I’m there to watch. or

Photo by Emily Faulkner
Berkshire Theatre Group: The “group” includes theatre at Berkshire Theatre’s Mainstage and Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, and at Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. This skips the outdoor and other sites for the plays run by youth. The venues merged a few years ago, for the betterment of all concerned, including audiences.

We started the Berkshire vacation here with lots of laughs from the tried & true Charles Ludlam play, “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” If you haven’t seen “Irma” at least three times, it is always worth a fourth and fifth go-see. On the other hand, it is always worthwhile to experience something new -- perhaps a play you have never heard of; i.e. “Benefactors” with BTG’s resident director Eric Hill at the helm.

Mahaiwe Theatre: In the center of Great Barrington is an ornate theatre whose aesthetic beauty is matched by the talent and diversity of its performances. Mahaiwe is old (110 years) and young (10 years) at the same time, having been reborn by patrons who knew its value to the arts and to the community. The theatre’s smorgasbord of presentations include music (classical, folk, jazz, blues, oldies), dance, film, speakers, comedy acts, opera in HD, and some “fringy” stuff.

Highlighting our journey was dance, performed by the sometimes dramatic, oftentimes whimsical Paul Taylor Dance Company, which has been dubbed in the course of its 60 years by New York Times as, “One of the most exciting, innovative, and delightful dance  companies in the world.” They took the words right out of my mouth. The troupe returns in early-July, 2015.

Berkshire Playwrights Lab, whose home is Mahaiwe, are three theatre guys in the Berkshires who present semi-staged (no props) readings (by Equity actors) of new plays. If your idea of entertainment is seeing a play grow from its infancy before your very eyes, check out the Lab. You will find the house packed.

Little Cinema: Hmm, it’s Monday night. Nearly all performing art venues are dark. Okay, then, it’s time to go to the movies -- not just any movie, but indies, new releases, and/or documentaries all housed in Berkshire Museum.

Red Lion Inn: I honestly don’t know how anyone can visit the Berkshires without a side trip to this gorgeous, old, rustic and at the same time, elegant sight in the center of Stockbridge. Oh, but you’re not staying at the inn? Doesn’t matter. Have a drink -- hot or cold, alcohol or not -- and take a seat on the rocking chairs bedecking the large porch.

What we didn’t see... only because there wasn’t enough time, or because we did go the pervious year; i.e. MASSMoCA, Berkshire Choral Festival, Chesterwood, Ventfort Hall, Berkshire Fringe, and lots more.