Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

My Bountiful Berkshires

by Shera Cohen
June 18, 2014

I discovered nearly everything cultural about the Berkshires through the writers of Bravo Newspaper. Isn’t that exactly what a newspaper should do -- inform? Not coincidentally, Bravo was the monthly regional arts newspaper founded by Lauren Grossman and myself in 1990. For a good number of my Bravo years, I worked 70 - 80 hour weeks, took no vacations, and didn’t get out much. I would assign articles and reviews to the cadre of talented and knowledgeable writers; they were the ones “on the beat,” getting out, many to the Berkshires. Of course, I read every piece prior to its going to print. I liked what I read. Hm, maybe I should get to this place some day?

Up until 1995, the Berkshires meant two places to me: Tanglewood and Berkshire Theatre Festival (BTF). While not a frequent visitor, I had thoroughly enjoyed concerts and theatre, respectively, at each venue. Shortly after mid-decade I realized that these two sites were “musts” for, what I later determined to be, my Top 20 Go-to Places in the Berkshires.

One site led to another, becoming a chain of art experiences, each wonderful and surprising at the same time.

It worked out so well that Tanglewood, in Lenox, was geographically near theatre at Shakespeare & Company (S&Co.). S&Co., at that time, was located at Edith Wharton’s historic home/grounds, the Mount, where monthly author readings were held. Then Wharton Salon plays began there. Just up the road stood another famous mansion, Ventfort Hall with its tours, lectures, and theatre.

Berkshire Theatre in Stockbridge led me to devouring everything theatrical. In the meantime, BTF morphed into bigger and better by teaming up with the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. Three blocks up stood Berkshire Museum with its Little Cinema. Barrington Stage, a matter of a few blocks down the street, followed. Why stop now, since a drive to Williamstown Theatre Festival was up the road (not exactly, but the extraordinary scenery en route makes the trip worthwhile). What do you know (I certainly didn’t), but the Clark Museum stood around the corner. 

Berkshire Theatre also led in another direction, through the quaint town of Stockbridge, whose Main Street turned right beyond the Red Lion Inn to Berkshire Botanical Garden, Norman Rockwell Museum, and Chesterwood. And, a left at Red Lion brought us to Mahaiwe Theatre.

Jacob’s Pillow seemed to stand alone, through the fog up the mountain. There wasn’t much else in Becket. However, there was more dance. Thus, the drive back to Colonial and Mahaiwe, each the home of numerous performing art genres, including dance.

The Berkshires is an integral maze of beauty, history, culture, and all things art. And so, a much belated but sincere thank you goes to the writers of Bravo Newspaper.

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield
Launching its 20th season, BSC has lots to celebrate including its two stages, outdoor performance space, tried & true plays, world premiers, and the best musical shows in the Berkshires. This is the venue which took chances on “Spelling Bee” and “Freud’s Last Session” -- both Broadway bound. Last summer I experienced “On the Town.” I particularly use the verb “experienced” as I compare this delightfully delicious musical to the first bite of, well...anything that you  really and truly love. “Scott & Hem in the Garden of Allah,” an original work by playwright-in-residence Mark St. Germain, created a very real drama which might have taken place between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. This summer, I have tickets for “Kiss Me Kate,” “Breaking the Code,” and “The Golem of Havana”. 

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge & Pittsfield
I list two locations for BTG because the former Berkshire Theatre Festival has grown, reaching its cultural arms into Pittsfield at the exquisite 100+ year old Colonial Theatre. Like most of the theatres in this region, nearly every venue mounts productions on two stages, usually at the same time -- making the arts in the Berkshires seem like double the pleasure. As I look back on last summer’s array, BTG offered a great deal of choices starring consummate actors. Jayne Atkinson (on TV’s “24”) is becoming a regular, and I’m glad of it. She led the cast of “The Lion in Winter,” proving as the title states it to be “a comedy.” “Winter” kicked off BTG’s season on a high, and the rest of the productions continued in the same vein. I am scheduled to see “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “Benefactors.”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
Photo by Kevin Sprague
It’s not all Shakespeare and it’s not all theatre. It is each of both. That’s a good thing for many reasons. I can’t speak for the rest of the U.S.A.,  but no one does Shakespeare better in New England than S&Co. Its cadre of very hard workers each take on the task of at least three jobs, all done expertly onstage, backstage, and in administration. The actors’ names are not famous ones, and once employed it seems as if no one ever leaves. Their audiences won’t permit them to leave. About 1000 years ago, I majored in English. Shakespeare was on the menu, of course. You can’t read Shakespeare. Or, at least, you shouldn’t try. His plays are interactive, with different participation and experiences with each performance. I didn’t learn this in school. I learned at S&Co. What did I see last summer? Everything. What will I see this summer? Everything.  

The Wharton Salon, Lenox
The newest of the professional theatre companies in the Berkshires is located in one of the oldest venues -- the former home of author Edith Wharton. Two one-act plays based on Wharton’s short stories, each starring small ensemble casts, are performed in the barn/stage on afternoons. The Salon offers a delightful and somewhat sophisticated experience of theatre. Check the website for this season’s plays which will take place in September.

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown 
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
The drive to Williamstown from...well, from anywhere, is a beauty to behold, no matter what the season. Once arriving on the Williams College campus, there is even more beauty to see. WTF (that’s Williamstown...) approaches its 60th anniversary, having given its thousands of audiences so much to choose; i.e. famous actors, novices, old chestnuts, premiers, straight plays, musicals. Yet, the common denominator is talent on both sides of the curtain. Each year, veteran and superior actress Kate Burton (you’ve seen her on every “Law & Order” and “Scandal”) stars in at least one play. In addition, last summer’s “Monkey Business” (aka Marx Bros.) was a hoot. “Pygmalion” was everything one would expect, except for the ending. Did Shaw write another version? I’m planning to see “Living for Love.” 

Tanglewood, Lenox
Renee Fleming, BSO
I would need space for another thousand words to speak of the glory that is Tanglewood. Let’s hone it down to five concert formats which I was thrilled to attend. 1) Rehearsals take place each Saturday morning. Not only are these programs in depth learning experiences, but the best advertising to attend full concerts. 2) Regular concerts, meaning Beethoven, Dvorak (I had never hear “New World Symphony” in entirety before), Prokofief, et al. However, nothing is “regular” by the Boston Symphony at  Tanglewood. 3) Chamber concerts including Copland’s “greatest hits”. 4) Boston Pops celebration of movie music. 5) Boston Symphony meets “West Side Story” in a technical feat of ingenuity as the orchestra performed all of Bernstein’s music in synch to a note and the audience watch the film. I realize now that I took no notes (unusual for me) for my review of this concert, as I was captivated from the first finger snaps by the Jets. I had seen “West Side Story” several times. However, BSO + WSS was an unforgettable experience of sheer joy. This summer, BSO’s new Music Director Andris Nelsons take on “The Wizard of Oz”. 

What I wasn’t able to hear
Don’t get me’s not like there isn’t enough music at Tanglewood. Yet, there is more. Time didn’t permit me to take in Aston Magna concerts, Berkshire Choral Festival, Sevenars, and any free outdoor concerts in every Berkshire town. 

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket
The Pillow is an educational and performance art entity situated on a lovely campus. Two formal indoor stages are neighbored by a huge barn used for art exhibits and lectures, outdoor dance areas, and gardens. It is particularly convenient, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when performances take place simultaneously at either end of the property. For those who attend in small groups, it’s easy to make a choice. Brian Brooks Moving Company created continuous odd shapes on the floor as the dancers oftentimes walked on each other or seemingly molded the others’ bodies. While dance is not my area of expertise, I believe that everyone interested and/or learned in one art form should explore others. This summer, I will explore the talents of Dance Theatre of Harlem.  

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield
I can’t say enough about this great museum that. Not so long ago there was nothing much to look at, yet today the museum is on my annual destination point list. Every summer a new huge exhibit starts -- this season it’s butterflies.

Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown
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. In addition to the ongoing exhibits, the two featured were Winslow Homer and George Inness. Homer’s works went far beyond the iconic forces of nature on the ocean. I saw sketches from his early career, magazine drawings, and numerous small pieces drawn or painted during Homer’s developing years. Inness, who I was unfamiliar with, was know primarily for pastoral settings. While there, we saw lots of scaffolding and heard endless hammering which prevented us from eating our picnic lunch on the benches. The end product of the labor is the newest addition to the Clark campus which is the new home for its permanent collection. Clark is open year round.

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge
All four walls of an entire large room are lined with framed paintings of every Saturday Evening Post cover that Norman Rockwell ever drew. One can’t help but point at so many and say, “I remember that one” or “I’ve seen that,” etc. Yes, we have seen most of them. But, like any excellent work of art, you can never see it too often. This is why I return year after year. Last summer’s touring exhibit was Disney Studio’s “Snow White,” the first animated full length movie and the first time the hundreds of sketches and drawings had ever been on loan. Learning the details of the animation process was fascinating. Rockwell’s oldest son, also an artist, created a companion exhibit of action figure toys standing on a pyramid -- strange and fun at the same time. This summer, I will view the work of Edward Hopper, and yes, more Rockwell.

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington
While the folk at Mahaiwe applaud themselves on a decade as a non-profit performing arts center, they have far more to be proud of, having renovated this elegant structure to its look in the heyday. The venue operates year round and is especially busy in the summer with a diversity of art genres; i.e. music, dance, theatre, film, lectures, comedy, and opera. It is the home of: Berkshire International Film Festival, Aston MagnaFestival, Berkshire Bach Society, London’s National Theatre in HD, and Berkshire Playwrights Lab. Last summer I enjoyed the bluesy four-part harmony of Manhattan Transfer. This year’s plan is  see the Paul Taylor Dancers and to finally (I haven’t been able to get there) attend the Playwrights Lab.

The Mount, Lenox
The Mount, Photo by David Dashiell
When Shakespeare & Company left the Mount some years ago, I predicted a short-lived and unproductive future for this venue. So much for my soothsaying, as I was wrong. Tours make me feel as if I am invited guest at Edith Wharton home and gardens. Sculpture Now, located throughout the grassy and woodsy grounds, features the work of 24 professional artists. Many pieces are designed from thousands of pieces, weigh thousands or pounds, and sell for thousands of dollars. The Mount also offers one of my favorite Berkshire treats -- its Authors’ Monday Afternoon Lectures taking place in Edith’s Barn, always followed by iced tea and scones. This summer’s selected talk is on Barbara Stanwick. Wharton on Wednesday invite listeners to readings of short stories by local actors. Numerous special programs, talks, and walks fill the calendar.

Ventfort Hall, Lenox 
Ventford Hall
I discovered Ventfort located up a dirt road on a side street in Lenox. This former mansion -- built in 1893 for a member of the JP Morgan family -- was a sight for sore eyes. For some reason, I felt compelled to return each summer to see the slow but ongoing progress of renovating the exterior and interior. As the house moves closer to its glory, it has become the home of many cultural activities; i.e. rotating exhibits, concerts, lectures, Victorian teas, and plays. Each theatre piece is a one-woman one-act story. Last summer, “Morgan O-Yuki: the Geisha of the Gilded Age” was mounted.

Berkshire Botanical Garden, Stockbridge
Not being a nature girl, although certainly one who appreciates beauty in all forms, BBG is a venue that I venture to if I have the time. In hindsight, I am always thrilled to have squeezed in BBG. The experience is that of journeying into a Monet painting. Not only does the site offer some of beautiful landscaping, an amazing green house opened for the first time in 20 years, herb gardens with wooden signs to tell novices like me what I am seeing, but it also includes exhibits. Rare Earth depicted giant (up to 6’ high) garden pots as sculpture. Down to Earth showed off architects’ creative and whimsical designs of equally large potting sheds.

Capitol Steps, Lenox
Poking lots of fun at DC. You’ve seen it. Or you’ve heard of it. Or you’ve read my numerous reviews from past years. Anyway, the quartet plus pianist keep returning to Cranwell Resort with new shows -- scripts changing weekly just as the news changes. You don’t have to be up on current events, but it adds to the enjoyment. or 

Jewish Film Festival, Lenox
Some interesting dramas, comedies, and especially documentaries. By the crowds seen at the main stage venue in Lenox, the subject matter is universal. 

Lee Outlets, Lee
A girl (I use the term loosely) just has to go shopping, doesn’t she? Some stores are gone, some are new, some change location. What can you buy? Shoes. High end women’s wear. Shoes. Underwear. Shoes. Kiddie clothes. And sneakers.

Little Cinema, Pittsfield
Located at the downstairs floor of Berkshire Museum, in comfortable seats and AC, are foreign films (primarily, and all with subtitles) and indies. Each film runs for one week only. 

St. Francis Gallery, South Lee
A sculpture of Jack Benny on the lawn indicates that St. Francis Church probably doesn’t have any parishioners. However, it does have lots of art, antiques, and stuff that one might call art. Rather messy, there is actually some rhyme and reason as to the placement of most of the displays. Intermixed is a “real” art exhibit by talented local artists.

Starving Artist Studio & Good Purpose Gallery, Lee
Well, not so much “starving,” the large space opened last year to give the opportunity to young local artists, of whom many are youngsters and some with special needs, to showcase and sell their works. The studio has a small restaurant section, making its title “starving artist” befitting. 

Third Thursdays, Pittsfield
For those who don’t mind close mingling with strangers in extremely safe environs (it’s a nice bunch of family-ish people), on crowded sidewalks, hearing loud music of all genres on every third street corner, antique autos, farmers markets, flea markets, gigantic sandboxes, and sales, then mark Pittsfield’s 3rd Thursdays as the place to be.

Main Street, Downtown Stockbridge
Nearly everyone has seen Norman Rockwell’s painting of downtown Stockbridge at Christmas time. Even though these months are warmer, I encourage a walk down this very same street. The highlight, of course, is the Red Lion Inn complete with four dining rooms, nightly music, an expansive porch with ancient rocking chairs, the best little gift shop in the Berkshires. Shopping ranges from elegant contemporary Chihuly glass at Schantz Galleries to the delightful Williams & Sons Country Store where you can shop for gifts for yourself, a really cool ice cream shop (sorry, don’t remember the name), and Country Curtains. I can’t imagine all those years when I had never heard of CC. It has become my favorite store. And I have yet to purchase curtains.

Note #1. Most performing arts offer frequent talk-backs, museums give docent tours.
Note #2. Nearly all venues receive funds from grants from the MA Cultural Council.