Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

How I Spent My Summer Vacation in 2010...

yes, last year…and it's getting to be a really good habit!
by Shera Cohen

Several towns and a couple of cities are The Berkshires. It's a space of beauty, culture, diversity, and tourist (like me). National Geographic Society has ranked The Berkshires as a top ten worldwide destination. Additionally important is that The Berkshires are nearby. Permit me to reminisce on last summer's adventure into the hub of the arts in Massachusetts.

Note that the "also" sections do not indicate "also rans," but venues that we couldn't fit into the vacation. Gladly, there are just too many arts to participate in in the Berkshires.

Jacob's Pillow - The setting was the Ted Shawn Theatre which, in fact, is a huge barn. The Barak Marshall Dance Troupe from Israel premiered its full length contemporary piece titled "Monger." The ten young dancers took the stage creating joyous and dramatic themes, alternating to background music by Yiddish radio to Bollywood to Big Band. This was an amazingly unique and expressive group that, surprisingly, did some of their best choreography while seated in chairs. Other indoor and outdoor stages, one called Inside/Out, host numerous performances over the course of three months. While there, I take advantage of the freebies, especially the art and photo exhibits. I encourage a walk on the grounds. The Pillow is, literally, the highest point in my travels. It's a lofty, hazy, and lovely spot. On my Pillow agenda this summer is DanzAbierta of Cuba.

Great Barrington
Dr. John at Mahaiwe
Mahaiwe - The Mahaiwe is an elegant and ornate renovated theatre in the heart of town that mounts many genres of performing arts. I had the thrill of seeing (hearing) legend Patti Lupone. Seated in the opera box section (another treat), I overlooked the full house. This lady has deservedly earned her reputation as one of our country's strongest and talented Broadway singers. She alternated speaking about vignettes from her life with singing. This was a "big" show with only one woman and pianist onstage - that's all you need. The second visit here nearly topped the first with the premier of the play "Lombardi" (the football great), which has made its way to Broadway with several Tony Award nominations. I hate football, but "Lombardi" scored a touchdown.

Also: While en route, there are dozens of antique and boutique stores to stop by. Of particular interest is Evergreen. I don't recall the name of the chocolate store, but that, too, is a must.

BTW: I promise that I will get to Berkshire Fringe. Last summer's scheduling didn't match my vacation dates. Aston Magna at Simon's Rock is chamber music at its best. Berkshire Choral Festival (in Sheffield) is just a skip away. Give a listen to the Springfield Symphony and hundreds of singers.

Shakespeare & Company - For readers of my summer articles, it should be no surprise that this venue is my favorite. I attended 11 times to see as many plays, talks, and outdoor performances. I am an admitted S&Co. junkie. Of course, the works of The Bard are their mainstay, yet many plays are contemporary or premiers. On any given day, an audience member has a choice of attending up to six productions, indoors and out, each by superbly skilled directors, and a cadre of talented actors. Last summer's plays included Shakespeare's riotous "Comedy of Errors," the riveting "Richard III," and the tragic-comedy "Winter's Tale"; Moliere's very funny "The Amorous Quarrel"; the poignant Gardner McKay play "Sea Marks"; and a reprise of Theresa Rebeck's lovely "Bad Dates." We also heard director talks, actor discussions, and skits. This summer I'll see "As You Like It," "Romeo and Juliet," and "The Hound of the Baskervilles," (again, you can never see it enough).

The Mount - The Mount is an old venue with new and exciting activities. Edith Wharton's home has become a place of lectures, gardens, writing, estate tours, readings, exhibits, and theatre. You thought there was nothing to do in the Berkshires on a Monday. Wrong. The Mount presents afternoon talks by authors (usually biographers). The lectures are insightful and entertaining. I was particularly fascinated learning about Madame Clicquot, the first woman in the champagne industry. Last summer was the Mount's first Berkshire WordFest which hosted 30 famous authors over the course of two days in individual sessions and panel discussions with the book-loving public and novice writers. The Wharton Salon performs each August in Wharton's old horse stable - The Stable Auditorium. Notable area actors take the stage in plays written by or in the era of Wharton.

Cranwell Resort - Cranwell may be synonymous with golf, fancy lodging, and spas, but for me the #1 activity is seeing the annual production of Capitol Steps - a parody on the news of today for the sheer purpose of laughs. Why attend each year? Because the script and songs change constantly, perhaps even monthly depending on the news of the day. The sextet of five comedians/singers and one musician take on world events with a spin for the purpose of laughs. These energetic and far-from-subtle zanies reenact headlines makers to familiar songs with clever (sometimes edgy and risqué) lyrics. You can count on the President being lambasted, remarks about Hillary and Bill, Lady Gaga, and cheesy costumes. Few celebrities are left unscathed. I will eagerly return.

Photo Credit: Stu Rosner
Tanglewood - No one who would refute the fact that Tanglewood is the hub of the Berkshires. What can I say about Tanglewood's music, conductors, orchestra, soloists, concert halls, and landscape, that many others have not already written? All of the accolades and superlatives are accurate. On any given week, you can attend as many as a half-dozen concerts and public rehearsals. And on any given week the performers are the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, and/or the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. If I write this statement every year, it's true every year - last summer's programs were the best. Highlights were 10 weeks of Saturday morning rehearsals, Gershwin's "An American in Paris," an evening of Strauss (Richard and Johann), John Williams' Film Night with a huge tribute to Steven Spielberg, and participating in the exhilaration of a music experience along with thousands of others who were equally joyous. What am I attending this year? Does it matter? I will go to anything and be very happy.

Ventfort - Like the Mount, Ventfort's programming has increased and broadened each year. And, like the Mount, this is an exquisite old home turned museum. Offering tours, exhibits, lectures, picnics, and children's events, it is the theatre performances that draw me in. One-woman productions about real heroines have been mounted over the past five years in the intimate entry room setting of the estate. Last summer's "Revels and Revelations" starred young actress Andi Bohs depicting Belle Greene. Few have heard of Greene, yet she was a prominent woman whose boss was JP Morgan, and friends were the rich and famous of the early 20th century. At the time, this was unusual because Greene was African-American. I am eager to see this summer's production of "Open Marriage."

Also: A little rustic house called the Barn Gallery at Stonover Farm, directly across the street from Tanglewood, is a nice drop-by. The Berkshire Jewish Film takes place from mid-July to mid-August. And, we never fail to shop at the annual Church on the Hill Craft Show in July.

North Adams
DowntownStreet Art - Pittsfield has become an excellent model for other Berkshire towns, not to mention cities throughout the country. In many ways, its focus on the arts has turned around Pittsfield's economy 180 degrees. With North Adams' artistic hub being Mass MoCA, this town, there is a strong effort to replicate the success of their neighboring Pittsfield. DownStreet Art is a city-wide celebration of local and unique art of all genres in 21 locations in a 12 block radius. It's definitely worth exploring. The Kolok Gallery was especially fun.

Also: We do Mass MoCA every other year, so we missed MM. You, however, might not wish to miss it.

Barrington Stage Company (BSC) - The move of BSC to Pittsfield a couple of years ago has made the theatre (well, really two theatres/stages) one of the linchpins that has helped Pittsfield's economy and culture. Three comedies were on last summer's schedule - each much different from the others. "Art," a Tony Award winning play explored the friendship and trust of three male friends. This was a humorous play underlining drama, leaving its audience with a lot to think about. The world premier of the musical "Pool Boy" offered a brainless and cliché-filled romp. Under the helm of "Spelling Bee's" William Finn, there is potential for a fun play. The topics of Alan Ayckbourn's "Absurd Person Singular" border on the absurd with equally absurd characters. BSC always plans a diverse summer schedule - with something for each of us. There's do doubt that this season's including "Guys & Dolls" and "The Best of Enemies" will bring me to BSC.

Berkshire Museum/Little Cinema - This gem of a newly renovated venue is absolutely worth a visit. Last summer, I saw a mummy from the inside and out, and photographic exhibit of Egypt. It's amazing how they know the age, occupation, and cause of death of the body. I am in awe. The prior year, featured frogs - millions of them (no joke). Berkshire Museum seems to come up with unique exhibits annually. On the first floor is Little Cinema, which is actually a large auditorium. Each week, a different independent or foreign film is featured.

Third Thursdays in Pittsfield -- Whatever your plans, schedule at least one of the summer's third Thursdays from 5pm-8pm in Pittsfield. Each month has a different theme, with all including outdoor and indoor programming of culture (music, dance, magic, paintings), sports (bike races, sandbox romping), and the bizarre (shouting contest). There's tons of food from stuff with sugar to fresh produce. Galleries remain open and the streets are closed for the thousands of visitors. Don't go home when the sidewalk rolls up at 8pm, since there's a play at Barrington Stage, film at Berkshire Museum's Little Cinema, and dance at Jae's Spice. Public art is all over the place. And the "Stop Light Ahead" types of signs are a hoot. Instead of "Caution," take caution that you don't laugh too loud.
Also: Colonial Theatre has partnered with Berkshire Theatre Festival in creating to excellent performing arts experiences in two Berkshire towns.

Berkshire Theatre Festival (BTF) - Last year I was able to pick from several theatre themes, eras, and styles at BTF, since they have so much to offer on their larger Mainstage and the smaller Unicorn Theatre. BT is called a "festival" because it is, indeed, a celebration of theatre arts which includes tried and true drama and comedy and musicals, experimentation, premiers, and youth productions. "The Guardsman" sparred man against wife in a sophisticated comedy, old chestnut "Babes in Arms" danced and dazzled with new life, Sick" gave its audience a strange mix of comedy and novelty, and "How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them" offered a glimpse of a play in its infancy in a play reading. My plan this summer is to see "Period of Adjustment" and "Sylvia" (the latter is the comedy about a dog.

Norman Rockwell Museum - I never heard of William Steig. But, I have heard of and seen Shrek. Cartoonist Steig penned the green guy as well as lots of other wonderfully funny characters. Last summer, Steig's work occupied exhibit space in the museum alongside that of the Norman Rockwell. I had heard of him! This prolific artist's story drawings are so familiar that perhaps his audiences and critics took his incredible talent for granted. But it wasn't too late for me to see this man's art at the museum dedicated to his treasures. On the lower level are covers of every Post Magazine drawn by Rockwell. I've seen it before, but it's always worth a return visit.

Also: See Berkshire Botanical Garden's bucolic wonder and nearby Chesterwood's internationally famous sculpture side-by-side with contemporary work.

Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF)
WTF always brings first quality productions to the Berkshires. I saw the well-known play turned movie "Six Degrees of Separation." The subject was race and politics depicted in an upscale urban setting. WTF oftentimes hires movie and TV stars; in this case it cast Tim Daly. Sometimes actors on screen are not skilled for stage work, and the reverse. Daly is just fine in both arenas. While some might think of the Nikos Stage as second cousin to the Main Stage, with plays that are less important or skillfully produced, this is not true. In fact, this summer's schedule includes (in my opinion) the plays that I will choose - "A Doll's House" and "Streetcar Named Desire."

Also: Williams College Museum of Art and Clark Art Institute are just a few blocks from WTF. We hated to skip these fabulous museums, but alas, there are only 24-hours in a day.