Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

How I Spent My Summer Vacation in the Berkshires in 2011

Memories of last summer & preview to this summer
by Shera Cohen

No, this is not the same article that I wrote last year or the 16 years before that. And, yes, the places that I visit remain essentially the same. The reason? Why mess with perfection? Keep reading please. 

Summer months in the Berkshires are synonymous with the best in performing and visual arts in New England – perhaps in the United States. We are extremely fortunate to live close by. In my case, I live REALLY close by, spending two weeks in Stockbridge. It's a place of beauty, culture, variety, and tourists (like me).

Barrington Stage Company (BSC), Pittsfield – Ever since its move to Pittsfield, the work of BSC has gotten better and better. Undoubtedly, that will continue this summer. Along with its two venues, is a youth theatre where aspiring actors perform for children and adults. BSC is becoming “the” venue to kick-off the plays of Mark St. Germain. Never heard of him? You will! Author of “Freud’s Last Session” of BSC’s 2009 and 2010 season, he also wrote the powerful drama “The Best of Enemies.” Both plays were based on historic facts. BSC is one of the few theatres that dare to present some tough drama in the summer. Obviously, audiences accept the challenge of serious, actual events. Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” is on tap for July. I will be there.

Berkshire Fringe (BF), Great Barrington – BF bills itself as “outrageously original” and it is. Founded by three twentysomethings, last summer’s roster included 50 theatre, dance, and music events by 100 young artists, on three stages. Workshops, artist talkbacks, and freebies make for a lot of talent in one place in 18 days, with at least two performances on each date (sometimes four). “The Erotics of Doubt,” a series of theatre vignettes, was so modern that makes the word “modern” seem old, if that’s possible. With live and canned music and odd props (a toilet), BF lives up to its name – on the fringe of arts to create their own new arts. Every summer brings something new, so I can’t predict what I will see.

Berkshire Museum/Little Cinema, Pittsfield – Three summers ago, the main exhibit was frogs. Mummies took the stage two years ago. Last year it was geckos. I really can’t say that I like reptiles up close and personal, but I might have been the only one. Kids and adults loved these little slimy guys. Although, speaking of little and slimy, I must admit that a Berkshire “must” is the museum’s gorgeous aquarium. The major summer exhibits run from early June through mid-September. On the first floor is Little Cinema – each week, a different independent or foreign film is featured.

Berkshire Theatre Festival (BTF), Stockbridge – Berkshire Theatre has become several theatres in one, having coupled its Mainstage and Unicorn venues with Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. In this case, more is certainly better. BTF is called a "festival" because it is a celebration of theatre arts which includes tried & true drama and comedy and musicals, experimentation, premiers, and youth productions. “Sylvia,” A.R. Gurney’s comedy about man’s best friend was a hoot, not because dogs are necessarily humorous creatures, but because of casting a beautiful shaggy-haired actress in the role. Tennessee Williams’ “Period of Adjustment” provided a relationship piece about post-Korean War buddies. Compelling characters are synonymous with Williams, and this play was no exception. My plan this summer is to see “Edith” (First Lady Edith Wilson) and the musical “A Class Act.”

Capitol Steps (CS), Cranwell, Lenox - It’s difficult to write a new review about Capitol Steps each year. And, that’s a good thing. The revue is continuous laughter about contemporary issues. Since the news changes daily and CS scripts are constantly updated, what I saw last July will be different for audiences who attend in August – not to mention when I go again this summer. CS is a parody, oftentimes on the controversial subjects, not unlike that of Jon Stewart, primarily in song (newsy lyrics put to the beat of familiar music). Needless to say, the brunt of the humor falls on the Obamas, the Clintons, others in political offices, celebrities, and dictators. The songs are edgy, risqué, and hilarious. This, being an election year, will provide more than enough material so that no candidate will be left unscathed. I will eagerly return.

Jacob's Pillow, Becket - The setting was the Ted Shawn Theatre which, in fact, is a huge barn named after its founder. Shawn hailed from Springfield. It was a pleasure to see the U.S. debut of the Cuban contemporary dance company Danzabierta. Admittedly, although dance is not my forte, I was amazingly surprised how much I thoroughly enjoyed this modern dance troupe. Their performance was one long story with many sections with colorful backdrops, shadows, and staccato rap/rock music. Every part of each dancer’s body seemed in motion, including facial expressions. The Pillow is a lovely campus of performing arts buildings, tents, outdoor stage, art studio, and tea garden. Take it all in before the show, during intermission, or after. On my calendar to see this year are The Men Dancers and Hong Kong Ballet. 

The Mount, Lenox - Edith Wharton's home has become a place of lectures, gardens, estate tours, readings, exhibits, and theatre. Just when you thought there was nothing to do in the Berkshires on a Monday, the Mount’s barn theatre is open for its Afternoon Lecture Series. Talks by biographers are insightful and entertaining. The grandson of Oscar Hammerstein (“Sound of Music,” “Showboat”) spoke to a full house about his musical family’s highs and lows. I didn’t know that Hammerstein wrote 46 musicals and movies before getting a “hit.” For those who want to step back a century and feel a bit highbrow (minus the gloves), there’s Wharton on Wednesdays’ tea and readings on the lovely porch overlooking European-style gardens. I’m planning on attending the lecture on Hadley Richardson (Hemingway’s first wife). 

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox – Instead of writing about what I saw last summer, this would be a shorter article if I wrote about what I did not see. For readers of my summer articles, it should be no surprise that this venue is my favorite. I attended 10 plays (indoors and out), director talks, actor discussions, Q&As, and free stuff. Works of The Bard are the mainstay. Last summer’s were the witty “As You Like It” and a new take on “Romeo and Juliet.” Many plays are contemporary; i.e. “The Memory of Water” about strained sibling relationships. Then there’s a classic like the boisterous comedy “The Venetian Twins.” On any given day, an audience member has a choice of attending up to six productions, each by superbly skilled directors, and a cadre of talented actors. I am not ashamed to admit that I attended “The Hound of the Baskervilles” three times. See my website review (LINK HERE), and you’ll know why. This summer, I'll see “The Tempest,” King Lear,” “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” “Endurance,” more plays, talks, and Q&As.

Tanglewood, Lenox – The epitome of sheer excellence in the arts and nature in the Berkshires is Tanglewood. 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 performed by the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, and/or the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Highlights included Keith Lockhart conducting a tribute concert to Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin; the All-Ravel program climaxing with “Bolero”; the double bill of Haydn and Mahler; and Film Night. For the latter, John Williams stood at the maestro’s podium, then turned to see his audience of thousands, and asked one simple question, “Isn’t this a magical place?” The response? Cheers by all. Yes, Tanglewood is magical. What am I attending this year? Does it matter?

Ventfort, Lenox – Ventfort is more than someone’s old home with stained glass windows turned museum. Of course, it’s all of that plus lovely porch and gardens. It is also a small theatre for one-person plays about historic figures. “Open Marriage – Renegade Wife of the Gilden Age,” about the life of turn of the 20th century radical thinker Elsie Clews Parsons, was staged in the intimate setting of the library with cabaret seating and audience participation. The actress utilized every nook and cranny of the room to tell her story of sociological and economical mores of the times with the focus on the character’s open marriage – well before that term was ever termed. While at Ventfort, a tour of this old home is a plus. 

The Wharton Salon, The Mount, Lenox (WS) – In its third year, WS continues to mount one Edith Wharton short story each summer. Celebrating the 100-year old piece, “Autre Temps,” was staged in what was once Wharton’s stable, making this the ideal and intimate venue for the small theatre group. Some of Shakespeare & Company actors take double duty at WS. This year’s performance will be “The Inner House.” 

Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF), Williamstown – WTF’s season always includes the who’s who among playwrights and their plays. I was fortunate in seeing the psychological drama “A Doll’s House” (at Nikos Theatre) and the supreme comedy “She Stoops to Conquer” (at Mainstage). Both venues were at full audience capacity. The former was updated, and the latter was a period play which was costumed and coiffed to the hilt. WTF always brings first quality productions to the Berkshires in their repertoire of plays, creative sets, and top-caliber actors. I look forward to attending “Far from Heaven” and “The Elephant Man.”

With only two weeks of vacation, we couldn’t fit in all of the Berkshire arts. I look forward to adding the following to this summer’s calendar. For websites on each check

Aston Magna, Great Barrington - is chamber music at its best. It starts in June, so don’t miss out. 
Berkshire Choral Festival, Sheffield - Listen to the Springfield Symphony and hundreds of singers under a huge tent. I will be there on Opera Night.

Berkshire Jewish Film Festival, many locations – You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate good film. 

Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Great Barrington  – In its 5th season, Mahaiwe hosts staged readings of new plays on four dates, plus a opening gala on June 9th.  Readers include well-known actors.

Chesterwood, Stockbridge – Tour indoor and outdoor sculpture pieces – the centuries old side-by-side with contemporary work

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown – This iconic museum presents the best in world-renowned art of all ages and for all ages.

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield – This lush old theatre presents excellent performing arts experiences of several genres. I hope to see “A Chorus Line” and “Oliver.” I love musicals.

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington - The Mahaiwe is an elegant and ornate renovated theatre in the heart of town that presents theatre, music, and dance, and sometime all at once. I’ve got Paul Taylor Dance on my to-do list. 

Mass MoCA, North Adams – It’s big, contemporary, odd, colorful visual art in an old factory.
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge – If it’s Rockwell, it has to be homey American, and that’s exactly what you get at this great museum. 

Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown - Great art at a great museum on a lovely college campus at a great price – free.  

Walk the Berkshires Streets:
DowntownStreet Art, North Adams – Worth exploring is a city-wide celebration of local and unique art of all genres in 21 locations in a 12 block radius. They’ve added "Imagining North Adams" to its 2012 lineup! 

First Fridays ArtsWalk, Pittsfield – New this summer, the Upstreet Cultural District will host monthly visual arts events consisting of exhibits and programming by many well-known downtown venues. 

Third Thursdays in Pittsfield - Schedule at least one third Thursday from 5-8pm. There’s a different theme each month that includes outdoor and indoor programs of culture, sports, and the bizarre. Galleries are open and streets are closed. 

The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge - Summer in the Berkshires is never complete without a walk along Norman Rockwell’s picture perfect Main Street, then relaxing on the Red Lion’s porch rocking chairs.