Berkshire Theatre Group Celebrates its 85th Summer Season this Year
Berkshire Theatre Group will celebrate its 85th Summer Theatre Season this year, making it the third oldest regional theatre in the country.Berkshire Theatre Group was created in 2010 by the merger of two of Berkshire County's oldest cultural organizations, Berkshire Theatre Festival founded in 1928 in Stockbridge and The Colonial Theatre build in 1903 in Pittsfield. In 1928 the Berkshire Playhouse was founded when Mabel Choate sold the Stockbridge Casino to financier Walter Clark. Clark immediately contacted three friends-Daniel Chester French, Dr. Austen Riggs and the New York Tribune'stheater critic Walter PRichard Eaton. With their help the Three Arts Society was formed, and a check written for the $20,000 needed to dismantle the casino and haul it in pieces by horse drawn wagon to the far eastern end of Main Street where it was repositioned at the bottom of Yale Hill. The Three Arts Society remodeled the casino's interior by adding a stage and seating for 450 people, and christened the new theatre the Berkshire Playhouse. With the talented young actor Alexander Kirkland as its Executive Producer and F. Cowles Strickland as its Director, The Playhouse opened on June 4, 1928 with The Cradle Song, starring Eva LeGallienne. Years later her words of inspiration still provide guidance: "the theatre is a great force capable of spreading beauty and understanding." In 1929, during its second season, the Berkshire Playhouse launched a theatrical school, welcoming Jane Wyatt as one of their first students. Katharine Hepburn had small roles in two plays and James Cagney was in Oh, Boy! by P.G. Wodehouse. This theatrical school operates to this day, welcoming 25 acting apprentices each summer to train, learn and perform.
In 1934 the Berkshire Playhouse began its search for a new director. Walter Clark called his four most loyal board members-Mabel Choate, Daniel Chester French, Austen Riggs and Walter PRichard Eaton-to determine The Playhouse's future. Together, they decided to continue operations under the direction of 23-year-old Billy Miles, a bit actor during The Playhouse's first season who later worked as a gofer for Strickland. The icing on the cake of that 1934 season was Zoe Akins's Declasseewith Ethel Barrymore. Though she was 55 years old, 15 years older than she'd been when she'd played the glamorous role on Broadway in 1919, The Playhouse's audiences were thrilled with Barrymore's performance. In the years to come, Miles continued to pursue female stars. It was, as Brook Atkinson called it, "the Era of the Matriarch," and featured the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Ruth Gordon, Lillian Gish, Eve Le Gallienne, Peggy Wood, Ruth Chatterton, Shirley Booth, Kay Francis, Sylvia Sydney and Gloria Swanson. Billy Miles remained the Berkshire Playhouse's director for 18 years.
In 1939, Thornton Wilder appeared as The Stage Manager in his play Our Town, after he originated the role on Broadway. By the end of 1949, which featured a Berkshire Playhouse season that included Eva Le Gallienne, Kay Francis and Buster Keaton, Miles came to a remarkable conclusion, "Last season with more stars available than ever, regardless of acting ability, audiences began to discriminate. They recognized the fact that a Hollywood name in large type on a poster was no guarantee of a good performance. The Playhouse had a very good regular stock company that came back year after year. Some of these actors were so well-liked that if we couldn't get a first class star, we would feature one of them and nobody felt the difference."
In 1964, the Berkshire Playhouse was reorganized as a non-profit organization and renamed the Berkshire Theatre Festival. The board hired a new president, Stockbridge resident and playwright William Gibson, who had two Broadway hits to his credit: Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker. Both had been directed by another Berkshire resident, Arthur Penn, and had starred one of the country's most outstanding actresses Anne Bancroft. The Berkshire Playhouse was about to become a theatrical force amongst regional theatre across America. Not only did it have a new name, a new way of doing business, and a new president but, with William Gibson, and his new artistic director George Tabori guiding it, the theatre had a new direction, a revitalized sense of creative vision and a bold excitement. Gibson had opened the door to theatrical experimentation, and BTF gallantly soared ahead, embracing what was to become the most fertile and dynamic period it had ever known.
The 1966 season opened with Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by Arthur Penn, and featuring Anne Bancroft, Alvin Epstein, Estellle Parsons, and the youngest and least well known member of the company, Frank Langella. Also that season: The Merchant of Venice, bravely updated and set in a German prison camp;The Cretan Woman, a Greek tragedy with Tabori's wife, the actress Vivica Lindfors; two new one-act comedies by a new, young American playwright Terrence McNally, and Samuel Beckett's existential comedy Waiting For Godot with Lou Gossett; The only new play of the 1966 season was Murray Schisgal's Fragments, with two old friends and former roommates who had both just completed making films that were to change their lives: Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. A year later Dustin would receive an Oscar nomination for The Graduate and Gene would receive one forBonnie and Clyde.
The following year, 1967, Producer Peter Cookson joined Berkshire Theatre Festival, and the season was chosen by him, Arthur Penn and Gibson. Beatrice Straight appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire; Al Pacino played a juvenile delinquent and drug addict in Does A Tiger Wear a Necktie, a new play by Berkshire playwright Don Peterson which went on to Broadway where the young, virtually unknown Pacino won a Tony for his performance. Frank Langella appeared inDracula; Anne Jackson starred in John Lewis Carlino's The Exercise, which went on to Broadway.
The Berkshire Theatre Festival's playhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and in 1979, The Berkshire Theatre Festival Board launched a nationwide search for a new artistic director, finally settling on a 29-year-old college drama teacher from Vermont. Josephine Abady remained at Berkshire Theatre Festival for nine years, and during that time produced only American plays, many of them revivals, written prior to World War II, particularly the '20s and '30s, including:The Butter and Egg Man, The Petrified Forest and The Little Foxes. She also produced works by Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Christopher Durang, Edward Albee and Robert Anderson. Under Josephine, Beatrice Straight appeared in The Glass Menagerie, Sigourney Weaver in The Animal Kingdom, George Grizzard in Harvey, Kim Hunter in A Delicate Balance, Dorothy McGuire in I Never Sang for My Father and Christopher Walken in The Rain Maker.
In 1996 The Unicorn Theatre was reopened after a lengthy renovation and became BTF's official Second Stage. Since the beginning, Berkshire Theatre Festival had a focus on training. Early acting apprentices renovated a space in the old Mellon Barn to rehearse and perform scenes and monologues. By the 1980s this Unicorn Theatre became a home for new and experimental work and in 1992, the Unicorn was home to cabaret acts from New York City and a workshop style production.
In 2010 Berkshire Theatre Festival and The Colonial Theatre merged to create Berkshire Theatre Group. As Kate Maguire, Artistic Director, CEO, said "Berkshire Theatre Festival and The Colonial share the distinction of having provided an artistic home for the Lunts and the Barrymores; each are registered as National Historic Landmarks. The Combined stories of these theatres provide a mirror of insight to the American Theatre-indeed they represent the strength of the American story and capture the essence of our understanding that the arts provide doorways to growth and windows to all that lies in the human heart."
In 2011 Berkshire Theatre Group built the Neil Ellenoff Stage located at the BTF Campus in Stockbridge. This glorious outdoor stage provides the perfect back drop for family entertainment. Berkshire Theatre Group also opened The Garage, located in the lobby of the Colonial. Its name pays homage to its former owner, Berkshire Auto Co. Garage. This newly developed venue, complete with stage, lights and sound system, is BTG's dedicated venue for local and regional music performers.Berkshire Theatre Group embodies the history of the American Theatre from Eva LaGallienne to Thornton Wilder to Al Pacino to Robert Moss, 85 years of American culture have tread the boards in Stockbridge and we cannot wait to welcome another 85.
For more information about Berkshire Theatre Group and our upcoming season, please visit our website at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org