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Building the Audience Properly

Barrington Stage connects in the Berkshires. logo
Julianne Boyd
In the basement of a church in Sheffield, Massachusetts, a happy group of people are standing around a piano singing about commitment, friends, and the joys and tribulations of marriage. A stranger might be forgiven for thinking she had strayed into a wedding rehearsal, except that the voices are those of professional actors, the director is standing by with an encouraging smile, and the choreographer is looking thoughtful. The only wedding going on here is the wedding of a group of individual performers into an ensemble. And the event is the first full-cast sing-through of Barrington Stage Company's season opener, Company.

It's easy to see why BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd is happy. The actors only arrived three days ago, but it's already clear that they enjoy working with one another. And the sound the company makes at full throttle is a testament to the health and vitality of the musical theater scene. There's no sign of an old warhorse here, dragged from the shelf and dusted off to please a summer audience. The show has an entirely modern feel.

"There's still a lot to be said about men who have trouble committing to relationships," Boyd muses, when she tears herself away from the music. Not to mention, a lot still to be said about marital relationships. "This morning, I got the cast in pairs and invited them into my office. I said today, I am your marriage counselor. Let's talk about your life together." When a prominent cast member asked her how many women she thought had ever tried directing Company, she agreed that the figure was probably not large. "So that gives my perspective a different angle, too."

But Boyd is used to being in the vanguard of distaff entrepreneurial theater professionals. In 1978, as the only woman then directing on Broadway, she conceived and directed Eubie!, a show that garnered three Tony nominations and led to Boyd receiving Citicorp's 1980

From a 1999 BSC production of Tea.
Outstanding Young Entrepreneur award. A later stint at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles resulted in three Dramalogue Awards for her production of Tea. And in 1992, she continued to bend gender rules by becoming the first woman to be president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, a post she held until 1998.

What would persuade a woman of this much energy to stop her continental journeys and develop an essentially seasonal theater in the Berkshires? Several things, as it turns out. "In New York, I got tired of developing projects right under the critics' eyes," Boyd says. "Sometimes you worked on a show and you knew it needed another go round, but there you were opening it in New York, and it didn't seem to make a lot of sense. Also, the budgets at regional theaters were often bigger than they are in New York. I didn't have to worry so much about not having another ten or 20 extra dollars for props."

Motherhood made a difference, too. Once her third child was in school, "she couldn't travel with me anymore. I thought, okay, I have to just sit in one place." When an opportunity came up to work with the Berkshire Theatre Festival, she jumped at it. "I thought, how perfect. It'll be summer, [and then] I'll be in New York in the winter with my family."

From Mack & Mabel, a 1999 BSC production.
Meanwhile, Boyd's desire to be a part of a theater that served its community was growing. By 1993 she began to formulate her own thinking on how theater and community could and should form a mutually beneficial relationship that would allow them to feed one another. The answer, she decided, lay in building the audience properly.

"Many theaters couldn't find ways to bring in new young audiences," Boyd notes. "People would look at dwindling subscriptions and think it was ticket sales from new plays that were the problem. Then they'd bring in the Neil Simon and the Noel Coward, or offer a student matinee once a year, or a discounted balcony seat midweek." But that doesn't fix the problem. "Theater is a continuum. It has to become a habit. I thought, can I start a theater where community can be a large part of it, where the audience will grow."
From a youth theater production
of Grease last year.
Boyd's search for the right subject and the proper venue for her theater eventually brought her to Sheffield and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District. There, she met school Superintendent Tom Consolati, an educator "who believed that the arts are important for young people to develop, and for a community to get together. He was a theater visionary without realizing it."

Not only did the school have the space Boyd needed, but Consolati also suggested offering childcare at the high school, "so that for five dollars a performance, young couples could bring their kids ages two through eight and leave them in the nursery." In addition, they agreed to admit children under 13 free to any performance with an adult paying full price, and to offer half-price admission to kids 14 and older. In this way, they reasoned that theater in Sheffield could become a family habit. In her desire to attract new young audiences, however, Boyd has not conceded to doing plays that would appeal only to the young. "We did the plays we wanted to do. If they had explicit language or material, we would say so, and tell parents to use their own judgment."

The resulting theater--The Barrington Stage Company--has been a success from the moment it appeared in 1995. In its first season, its The Diary Of Anne Frank won an Elliott Norton/Boston Theatre Critics Award for outstanding production. In its third season, Cabaret won two Norton/Boston Awards, four Outer Critics Awards, and moved east from the Berkshires to Boston's Hasty Pudding Theatre for a successful commercial run. "We don't consider ourselves a summer theater," says Boyd, who casts her seasons almost entirely out of New York's immense pool of talent. "We are a quality theater that performs in the summer."

This insistence on quality has paid off. In six years of operation, BSC has tripled its budget. While the company generally offers a big, commercial-type musical, along with a comedy or two, many of their offerings are smaller pieces that make demands on audience perceptions and conventions. This year, for instance, it will produce its first mainstage world premiere with Suzanne Bradbeer's Full Bloom, a chilling look at the effect our culture's obsession with beauty has on a beautiful young girl. "Everything is drawing me to kids," says Boyd, of her decision to do the play. "We're just not taking care of our youth."

It was this attitude that also drew her to engage some of Great Barrington's at-risk students into a theatrical investigation of the many issues that now face our teenagers. The result of their voyage of discovery was a production of Eric Bogosian's Suburbia, which played to sold-out houses. The teenagers involved went on to form their own non-profit, the Railroad Street Youth Project. The play and its cast will return this summer as a part of BSC's Stage II series, which teams professionals with local actors in a series of three plays.

In addition, Barrington Stage has both a summer acting program called KidsAct! for students aged eight to 17, and a youth theater that allows local students to work with a professional director and choreographer. Amazingly, every student and every local actor in Stage II and youth theater productions are paid. "They're used to doing this for nothing," remarks Boyd, but she has no intention of being a part of the potentially exploitative tendency of professional theaters to take advantage of the desires and dreams of students and community actors. "I am so tired of working for nothing," she says simply.

Like any artistic director, Boyd has to argue every decision that she makes with a Board that asks tough questions, such as whether she has the financial resources or the staff to accomplish a project. "People don't realize how much work it is. The summer season is only a few months, but the work goes on all year." How does she manage it? "Chutzpah." She then adds that when she asked a friend for some words of wisdom on running a regional summer theater, "She said, no matter how much energy you think you need, it's twice as much. It needs twice as much time, twice as much everything." But that doesn't phase Julianne Boyd. She's already running off to the next rehearsal.

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