New Directors, New Directions
Summer theaters open amid uncertainty and hope
By Chris Rohmann
Maybe it's the dawn of a new age. Maybe it's a desperate move in difficult times. Maybe
it's just natural evolution. Whatever the reason -- and in fairness, the reasons are
different in each case -- the fact is that a majority of area summer theaters are under
new, or at least revised, leadership this season.
It's not news that theaters are struggling to survive in this era of rising costs,
aging audiences and diminished public and private underwriting. The recent demise of
StageWest in Springfield has sent a palpable chill through the region's arts community.
Mount Holyoke College's tent theater, the doyenne of summer stock in the Valley, very
nearly didn't go up this season. In an effort to draw new audiences, some companies are
shifting their artistic emphasis (or at least their PR) to court a younger crowd.
Previewing the season, the area's new and returning summer theater directors
acknowledged their challenges and worries, but spoke mainly of promise and opportunity.
Despite the perennial uncertainties, summer theater in this region retains a strong
following and attracts a high caliber of professional and community performers. And here's
another fact: At an average ticket price of less than $15 (plus student, senior and
season-ticket discounts), theater is still the best live-entertainment value in the
Hampshire Shakespeare Company is nothing if not ambitious. It's essentially a
community theater, but with much grander aspirations than many. Their mission is to
produce the Master, not The Mousetrap. Well, except they did produce The
Mousetrap last winter, a choice that proved highly controversial within the company
and a box-office disaster.
That show, one person's pet project, was a departure from the group's usual approach to
production. This is a troupe that operates by committee and makes decisions collectively.
That's unusual in a business often dominated by a single strong vision, but Sarah Wilson
insists that "it's a good way to work if you're trying to do something as ambitious
as Shakespeare. It gives everybody a voice in what we do and a feeling of being part of an
ensemble." Wilson is co-producer, with Steve Morgan, of the summer performance part
of the company's program (they also do residencies in schools and children's theater
workshops). Still recovering from the winter's losses, they've settled on two
audience-pleasers, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet. Wilson is
optimistic -- even enthusiastic -- about the coming season. "We're back on our feet,
and we've gone back to the core of our philosophy."
Ten theater companies perform in Western Massachusetts during the summer, from the
Valley to the Berkshires. Here's a rundown of who and where they are, when they perform
and how to contact them. Ticket prices are for single tickets, full/discount (student and
senior) prices given if applicable; season tickets and group discounts are also available
from most theaters.
Hampshire Shakespeare Company: Two productions, three weeks each, June 23-Aug.
1. Tues., Thurs., and Sun. at Lord Jeffery Inn, Amherst, Fri.-Sat. at Pines Theater, Look
Park, Northampton. $12/$6. (413) 323-0981.
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