The American Theater 2020 Survival Strategy – Part 7 – Barrington Stage

Paul Schaefer, Aaron Tveit and Lauren Marcus in Company, Barrington Stage 2017.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Julianne Boyd’s North Star Is Science

Barrington Stage’s Artistic Director Works With Experts To Keep Theater Alive in Pittsfield 

Interview by Michael Raver

Effusive and vivacious are words that easily describe Julianne Boyd. On a call from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, her deep passion for theater is immediately evident. The good news is, that she’s more than just a devotee for the slanted boards. When the pandemic hit, the Artistic Director of Barrington Stage Company decided to get technical to find a way to navigate 2020 and beyond. She took the opportunity to learn the facts as they became available, putting them to use.

This may be boring for those of us only in the arts and not scientifically inclined,” she says. “But, I became scientifically inclined.

2020 has seen The United States Federal Government downplaying science on numerous occasions, particularly as they pertain to Covid-19. Messages regarding the severity of the virus have been murky, if not altogether dismissive. Boyd, meanwhile, who founded BSC in 1995, turned to the experts. She met with medical and custodial professionals to figure out a way for her Pittsfield audience to safely experience live theater.

Julianne Boyd, Artistic Director of Barrington Stage Company.

How has the pandemic affected Barrington Stage?

The pandemic has affected Barrington Stage as it has affected all theaters. We all had to close. And we all had to close quickly. And we all had to think about whether we could reopen or whether we needed to stay closed. In our instance, we were just in final casting, getting ready to approve set designs, and so forth. What can I do to keep live theater open? Can I do anything at all? And so our staff was given the job of talking and figuring out what can be done. Which of our spaces would work if we did find a way to do theater? That was the beginning. We know we have to change the season, so what cut down version of the season could we do, and could we get one of our three theaters ready safely and responsibly. 

You tried to keep some of your season in tact?

Yes. To begin with, we thought we’d cut the big musicals. Maybe we could do a two-character play. Maybe we could keep a couple of other smaller shows. We didn’t get the full onslaught of how bad this was to begin with, you know? We did realize that social distancing became clear very soon. We have a 99-seat cabaret space and a 136-seat second stage.  So, we wondered what we can do in our 520-seat theater.  What if we took out every other row? What if we had two spaces between each party in the rows that we kept?  So that gave us about 160 seats.  What kind of simpler plays can we do? That was the major reckoning that we had. 

It sounds like it.

We found that we could easily remove the seats.  They’re screwed into wood.  It’s pretty modern. We were lucky enough to have an air conditioning system that could be adapted to safety protocols. We did things gradually. We talked to doctors at The Berkshire Medical Center. We talked to sanitation experts. We didn’t give up as much as we kept on looking. I quickly learned the best thing we could do was purge 100 percent of the air out of the theater every night after a performance. It takes seven minutes to purge all of the air out. Instead of having 10-20 percent fresh air, they suggested 50 percent fresh air in. We were told to put in MERV 13 filters, which are the highest quality commercial filter that they make. As a matter of fact, there was an article in The Wall Street Journal about what schools should do for a ventilation system and it follows exactly what we did, what our air conditioning company told us. We bought electro-static sprayers to clean the seats. They are fabulous. State-of-the-art. Of course, masks would have to be worn and temperatures taken. Our theater’s all ready. Our audiences are loving it. People are dying to see things!

Mark H. Dold in Harry Clarke, Barrington Stage 2020.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Have you had to lay off any employees?

Yes. We had to do a few weeks of furloughs in the summer. We did two weeks of Harry Clarke. We did two weeks a concert of Rogers and Hammerstein and then we finished with a Leslie Kritzer cabaret. Just as we were getting ready to open in the indoor theater, the Pittsfield Board of Health, the doctors, everyone had said this was a safe and responsible plan. We had a very low positivity rate. It was .3%.  If you’re rate’s above 2%, you’ve gotta wait. If it goes above 1%, we will not do it. We want to be safe and responsible. We want to be a good example. If we don’t get to do the shows we want to do in the fall, we have to furlough people. If no money’s coming in, you can’t be putting money out. We’re hoping Congress comes through with another nice PPE package, which would help us a lot.

Has virtual content appealed to you?

We’re doing some of it. We did Judgement Day by Rob Ulin, a marvelous play that Jason Alexander, Patti LuPone and Santino Fontana did. It was very successful.  We’re doing Eleanor, a one person play with Harriet Harris. I don’t have any objection to it, but it’s not the same as live theater. 

How do you think the current socio-political environment will reflect on the theatrical community when things do reopen?

We’re spending the month of September doing that deep thinking about the direction we’re going and how to serve people of color and the BIPOC community. Pittsfield is diverse. We get into the community, we do seminars, we give tickets, and talkbacks. But, we can do more. We have to do more. Everyone has to do more. The good news is that we’ve started, but the question is how to continue and amplify that work. It’s something that I’m guessing, hopefully, most theaters are thinking about.

For more information about Barrington Stage and to purchase tickets for upcoming performances, visit https://barringtonstageco.org/

Tyler Hanes and Ensemble in West Side Story, Barrington Stage 2018.
Photo by Daniel Rader

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