Sheryl Stoodley is standing in the middle of the Workroom, the performance space in the Northampton Community Arts Trust building curated by A.P.E.@Hawley. In time, it will become a fully equipped studio theater, but for now it’s an enormous unfinished cube, more like an empty warehouse than an emergent theater.
“This is such a big space, there’s so much potential,” Stoodley says, gazing at the latticework of girders 20 feet overhead.
She’s the artistic director of Serious Play Theatre Ensemble, the Valley’s long-established hothouse of movement-based, cooperatively devised work. She is in the Workroom with her husband, Robin Doty, the troupe’s managing director and “technical overseer,” to map out the staging parameters in the 3,400-square-foot space where their latest, long-incubated work, “Moving Water,” will premiere this summer — live, with an audience.
It’s been over a year since COVID-19 shut down theaters and other arts venues across the world, and this region. A survey of 192 western Massachusetts cultural organizations found that nearly $49 million in income was lost to the pandemic in the past year, and 558 individual artists reported losing 11,628 jobs and income totaling nearly $5 million.
As an example, the Northampton Center for the Arts has seen its earned income drop by 80%, managing director Joanna Faraby Walker said. But with the help of federal and regional grants, and substantial rent forgiveness from the Community Arts Trust, the organization has managed to continue limited operations and hasn’t laid off any staff, although a 50% work-share plan was in place for six months for staff. “This is only due to support from our community,” including a generous increase in individual donations, she said.
In the Valley a couple of theaters are envisaging indoor performances, with mandated capacity limits, and a few more will be performing outside. While most Valley theaters are looking toward fall to reopen with live productions, a few are tentatively planning in-person summer performances.
“Everyone has been weathering circumstances that were previously unimaginable,” Stoodley observes. “We’ve been lucky that we have been able to push through. We treasure every moment we can now spend working together.”
Stoodley’s company is one of two Valley theaters I visited earlier this month which have survived the crisis and are planning live performances this summer — one indoors, one open-air.Serious Play
For Serious Play, the Workroom’s wide-open spaces are a good fit for its bare-bones aesthetic. “This theater is still ‘a work in progress,’ but it will be well suited to our physical theater piece,” says Stoodley, whose work is always in some sense in-progress, each performance a way station on a continuum of exploration and experimentation.
Doty shows me a tabletop model of the set for “Moving Water,” a collection of multiuse pieces, including a glass water tank, a rain-shower apparatus and a lofty scaffolding structure on wheels. There will also be video projections on a giant screen, a reverberant soundscape and original music performed live by composer Jonny Rodgers on, appropriately enough, tuned water goblets. “Technically, this is the most complex thing we’ve ever done,” Doty says.
The piece was scheduled to open last summer, but instead, what was supposed to be a one-year development process has continued for another 12 months via Zoom and occasional backyard meetings. By opening night in July the entire company will be vaccinated and performing maskless, with attendees following strict safety protocols. A COVID-filtering HVAC system is being installed this month.
Performed in the shadow of the pandemic, “Moving Water” reflects on another global crisis, in fact, two crises, linked by the effects of climate change and converging around the issue of water. Eric Henry Sanders’ script, developed from company members’ research and personal histories, takes us into a metaphorical apartment building in a coastal city beset by a clean-water emergency and rising sea levels.
Three residents represent clashing views on the crisis and what to do about it. Drew, son of the building’s owner, played by Will Swyer, is in denial, clinging to a tenuous status quo. Luna (Ximena Salmeron), a Mexican grad student, is an environmental activist. And Serge (Kermit Dunkelberg), a refugee from the Chernobyl disaster, tinkers with oddball inventions aimed at finding a solution to the looming menace.
They embody, as stated in the project description, “the wider struggle over whether science and technology are enough to solve climate issues, how inaction has led to the potential for catastrophic loss” and ultimately, “how water fragility shapes human interactions.”
The July performances will include post-show discussions about the play’s intertwined themes, from global warming and rising seas to environmental justice around water distribution.
Carlos Uriona is standing in the middle of a labyrinth on an Ashfield hillside. The waist-high hedge of brush and vine trunks, winding to a circle of flat fieldstones, is the latest hand-hewn structure on the grounds of Double Edge Theatre’s farmstead home.
On the day of my visit earlier this month, he’s rehearsing, with director Jeremy Louise Eaton and musician John Peitso, a scene for this year’s Summer Spectacle. The annual productions take audiences on a perambulating tour of the property, each one different but all growing out of myths and folktales, enacted with music, colorful visuals and high-flying circus skills.
“It’s a journey, what I propose,” Uriona proclaims. “I’m not the guide, not a technical assistant either. Instead I will be your fellow passenger.” This journey, he adds, “is not discovered but invented” — a nod to the theater’s aesthetic, in which spectators are invited to bring their own imaginations to the sometimes elusive text and abstract images.
This notion of actor-as-audience, and vice versa, expresses itself here in a visual trick. In the performance, Eaton explains, “the audience will follow Carlos walking up the hill, then disappearing, then reappearing among the audience as we approach the labyrinth.” He will then proliferate into “multiple Carloses,” portrayed by several other actors and life-size puppets. “It’s about looking at all the different versions of yourself.”
“It’s the idea of what do we perceive?” Uriona adds. “Am I perceiving this that I am, or am I multiple myself? That was the original idea of the double, the dualities and multiplicities of oneself.”
This past plague year informs that image, Eaton says, both “a result of being bound in a place,” looking inward at your “vast internal spaces,” and outward at the mortality all around. For Uriona, the pandemic has summoned memories of his boyhood during Argentina’s “dirty war,” when people were suddenly “disappeared” without warning. “So many elements are very similar,” he says. “You would wake up and find out someone is gone. My way of approaching identity, and the world, is always painted by that experience.”
This summer’s spectacle is likewise concerned with both “internal spaces” and a sense of duality. At the other end of the property, the second half of the show is in its initial stages of creation. Three women — Milena Dabova, Amanda Miller and guest artist Deidra Montgomery — are stationed at points around a tree-shrouded pond, engaged in vocal and musical rituals whose sounds interweave across the water.
Next year will be the theater’s 40th anniversary, co-artistic director Jennifer Johnson tells me, and this summer’s work is preliminary to that celebration: a reimagining of the very first Double Edge production, Euripides’ “The Bacchae.”
“The vision around this scene is the women’s ritual,” Johnson says as we look on. In the Greek original, the Theban women celebrate their ecstatic rites in secret, offstage. “We’re bringing the ritual aspect of the story forward, exploring the rituals that have happened within different societies for a long time — the idea that women’s magic is kind of hidden, so why not bring it forward?”
Double Edge is a bit of an outlier among area theaters. The pandemic constricted their 2020 season but didn’t prevent it, since all their summertime shows are presented mostly in the open air. On the farm, the show did go on last year, but with reduced audiences, masked and distanced.
This year’s still-untitled spectacle will be performed in July and August for audiences limited in number, with COVID protocols in place. In June the company will also present a short run of “Howling at the Moon,” a storytelling evening with four company members and local artist Larry Spotted Crow Mann. “These stories will be about our own discoveries of our ancestors’ lives and family mythology around that,” Johnson says. And, she assures me, “there will also be some music, and some flying, of course.”
The Valley and beyond
Several local theaters are planning for live performance, indoors and outside, and the Berkshires’ four major summer theaters will be mounting brief seasons.
The Shea Theater in Turners Falls will open its doors in July for a performance by Mr. Drag and the Drag Sisters — Joe Dulude II, Myka Plunkett and Jane Williams — in a jokey drag show from Eggtooth Productions. As artistic director Linda McInerney told me, it’s an act of “solidarity for our venues. We want to be brave about moving forward.”
A new venture, the Play Incubation Collective, which has been holding online “salons” for sharing new work, is rehearsing scenes from Darcy Parker Bruce’s four-play “Piedmont Cycle,” which twines around themes of family and place. Founders Rachel Hirsch and Sarah Marcus are looking to present them in August at a local outdoor venue TBA.
In West Springfield, the Majestic Theater’s Danny Eaton is hoping to resume performances of the baseball fantasy “The Pitch,” which was closed by the pandemic. But as he told me recently, “I am not at all certain that it will happen. We are committed to reopening only when we can reopen fully — however long that takes.”
Chester Theatre Company, abandoning its intimate hilltop theater for the summer, is moving west, and outdoors. The small-scale season — three plays with a total cast of six — will take place on the grounds of Hancock Shaker Village, west of Pittsfield. “After a year in which we and our audience were kept apart,” artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer said in a statement, the chosen plays are “about our need to connect with one another, how difficult that can be to accomplish, and the deep satisfaction of how we sustain each other when we succeed.”
Barrington Stage Company will finally be able to open the mainstage space it went to great pains and expense to make COVID-compliant last year, before restrictions were tightened. Three shows will be mounted there, including a live reprise of “Eleanor,” Harriet Harris’ one-woman portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, which she performed online last fall. A George Gershwin potpourri and a world-premiere comedy, “Boca Raton,” will take place under an open-air tent.
The Berkshire Theatre Group is erecting tents outside its three venues in Stockbridge and Pittsfield for summer performances — celebrations of two classics and an icon. Opening with Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” they include a stage adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” movie and a musical conversation among four women recalling Nina Simone.
Shakespeare & Company, after being dark for a year, will stage what was going to be its 2020 centerpiece. Christopher Lloyd will star in “King Lear” in a newly constructed amphitheater on the company’s Lenox property. Also in the abbreviated season, Debra Ann Byrd’s “choreopoem” “Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey” will be performed in the troupe’s outdoor Roman Garden.
After replacing its 2020 season with audio versions, available on Audible, Williamstown Theatre Festival returns, not to the stage but to the streets. “Nine Solo Plays By Black Playwrights,” the “immersive theatrical experience” called “Alien/Nation,” and the world-premiere musical “Run” will hold forth on the theater’s front lawn, all over downtown Williamstown, and on the grounds of the Clark Art Institute, respectively.
A few days after my visit with Serious Play, Sheryl Stoodley emailed me. “These are turbulent times,” she wrote, “and the repercussions will echo for years to come. But through it all, the creative process perseveres. Bravo to the artists of all stripes, and bravo to the live audiences we will meet. You are the reason we do what we do.”
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and valleyadvocate.com/author/chris-rohmann