By Mark G. Auerbach
Hindsight is 2020: The ArtsBeat Year in Review; Part One
No one could have predicted the pandemic, when we were celebrating the arrival of 2020, but by mid-March, theatres and venues from Broadway to the Berkshires closed, and the arts and creative economies tumbled down. The economic impact was stunning, as not only arts groups closed, but thousands of actors, musicians, technical personnel and theatre staff got furloughed, restaurants, bars, and clubs, often employment venues for artists closed. Overall, a blow to our community which will take a long time to reverse course.
The Bushnell was supposed to celebrate its 90th anniversary, but Broadway and the national tours are dark until at least next summer. Jacob’s Pillow, already dark because of the pandemic suffered a major blow, when its Doris Duke Theatre was destroyed in a fire. Sevenars Concerts faced numerous repairs on its campus. New Century Theatre shuttered after 28 seasons, and Holyoke’s Gateway Arts complex was both dark and on the market.
You can’t keep a good theatre dark. Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre Group worked with health officials and Actors Equity to develop plans to present live performances last summer. Their efforts brought the brilliant Mark H. Dold to Barrington Stage in Harry Clarke, while Berkshire Theatre Group mounted an outdoor production of Godspell. Both theatres got national press coverage. A major gift from the family of the late Mary Anne Gross, memorialized her love of theatre in Western Massachusetts, with $1 million plus donated to those theatres to stabilize them and keep them afloat until next summer. BTG used some of this money to mount an outdoor production of Holiday Memories this month. Kate Maguire, Artistic Director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group was honored with The Actors Fund 2020 Encore Fund.
When the going got tough, there were innovators who changed course. Besides Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage, the following made major impacts.
TheaterWorks Hartford reimagined its season, and dropped the concept of subscriptions and added memberships, offering one event to its members each month, in addition to online concerts, chats, and more. Some of their plays were filmed on their stage for future streaming, others were created to stream. Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy was an incredible hit, which the New York Times ended up including in its “Best of 2020”. Artistic director Rob Ruggiero starred in an online series, Get Sauced, which invited viewers to his kitchen for chat with all kinds of personalities.
The Springfield Symphony, like many regional orchestras, employed a majority of free-lance musicians, all of whom lost all sources of income and benefits with the shutdown. Instead of fundraising to keep themselves afloat during tough times, they put their efforts into a Musicians Relief Fund to provide direct support to its hurting musicians.
James Barry, the multi-talented actor, director, musician and playwright, developed a music video series, Corona Covers, to both pay his bills during unemployment, and to support non-profits providing services to people impacted by COVID. People could request a song dedicated to someone, which Barry would perform (often with his wife, the actor Tara Franklin and their son, Sam), and post the video to YouTube, He thought he’d do maybe 20 video requests; he exceeded 200). https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCApSzmoJGWFyCq7DwjLQSKg/videos
Eddie Zitka, the ambitious Artistic Director of K&E Theater Group, managed to pull together most of the area’s community theatres to produce an online event, The COVID Response from Local Theatres. It showcased many local groups who have difficulty getting a larger media presence, other than in Pioneer Valley Theatre News or In The Spotlight. The community theatres owe Zitka a lot for being this catalyst.To see the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6b7dLwfWzbE&t=2508s
Comings and Goings
Michael Gennaro, artistic director of Goodspeed announced his retirement, and Paul Marte at The Bushnell, Katie Watts at Berkshire Theatre Group, Shawn Farley from The Umass Fine Arts Center, and Theresa MacNaughton from Hartford Stage left their posts.
RIP Fred Tillis, former director of The UMass Fine Arts Center, and Barbara Aldrich, the FAC’s longtime concert manager; Nadine Shank, longtime pianist at the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and the UMass Department of Music; Charles Page, founder of the Music at First Chamber Music series; philanthropist and arts advocate Peggy Starr also passed away.
The Best of 2020
Best Programming: WAM Theatre took home the prize with streamings of Lisa Loomer’s play ROE, the backstory of Roe v. Wade and Loretta FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, both of which had been planned before the pandemic. ROE opened days after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Fasthorse was the first Native American playwright to win a MacArthur “Genius” Award, that, also announced just before opening night. Talk about relevance. It’s all in the timing.
Best New Play: Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, Sarah Gancher’s play written for the stream about a group of internet trolls who work for Russian intelligence posting fake news to sway the 2016 election in favor of Trump. TheaterWorks, in association with TheatreSquared and The Civiliansbrought the play to our area—a timely, brilliant drama based on true news events. Elizabeth Williamson and Jared Mezzocchi take home my prize for outstanding direction, and Mezzocchi’s video projections were the best in the area theatres, as was Andre Pleuss’ sound design. Honorable mention goes to Stan Freeman’s The Pitch, which had its world premiere at The Majestic Theater. This tense and taut drama left an impact.
Best Production of a Play: WAM Theatre’s ROE, a large scale production re-envisioned for the stream, was a tour-de-force thanks to Kristen Van Ginhoven’s staging and Juliana von Haubrich’s design. Honorable mentions goes to TheaterWorks Hartford for its production of Ayad Ahktar’s The Who & The What, streamed from the stage of the theatre. And, Berkshire Theatre Group’s Holiday Memories, sensitively directed by Eric Hill, warmed up those watching outdoors.
Best Design Components (not mentioned above)
Ilona Somogyi’s period designs for Jane Eyre at Hartford Stage were breathtaking. Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting for Holiday Memories at Berkshire Theatre Group had to compete with moonlight and fog outdoors, but they brought rhe warmth of a Depression-era Alabama holiday season to the stark Stockbridge hillside.
Next week: the outstanding performances of 2020.
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio. Mark produces and hosts ArtsBeat TV/Radio for WCPC15 and 89.5fm/WSKB, and is a contributor to Pioneer Valley Radio.