Will the shows go on in Pittsfield?

Stage productions seek exemption from outdoor gathering limits

THE OLD ADAGE that the show must go on is facing a real test out in the Berkshires.

The story begins in mid-March, when the coronavirus shut down the stage lights on Broadway and plunged regional theaters across the country into darkness. Actors’ Equity, which represents 51,000 actors and stage managers nationwide, barred its members from putting on any stage plays until the virus was brought under control.

In early July, the union decided it was time to venture back on to the stage. It approved an outdoor production of the musical Godspell and an indoor production of a one-man show called Harry Clarke. Both were scheduled to open in Pittsfield in early August. Tickets sold quickly.

Kate Maguire, the artistic director and chief executive of the Berkshire Theater Group, which was staging Godspell, told the New York Times that the cast was going to stay together in a house and be regularly tested for the coronavirus. On stage, there would be no physical contact, even a contactless crucifixion, she said.

Mary McColl, the executive director of Actors’ Equity, said the actors would take care to sing past one another to reduce the potential for transmission of the disease.

An initial setback came on July 30, when Baker administration officials apparently told the Barrington Stage that a prohibition on indoor performances was unlikely to be lifted any time soon. The Barrington Stage responded by moving its production of Harry Clarke from its indoor theater to a tent on the parking lot of the Polish Community Club.

On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker formally put the state’s phased reopening on hold (indoor performances were to be part of the second step of Phase 3). Baker also announced that, starting today, he was launching a number of tougher enforcement measures, including a reduction in the number of people allowed at outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50.

The tighter restrictions on outdoor gatherings creates problems for the two Pittsfield shows, which both opened over the weekend. Harry Clarke had an audience limit of 96 people while Godspell was capped at 75. 

Julianne Boyd, artistic director at the Barrington Stage, told the Berkshire Eagle there is a big difference between a cultural event in Pittsfield and a big private party at someone’s house on Cape Cod.

“There is a difference between a social gathering in which people are moving about freely, many of them unmasked, and a performance in which people are required to wear masks; whose temperatures are taken as they come in, and then they sit at a socially safe distance, 6 feet apart, for 75 or 80 minutes in an … open-air tent. We have taken the strictest protocols, approved by Berkshire Medical Center, the city’s health commissioner, and Actors’ Equity,” she said.

Boyd and Maguire have asked state Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield to seek an exemption from the outdoor gathering limits from the state Department of Public Health. No answer yet on whether that exemption is forthcoming.

“This is our business, our livelihood,” Boyd said. “This is about supporting the economy of Pittsfield. The arts are vital to that economy.”