Charles Giuliano recently interviewed Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company artistic director Julianne Boyd about the theater’s $7 million capital campaign.

Charles Giuliano: What is the current financial status of Barrington Stage Company?
Julianne Boyd We moved in 2006. This is our 8th season in Pittsfield. Last May we acquired the former V.F.W. just a couple of streets over from our theater.

CG: The original move to create a permanent home – wasn’t that an aspect of the G.E. Fund in Pittsfield?
BOYD: Out of a $7 million campaign for the Main Stage, the G.E. Fund gave us $500,000. A loan to be forgiven if certain terms were met within five years. At the end of that time, the loan did not need to be paid back.

CG: What did it cost to acquire the V.F.W. building?
BOYD: It cost some $340,000. It was a wonderful gift from a donor. So we now have a Main Stage and a Stage Two. We are about to finish our capital campaign of $7 million for the Main Stage. We will be done probably within a week or two. By the time you write this article, that’s going to be done. We are now down to $16,500. We have a board meeting this weekend and a couple of more people to ask, so by next week, our capital campaign will be completed. We’re hoping to announce at our gala, June 22, the completion of that campaign.
We started in late 2005. That’s when we bought the theater but we didn’t start renovation until 2006. We started raising money immediately.
The company is solvent. We have no debts. There is no extra money in the bank. Every year we end with like $ 3,000 or $14,000 in the black out of a budget that’s $3.4 million. A non-profit is supposed to break even. You’re not supposed to make money. It would be nice to make a little money so we could have an artistic reserve. We do have a building reserve, and we add to it each year in case something breaks or has to be redone. We need money and can’t go out to people with our hands out again.

CG: It seems that Barrington Stage is one of the success stories of the arts in the Berkshires.
BOYD: I think so. We have a very involved board. Not too involved. They are involved in creating policy and raising money. When we moved, we had one person from Pittsfield on our board. Now about half the board is from Pittsfield and surrounding areas. There is nobody from South County, although we would appreciate having them. The focus has changed. We still have second home owners, of course. It’s a small, energetic board, and they all believe in Pittsfield. They believe that Pittsfield can be even greater than it is.

CG: There certainly is a paradigm shift. The norm is to think of wealth as concentrated in Lenox and South County. The development and expansion of the arts in Pittsfield midway between South County and the Northern Berkshires with Mass MoCA, MCLA, The Clark, Williams College, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival is a notable phenomenon. Primarily Pittsfield has been viewed as a blue-collar city not noted as a destination for cultural tourism. That has now changed with a renovated Berkshire Museum, the $22 refurbishing of the Colonial Theater now part of Berkshire Theater Group, and the $7 million development of Barrington Stage.

BOYD: There is a shift. The people who support us still support Tanglewood and the other non profits. Pittsfield is the center of a lot of economic activity. The banks, Berkshire Medical Center; there are a lot of doctors and attorneys who live in Pittsfield. It’s a sophisticated community.
Yes, we have our problems. We would like to see conditions better in some neighborhoods. We would like the kids to have better opportunities. That’s one of the challenges that Barrington Stage loves. Being in the middle of a community where we can really help the young people. That’s my dream, and in Sheffield that wasn’t possible. It was a spread-out community with no real center. No downtown.

CG: When did you start in Sheffield?
BOYD: 1995. In two years will be our 20th.

CG: If it started in Sheffield, why is it called Barrington Stage?
BOYD: When we founded the theater, we thought we would be in Great Barrington. That was an up-and-coming community 19 or 20 years ago. It was the place to be. Not that it still isn’t; it had just gotten a movie theater and a lot of great restaurants. We thought we would find a little space, and we’ll go to Great Barrington and call it Barrington. Everyone thought, `are you going to Barrington? Are you having dinner in Barrington?’ So we looked around for a space and thought we found one. This old garage. It didn’t work out, but by that point, we already thought that Barrington Stage was a great name. There’s just something about it. BSC sounded right. Sheffield Stage, SS, there was something about that. You do understand, right?

CG: Right.
BOYD: We knew we were not going to be in that school (Sheffield) forever. It was a place to begin to develop and for people to see our work. We thought Barrington was more centered and that eventually we would be in Barrington – after our first few years in Sheffield.
As it turned out we were in Sheffield much longer than we thought. There was no space available we could get in Barrington. So we moved to Pittsfield.

CG: Let’s discuss programming strategies. It’s been a given that Barrington launches the season with what it hopes is a popular musical. The idea is to front-load the season with a big show which brings in enough revenue to fund the rest of the season. In recent years that has for the most part worked. But last summer was problematic. The headline of my review was “Fiddler Falls Off the Roof.” There was a very negative review in the Berkshire Eagle. One senses that it was a problematic production as far as reaching the financial goals you were striving for.

BOYD: We had a very high goal. We just fell short by $30,000, so we didn’t do terribly on it. It wasn’t like, Oh my God, we’re $100,000 down and nobody came. We still did very well, and there were a lot of very good reviews. The audiences loved it.
We do musicals at the beginning of the season. There are a lot of other theaters out there that do musicals at the beginning of the season. It is a formula that works. Even if we were short $30,000, we had so many people who came into the theater, Charles. They see your work at the beginning of the season, and you say to them, ‘Hey do you want to buy a subscription for the rest of the season? Come to Stage Two. Come to a Cabaret.' The idea is to get the people to cross the doorway. Get them into the theater. That’s really important. The people are not so much, what shall I say, judgmental. The people loved the show; it was great. A lot of them hadn’t seen Fiddler. They brought their families. It was a great experience. Broadway World picked Brad Oscar as the top lead in a musical in the Boston/Massachusetts area. People loved his performance, and they loved the show. I think we did well. We didn’t do quite as well as we wanted to.
Then, as the season moved on, All My Sons did better than I thought it would, and See How They Run did, too. In our theater, it doesn’t matter which show did what. What matters is the number matches our goal at the end of the season, and it did. It was over what we thought it would be.

CG: You seem to be dancing around the issue. The question was fall-out for a negative review in the Berkshire Eagle.
[Author’s Note: This prompted numerous letters to the editor critical of the review of Jeffrey Borak and a strained relationship between the critic and the theater company. For a time, the critic was removed from the press list and purchased tickets to performances. That has since been resolved.]
BOYD: There was no real fallout, Charles. That’s what I’m trying to say. We projected $400,000 and were down $30,000. To make $370,000 on that show was fabulous. All My Sons and See How They Run made up the difference. So there wasn’t a fallout financially. Do you mean some other kind of fallout?

CG: Well, how deep do we want to go?
BOYD: I really don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go there because it was last year. I felt the necessity to support my actors. And to support a production. I don’t want to get involved in any kind of ad hominem attack or anything like that.
Charles, you’re Italian, and I’m Italian. We stick up for what we believe in. So there. I have a passion for what I do, and I have a passion for the performers. We’re kind of an actors centric theatre. I so appreciate and respect actors who put themselves out there night after night. Taking on a gigantic leading role. And, if you’re doing a big musical, it's a fight. You’re doing Funny Girl, (people say) `Oh my God, I remember Barbra Streisand.’ You’re doing Cabaret. `Oh my God, I remember Joel Grey.’ People always remember who originated roles, and we’re always trying to put our own imprint on them. We are trying to make it fresh and new for audiences. Revivals only work when you’re relating to your audiences and you’re finding something that affects them. So we spend a lot of time doing that. We spend a lot of time polishing how it’s going to work today.

CG: Can we discuss the state of criticism today? By the old rules, I shouldn’t even be talking to you. Traditionally, if you looked at a major publication like the New York Times, there was a separation between the person who wrote reviews and the person who did interviews and features. The rule was that critics do not talk to actors, directors, producers because, in a sense, the conversation and relationship we have is corrupting. Based on my interaction with you, am I going to be more or less favorable when I sit there as a critic and have to objectively evaluate the work? The ultimate responsibility, of course, is to the reader and audience. There has been very little direct dialogue about that but a lot of under the table and behind-the-scenes discussion about the relationship between the critic and those we review and write about.
In the changed contemporary critical landscape, there is little discussion about professional standards. Who is writing credible criticism, who is not, and why? Nobody wants to look at or talk about it and yet it impacts all of us.

BOYD: There are two points, and I think you are very right. It’s a very interesting topic, and we could talk for an hour about that. In the early years of my career, there were feature writers, and there were critics. Feature writers did pre-publicity. Or, after the show opened, a story on the star or playwright or something.
The largest papers like the Globe and Times have feature writers, or they farm them out. They don’t necessarily have them on staff. There is a certain group of writers that they go to. Not just in theater – they do that in any section of the paper.
Now, what’s strange, not strange but different, is that the same people do the feature stories that do the reviews. If you interview an actor, and you don’t like him. Let’s say that person is exhausted that day. A little surly because they’re thinking of their lines. `OMG, I had five hours sleep because I was trying to learn my lines.’ They just don’t come off as friendly as they might be. Just for example. You could be affected by the persona or personality of that creative person. Be it actor, director, choreographer, whatever.
It’s a little difficult. Sometimes I wonder if the person plays it safe when being interviewed by the person who is going to review them. Maybe they won’t say exactly what’s on their mind.

CG: You don’t play it safe.
BOYD: I’ve never played it safe in my life, Charles. [Both laugh] I’m a risk taker by just opening the door and saying, “I’m in theatre.” There’s nothing safe about it. If you play it safe, you’re not being as creative and imaginative as you can. As a director, you’re not leading the others in. You need to put your foot in the door first for everybody else to follow.
As to the second part of your question: criticism has changed today because of blogs. You don’t have to be hired by a paper to write a review. Sometimes reviewers for papers don’t have as much power as a blogger does. Or vice versa. So then what happens is that someone with no qualifications whatsoever starts a blog. In that way, the criticism is minimized. The effect [of a print review] is lessened because there are so many people out there who are qualified and some who are not. How readers differentiate that? I don’t know.

CG: That puts us smack dab in the center of a sea change in communications. Just yesterday, an arts writer for the Eagle told me that his specialized beat is being assigned to a staff writer to save money. That’s happening in newsrooms all over the country where virtually all of the classical music writers have been let go or are now part-timers. Newsweek is gone. There’s less and less content in the arts pages.
When I was the jazz and rock critic for the former Boston Herald Traveler, I challenged myself to see how many consecutive days I could have an article in the paper. I think I broke my streak after 37 days. I didn’t have to do it, but I enjoyed being out every night with midnight deadlines covering concerts.
The point that I’m making is that there was a lot of daily content in the papers. A few years ago, the Herald, after mergers, sales and downsizing, sacked their theater critic. When the Herald merged with the Record American, it became the paper of the late Elliot Norton, the dean of Boston’s theater critics, for whom there are awards in his name. The three Boston TV stations all had arts and theater critics, and now there are none. Joyce Kulhawik writes a blog. With the closing of The Phoenix, we no longer have the distinguished critic Carolyn Clay. She was the most respected Boston critic of her era.
The shift to blogs has changed the dialogue. You ask about the qualifications of bloggers, and a lot of theater companies are asking that question – particularly when it comes to press lists and comping tickets for openings. Credentials are clearly an issue. On the other hand, there is more dialogue than ever. Does that mean that a play can survive a negative or so-so review in the New York Times? For Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, for example, during months of previews, fans were tweeting before the official press night.

BOYD: Yes, there is more dialogue. That dilutes. We’re theater people. Okay. But Joe Schmo who goes in there doesn’t know anything about theater or where to look . . . If you Googled Barrington Stage Fiddler on the Roof, for example, I wonder what you would come up with? How many newspapers, how many blogs, how many Facebook? That got a lot of coverage. But let’s say a smaller production. You might take a Stage Two production. It’s different. There isn’t the same situation. In the past, a few people had a lot of power; now a lot of people have less power. Is it good or bad? I don’t know. I can’t tell you what it is. I do the same work that I have always done. I don’t pay a lot of attention to it unless I find something that I think is unfairly done. Or a performer or artist is really affected by a review and can’t do their work because they are so affected by something.
Here’s the difference. Nowadays, reviews last forever for a performer. That’s one of the reasons I took the stand I did on Fiddler. There used to be a time when if I wanted to see the reviews of Fiddler from 1964, there was a service in New York. I belonged to the service, and you could say to them, “Please send me all the reviews of Fiddler on the Roof from 1964." You would get a packet with all the reviews of Fiddler on the Roof. That’s how it used to be done. Or you would go to the library. Now you type in and hit the button for Fiddler at Barrington Stage, and those reviews are there forever.
In a way they may have a smaller impact when the show is running, but they have a longer impact on the people involved in the production. It has a long-lasting effect because it can be brought up at the touch of a button. Twenty years from now.

CG: Actors always tell me that they don’t read reviews. Or not until a production closes. They say that they don’t want to be influenced by reviews. Some critics go so far as to give notes on what changes they suggest for a production. They think of themselves as surrogate directors. Actors say, “I don’t want a critic telling me how to do my work.”

BOYD: There are two parts to that. Some actors feel that way. What happens for others is that people come up to them and say “Oh my God, I just didn’t agree with that review.” Then there is an inquisitive nature, and they have to see it. That’s true of anybody when your name is in the paper. You run home and see what it is. I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me and say “I loved that review. Or I don’t agree with that critic.” People continuously talk to everyone about the reviews. An actor may not read a review, but believe me, by the next morning, a lot of people have talked to that actor about the reviews.
I go to get a coffee and a bagel, and somebody talks to me about the reviews.

CG: Should one consider the source? I read the reviews. When I write about a production, I am anxious to know what other critics are thinking. You like to know if you are in or out of the ballpark about a specific show. If shows are really good or bad, there seems to be some consensus. With those in-between shows, there can be a significant range of opinions. If you read a lot of reviews, I think you develop a track record of reliability with that particular critic. There are some that you respect and their writing bears weight. With others, you might follow them over time and see the same tricks and devices. There is no growth or change. You lose respect, become apathetic, and stop paying attention. The reviews become too formulaic and predictable.
BOYD: I think for the public, that’s really true. For the actors and directors, here they don’t know which critics to listen to and what critics the public listens to. They take everything at face value and don’t have the ability to say, “Oh is that an important person or not?” Your name (or image) is on a screen on a computer, and they can pull it up.

CG: In the case of the mainstream media, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Boston Globe – is that person, because of the prestige of the publication, automatically the best critic?
BOYD: I can’t answer that. Do I like apple pie or blueberry pie? I like them both. If they like me I like them. [laughs]

[END]

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Key Subjects: 
Barrington Stage, Julianne Boyd, Berkshires, Massachusetts, Fiddler on the Roof, critics
Writer: 
Charles Giuliano
Date: 
May 2013