INTERVIEW WITH BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY’S JULIANNE BOYD

Julianne BoydNEARLY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, NOT-FOR-PROFIT THEATRE COMPANY BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY WAS CREATED IN THE BUCOLIC BERKSHIRE MOUNTAINS OF WESTERN MASSACHUSSETTS.

Now the fastest growing arts venue in Berkshire County, BSC was co-founded by Julianne Boyd “with a three-fold mission: to produce top-notch, compelling work; to develop new plays and musicals; and to find fresh, bold ways of bringing new audiences into the theatre, especially young people.”

Each year, BSC attracts nearly 60,000 patrons to its Pittsfield venues. Some of the most revered work that made its debuts at BSC include the Tony Award winning The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the acclaimed revival of On The Town that transferred to Broadway in 2014, and the timely play, American Son, now open on the Great White Way.

This week, BSC wraps up its twenty-fourth season with The Glass Menagerie, playing now through Sunday (October 21). Boyd – who serves double duty as BSC’s Artistic Director and director of The Glass Menagerie– reflected on this year’s offerings, teased what’s in store for next year’s milestone quadranscentennial anniversary, discussed her own creative process and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Looking back at this past season, what were some of the biggest personal highlights for you?

JULIANNE BOYD: Productions of The Cake and The Chinese Lady, as well as our wildly popular production of West Side Story, choreographed by Robert LaFosse.

Which production(s) marked the boldest detour(s) from BSC’s typical offerings?

Probably The Chinese Lady– it was a new play by Lloyd Suh directed by Ralph Peña. It had a very specific aesthetic that was different from any other plays we’ve ever done. The subject matter – that of the first female Chinese immigrant to come to the US –  intrigued our audiences.

You’re wrapping up the season with a new production of the classic The Glass Menagerie. Why is this the perfect play to conclude the season with?

It’s a great American classic that we perform not only for our usual Berkshires/New York/Boston audience, but also for 200 high school students. This play is a great way to introduce serious theater to young people.

The Glass Menagerie

How do you decide which productions you want to direct versus which ones you want to outsource other directors for?

If I have a strong gut reaction to a play, I seriously consider directing it. Then it has to fit into my schedule and allow me time to support the other productions in the season as well.

The Royal Family of Broadway was the first of three world premieres that debuted this season. When I interviewed Will Swenson about the production, he said that he was drawn to it because of the chance to work on something new. From both a curating and directing standpoint, do you prefer working on and presenting new works or revivals? Why or why not?

I love them both but am committed to finding the best new plays and musicals we possibly can. We must look forward in theater – and support writers working today and the ideas that feel they must write about. I love the sense of urgency that many writers have today. It’s tremendously exciting.

This year’s shows tackled lots of very topical issues – including women’s rights (in Typhoid Mary and A Doll’s House, Part 2), gay marriage (in The Cake), immigration (in The Chinese Lady), and racism (in Well Intentioned White People). Did you select these shows as part of a larger narrative structure to comment on what’s going on in the political climate of this country?

Yes, I love producing, and sometimes directing, plays that deal wirh social issues. I love introducing topical issues in dramatic form, getting our audiences involved with those issues and then having lively discussions with them after a performance.

Laura Benanti hit it out of the park when she headlined the 24thAnnual Gala (read my review here). Would you consider this event a success?

A huge success! She is a spectcular performer, multi-talented with wonderful stories, both hilarious and touching. Our audience loved her.

What can you tell me about the plans to celebrate BSC’s landmark 25thanniversary next year?

Ah! Just planning it now. I can’t say too much other than I know we are doing a classic musical and a world premiere musical – and probably the winner of the Burman New Play Contest.

During my interview with A Doll’s House, Part 2 director Joe Calarco, he mentioned that “BSC is like a second artistic home for me” and that “Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece.” What’s the process for how you attract/select the talent that is represented across BSC’s stages each summer?

I can’t say specifically. We’ve worked with Pat McCorkle, our casting director, for years. Once the actors and directors and designers are at Barrington Stage, we try to do everything we can to make it feel like their home. We support them (with parties, get-togethers, wonderful housing), listen to any concerns they have and deal with them immediately so they can concentrate on their work at hand and do the very best work they are capable of.

Manhattan Theatre Club will be next to put on The Cake, opening in February 2019. What do you think is it about this play that keeps the demand for productions of it to continue increasing?

The unbelievablly real characters Bekah Brunstetter has created. There are no villains in this piece. Bekah has given a big heart and soul to Della, the lead, who is a character you want to dislike but can’t. Ultimately, you understand why she feels the way she does but don’t agree with her. If only the rest of the country could be as open …

What makes beloved shows like The Glass Menagerie and West Side Story stand the tests of time and stay relevant for contemporary audiences?

The writing is brilliant and the characters are as vivid now as when they were written. We can still identify with these characters and follow their journeys as if they happened yesterday.

Barrington Stage CompanyWhat else can you tease to me about your 2019 season?

A hilarious musical about fracking!

Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?

We are thrilled that American Son, a play we commissioned and premiered, is now on Broadway. As The New York Times pointed out this past Sunday, regional theater is really the birthing place of many exciting new plays. Eighteen of the thirty-two new plays and musicals we’ve produced have moved on to New York or around the country!

 

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP’S “CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD”

THE NEED FOR HUMAN CONNECTION IS UNIVERSAL. HOW THAT CONNECTION IS ACCOMPLISHED, HOWEVER, IS NOT.

Now playing at Berkshire Theatre Group (in Stockbridge, MA), Children of a Lesser God examines some of the various ways that people seek that connection. Originally written in 1979 by Mark Medoff (who won a Tony and Olivier Award upon its publication), the play beautifully showcases the relationship between a speech therapist and his deaf student.

Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff; Wonderstruck, former Miss Deaf America) was born deaf. Growing up, she thought that there was something wrong with her. As she got older, she realized that the world she lives in is not necessarily the same one that the other people around her inhabit. Now a grown 26-year-old woman, Sarah does not feel the need to succumb to the communicative demands of the hearing world. Instead, she embraces sign language as her primary method of interacting with others.

Enter James Leeds (Joshua Jackson; Dawson’s CreekThe Affair). Specializing in teaching deaf students how to speak out loud, James emphasizes tools such as lip reading to help his students communicate more freely with the hearing. His ultimate goal is to educate his students how to overcome their fears and trust themselves enough to use their voices as a comfortable form of conversation.

For James, taking on Sarah as a student presents an interesting challenge. How can he teach someone something that they not only don’t want, but strongly feel that they don’t need to learn? An unconventional teacher from the moment he’s introduced, James quickly goes from being frustrated with Sarah to admiring and ultimately falling in love with her.

Children of a Lesser GodAs their connection continues to deepen, James is forced to call into question his firmly held notion that Sarah must adhere to the standards of the hearing world in order to succeed within it. How can he rightfully claim that she must change how she interacts with her hearing counterparts? How can he argue that she must conform in order to be heard? After all, the way she’s communicated her whole life has resulted in the two of them developing the most intimate relationship he’s ever had. Their incandescent love for and understanding of one another evolved naturally without Sarah ever having to audibly speak a single word.

The ensuing result is a fascinating dichotomy and exploration of human boundaries. Does James put pressure on Sarah to use her voice out of his love and caring for her? Or is it cruel for him to ask and expect her to relinquish her lifelong beliefs to appease him? And despite their passion, can Sarah hold onto her fierce independence while romantically involved with someone who will never fully understand her experience?

The role of Sarah has previously won actresses Phyllis Frelich a Tony Award and Marlee Matlin an Academy Award (for the 1986 film adaptation). Yet Ridloff manages to define her Sarah in simultaneously assertive, comical and heartwarming ways that make this standout performance unique and unforgettable. Her vulnerable interpretation of the character is nuanced and brilliant. Not a moment passes by that Ridloff is unable to relay every thought that Sarah has through her perfectly expressive and daring work. The window she provides into Sarah’s mind and soul allows for a rich and layered understanding of her character that is a real feat to accomplish for any actor in a singular setting.

Children of a Lesser God

Likewise, Jackson’s portrayal of James is a true tour-de-force. His command of sign language is spot-on, and watching James’ journey unfold while he audibly interprets Sarah’s side of each conversation for audience members unfamiliar with ASL, makes for a gripping performance that could easily rebrand the seasoned screen actor as a powerhouse stage presence. Producer Hal Luftig has already expressed interest in extending this production’s life after its initial Berkshires run is over. If a Broadway transfer is indeed in its future, don’t be surprised to find Jackson and Ridloff’s names on upcoming Tony ballots. Both actors give mesmerizing, fully committed and high caliber performances that demand to be seen.

Under the masterful direction of Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Hairspray Live, The Wiz! Live), this triumphant production of Children of a Lesser God is as poignant as it is marvelously executed. Even its minimal set provides a crucial sense of intimacy that allows the play to skillfully examine language and love in moving and thought-provoking ways. Now playing through July 22, Children of a Lesser God will deeply resonate with audience members long after the final curtain drops.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Children of a Lesser God, now through July 22 only at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published on PopBytes