Berkshire Actors Theatre: Banking on the ‘Zing’ Factor

Berkshire Actors Theatre artistic director Clover Bell-Devaney (photo N Johnston)

By Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass.) – In a region where you can barely take two steps without tripping over a theater group — whether it be an Equity summer theater, a year-round community group, a regional powerhouse, or a presenting organization – it may seem almost perverse to create yet another organization dedicated to the theater arts.

But that didn’t stop Clover Bell-Devaney and associates from establishing the Berkshire Actors Theatre, which quickly made a mark on the scene with its critically acclaimed production of John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs and a Bone last summer and is following up that success with a remounting of that play this summer (July 2-15) plus a staging of Shanley’s ever-popular Doubt: A Parable (June 21-July 14) this summer, in the company’s new home at Berkshire Museum.

The Rogovoy Report spoke with BAT artistic director Bell-Devaney about the thinking behind devoting an entire run to the work of Shanley; the decision to base the company in Pittsfield; and, to find out just what it means to be an “actors theatre.”

Rogovoy Report: Why two John Patrick Shanley plays? What in particular is it about John Patrick Shanley that you like and think your audience will like?

Clover Bell-Devaney: Well, obviously I’m a fan of his work, and I have been for a long time. Tight, dynamic dialogue. Humor and humanity…all of these qualities draw an audience in, especially when the actors are really going for it, which they did in last years’ production of Four Dogs and a Bone.

Honestly the idea of the rep of these two pieces of his began to percolate when I started thinking last fall about remounting Four Dogs and a Bone. The production garnered eleven rave reviews and received a mention  in the “Best of 2011” Berkshire Eagle column. It made sense to me to bring it back now that BAT is actually on everyone’s radar. From there, I thought about what play would create a striking juxtaposition to it. Doubt came to mind, as it has long been one of my favorite plays.

RR: How did you get in touch with him, make contact with him, to get him involved?

CB-D: It all kind of came together in my head at once, that if I remounted a hit, and mixed it in with a new production of a Pulitzer Prize winner, and they were both by John Patrick Shanley, not only would it check off a lot of boxes for BAT’s mission and style, but I might be able to get the playwright’s interest and support as well. John and I had some mutual friends, so through them I contacted him, and told him my idea. We began meeting in New York City in December and have maintained a friendship which has been truly invaluable in terms of understanding his work. He’s also the one who put me in touch with Sister Margaret McEntee, his first grade teacher, upon whom he based the role of Sister James in Doubt (the role I am playing this summer). He also dedicated the film version to her. Getting to know her has been extraordinary, and she is coming out July 1st to stay with me and my family, see the production, and most importantly; do a talkback immediately following the 5pm Sunday July 1 performance.

Clover Bell-Devaney with Sister Margaret McEntee, the playwright's inspiration for 'Doubt' and the role Bell-Devaney will play

RR: With so many theater festivals and ensembles and series and groups, why did the Berkshires need another one, and what niche does Berkshire Actors Theatre fill that needed filling?

CB-D: Why wouldn’t we need more theatre? I don’t see that there’s any sort of quota that has been filled. To me it makes sense to start a theatre in an area that clearly has a population that appreciates and supports it.

“The more the merrier” theory aside, there weren’t any Equity companies that were dedicated to using exclusively local professional talent, and our local creative economy is so key. I also have my own particular vision as an artistic director that I believe is a good contrast to the others. I will always be drawn to theatre that is intense, dynamic, and riveting, whether it’s a comedy or a drama, I’m always going to be looking for punch, impact. Nothing sleepy or dated. This doesn’t mean everything will be edgy or new, it just means it will have zing.

RR: Why did you locate BAT in Pittsfield as opposed to, say, Lenox or Great Barrington?

CB-D: Pittsfield is a success story, but it needs constant support to maintain this upswing it is on, and I want to be a part of that with my company. I’ve also felt very supported by Pittsfield businesses in terms of their interest and investment in us. We have a close working relationship with Barrington Stage Company; my entire team of designers and directors is based there, so in terms of material resources, it’s awfully convenient from that standpoint as well. Peter Lafayette at Berkshire Bank has been a great support, and the Berkshire Bank Foundation is a sponsor of our season. The Berkshire Museum was the perfect fit for BAT in terms of a performance venue. Pittsfield’s Cultural District designation is a real feather in its cap, and all the individuals and  businesses who have worked to bring this about are an inspiration to me.

RR: What audience is BAT going after? In other words, who does BAT hope to attract to its productions?

CB-D: Everybody, of course. We will naturally appeal to a more theatre-savvy, younger audience, but hopefully the type of work we are doing will be of interest to all demographics because it’s interesting, exciting, and well done.

Berkshire Actors Theatre artistic director Clover Bell-Devaney believes a theater company needs a visionary, inspiring leader

RR: In what way is BAT an “actors theatre” and what does that mean? Is there a role model for this?

CB-D: It’s Berkshire Actors Theatre, because: A) my focus is on the roles for the actors and, B) we hire Berkshire (based) actors. While production values are very important, as you will see by our roster of top-tier designers, they are there to support a production in which acting is paramount, and each role is a tour de force of sorts. My base of staff is also mainly comprised of actors, who, like me, also have other skills to lend to the all-consuming and monumental task of building and running a theatre company. In terms of role models, I’ve done a lot of reading over the last year about how certain companies started. It became clear to me from reading that companies that didn’t have a clear leadership structure didn’t function very well. Again and again, the message was, it’s fine to have your passion for theatre grow out of your passion for acting and to have many of your founding members be actors, but they must be business people as well, and there must be an artistic director at the helm who holds the vision and inspires everyone to persevere. I hope I am doing a good job at that.

RR: Does BAT have an in-house talent pool or ensemble of actors, directors and tech crew, or is every production open to new talent?

CB-D: Every production is open to new talent, and it is actually mandated by Actors Equity that we hold open auditions for every production. We do also have a core of favorite actors who we want to put forward, but will do so judiciously so that our audiences never get tired of any of us! I’m also always looking to expand that core. As you can see from our cast list, I myself am in both shows this summer; that won’t happen again. Four Dogs is a remount so it was unavoidable, and as far as Doubt…I’ll just say that when John Patrick Shanley tells you he sees you in the role of Sister James, is willing to spend his time exploring the character with you, introduce you to the real Sister James, and it’s been your favorite play for years, you have to say “yes.”

Our other Doubt actors; Patrick White, Peggy Wilson, and Alika Hope are all new to BAT this year. The fact that we could find another perfect ensemble comprised of local professionals two years in a row is proof that this area is very rich in talent, which enforces our mission. We had our first table read of Doubt yesterday, and I had chills, I can’t imagine a more perfect cast than the four of us; truly, it’s going to be a powerful production. As far as our designers and directors, many are the same as last year and some are new. The one unifying characteristic is that they are all connected to Barrington Stage Company! It just sort of happened the first season, and having found professionals I can trust, who already work together is tremendously helpful to me as the producer.

RR: What will the future of BAT look like in terms of a season, meaning, how many shows per year, will it just be a summer run or will it be year-round, and any hints of what will be next in terms of programming?

CB-D: The model you are seeing now is the baby steps version of where we’re headed. This summer it’s two shows, ultimately, we’d like to be doing three a summer-but we need to see what happens in terms of fundraising before I can say if that will be happening as soon as 2013. This year, we will be doing a weekend performance in the fall; we will definitely participate in the 2013 10×10 Festival on North in the winter; and we will continue to expand our educational programming, while prepping for next summer. As far as hints, my artistic associates are furiously reading and running plays by me for consideration, and we have some exciting ideas, but nothing I can share yet, except that it won’t be John Patrick Shanley again!




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