As the days of August tick away, many Berkshires performance venues are closing the curtains on their summer sessions.
According to the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, tourists spend $355 million a year in Berkshire County, leading to an economic impact of $564 million a year. Aside from the area’s natural beauty, much of that credit goes to the region’s arts and performance venues.
A mainstay wrapping up its 82nd season this weekend is Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. On average, the center in Becket hosts some 90,000 visitors from June to August. Executive and artistic director Ella Baff says this season was perhaps the best in the past 10 years as performances broke box-office records.
“Some of them it seemed like a rock concert,” Baff said. “I mean when you see dance that is that spectacular, so visually appealing and inspiring…when you see these great dancers you’re watching people do movement that the rest of us mortals can’t possibly do.”
Baff says the numbers exceeded expectations.
“There was a lot of new work that people got very excited about and it sort of caught on,” she explained. “We love to present new companies and new work, but one doesn’t always know how the public is going to react to that.”
Baff adds visitors are also spending more time at the center viewing galleries and video archives. The returning customer also helped the Williamstown Theatre Festival sell 35,000 tickets over seven weeks this season; the highest in four years despite having one fewer production. Steve Kaus is the Festival’s producer.
“One thing that really stood out to me was I saw a lot of people who had never been to the Festival before,” Kaus said. “They showed up to see Living on Love and they walked out with smiles on their faces because it really was fall out of your seat hilarious. They said ‘I love this place. What’s next? Let’s go buy tickets to The Visit.’ They came three weeks later and saw and The Visit and they walked out puffy-eyed and tears running down their face saying ‘I’ve never been so moved.’ If we can do that to our audience, in particular a new audience, we’ve succeeded throughout the course of the summer.”
Kaus credits the success to outgoing artistic director Jenny Gersten, who crafted the lineup with a range of genres. He adds the strong turnout numbers weren’t limited to Williamstown Theatre Festival, celebrating its 60th season.
“The amount of people who would come and in and say ‘I couldn’t find parking in this town and I couldn’t get a dinner reservation in this town because The Clark is full, you’re full, WCMA’s [Williams College Museum of Art] full and [MASS] MoCA’s full’…that’s a good problem to have,” said Kaus.
Baff is hopeful that when one area venue succeeds, others do as well.
“Maybe the real cloud of the recession has lifted,” Baff said. “I hope it lasts.”
Aside from those with long-standing traditions, a newcomer built its way to this summer’s stage…literally. With the community chipping in costumes, props and building materials, Enrico Spada founded and launched Pittsfield’s Shakespeare in the Park. He says eight July performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a temporary stage at Springside Park drew 1,500 people.
“Which is more than I ever could expect and just a real thrill to see that people looking to see free, outdoor Shakespeare,” said Spada.
With cameo appearances by Mayor Dan Bianchi and others, Spada adds the youngest audience members were captivated by the performances…most of the time.
“But every once in a while, you’ll see them kind of go off the wire a little bit and running around just enjoying being outside in the park while mom and dad continue to watch the show,” Spada said with a laugh.
Overall the group raised $30,000, enough to cover expenses. Next summer, Spada hopes to raise enough to pay the 19 actors. He also anticipates a move to Pittsfield’s First Street Common, which is undergoing a facelift, and expanding the program’s outreach into area schools.