Ten Minutes With Julianne Boyd – The Barrington Stage Artistic Director
Julianne Boyd is following people out of a fairytale as the fairytale changes around them. They are refugees, hiding in the trees on the edge of battle, telling stories at night, questioning the story they are living in. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. Barrington Stage’s 25th season centers around Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (through July 13). In a time of debate over digital media and representation, this musical and many of the company’s upcoming plays talk about what stories we tell and what stories we need to tell, who tells them and what we believe. New works question the past, Boyd says, and explore speculative futures.
How do you curate your summer season? It is part of my job to know what plays are out there, and to know our audience, what they want to see—and what worlds they may not have not seen yet. I start with the musical. Usually it opens the season, and I have wanted to do Into the Woods for a long time. I love musicals, the heightened emotion, the large cast and the action. And we have become known for reinterpreting musicals with nuance and directness, a solid reality underlying the comedy. Then I choose plays to compliment them. We’re balancing serious and hilarious: David Ives’s comic short plays in Time Flies [July 5 to 27] and a 21st-century Jewish family in crisis in If I Forget [August 1 to September 1], as the younger generation questions the older generation. I want stories that are timely today, that start conversations and get people thinking about the world in a way they have not seen it before.
What kinds of conversations? American Underground this fall [October 2-20] is set in a future, not-very-alternate universe when Muslims are being captured and killed in this country, and a woman trying to survive knocks on the door of a couple with a teenage son. It’s frightening, and it’s not far different from events in this country now. It could happen. And it makes you think. When was the last time people weren’t free to walk in the streets here? And yet this play also has humor. This may be one of our most challenging plays this year. Stacey Rose writes about a troupe of black actors who are charged with re-enacting a revised history. They are increasingly aware that that history is not true, and what happens when they know that? When an original voice excites me, I want to bring that writer’s work here. Theater is storytelling. It’s great storytelling.
How do these stories move beyond the theater? We are building an audience for new plays and relevant plays, and we are holding community conversations—we will have one about fracking this summer around our new musical comedy, Fall Springs [August 9 to 31], with an EPA lawyer. One of our top goals is working more deeply in the community. We have just hired a community engagement coordinator to help us expand on efforts like the Playwright Mentoring Program with local teens and to explore collaborations with community organizations, and we are listening, first, to what people are talking about and what they need.
Have you always been close to the community? We started out with our headquarters in a deserted camp with the air whistling through the slats. When we started in 1995, we had no idea what we had. We were new and enthusiastic. We were putting on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in the backroom in the old Macano Inn in Housatonic. I found the play through Danny Holgate. He was my musical director when I directed on Broadway, and he performed in Lady Day as a jazz pianist. His wife, Gail Nelson, was Billie Holliday, singing in an old bar on one of the last nights of her life. And we were performing in places like the Belden Tavern in Lee. We wanted to perform in community spaces—we wanted to connect and talk with people. And we did. After the first couple of shows, people would come an hour early and offer to help. People would follow us from one performance to the next. They would come because we were performing in their town, and some of them had never been to the theater before.
How has the company built long-term stability? We moved into the Consolati Performing Arts Center at Mount Everett High School first, and early on we gave a lot of co-productions. We put on Cabaret in 1997 with the Orpheum Theatre Foxborough, and it was a game-changer. It’s set in Berlin in the rise of fascism, and we showed the master of ceremonies of the club controlling the actions of the people around him. Sally Bowles, one of the lead characters, is young and thoughtless and light-headed, and he moves her like a puppet, figuratively, until she loses any will of her own. The show sold out the CPAC and moved on to the Hasty Pudding Club in Cambridge, and then we knew our theater had legs.
You were at the southern edge of the Berkshires then. What drew you to move to the center of the county? We wanted our own space and room to expand our season, and in 2006, Pittsfield had established a cultural office to enliven the economy, and the mayor, James Ruberto, and the community welcomed us. Being in the center of the county has given us an unbelievable amount of energy, even in something as simple as being able to walk across the street for a cup of coffee, and our audience here has grown.