With summer in full swing, one of the nation’s largest Shakespeare festivals is celebrating a big anniversary this year. And over its four decades in Lenox, Massachusetts, Shakespeare & Company has seen its share of dramatics, both on- and off-stage.
This season marks founding artistic director Tina Packer’s first time directing one of the last, and least-known, of William Shakespeare’s 37 plays: Cymbeline. Now that she’s tackled this one, she’s worked her way through the whole Shakespearean canon.
“And some of them, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve probably done eight times in my life!” she says with a laugh.
The first time was in 1978, the year Packer founded Shakespeare & Company. It was the troupe’s inaugural play, and they performed it at the Mount: Edith Wharton’s estate, and the company’s original home. Packer says they threw it together in ten days.
“But it was an enormous success in the community, so we extended its run,” she recounts. “We had a terrific time, and that’s how we began.”
As for how the whole idea of Shakespeare & Company began, we have to go back to Packer’s native England, where she was an actor in film and television – “including the one that follows me everywhere still, which is Dr. Who,” she says with a smile.
But mostly, she was doing a lot of theater, and as she puts it, she “had ideas about what I thought theater was about.”
Those ideas were especially strong when it came to Shakespeare.
“I knew every time I did a Shakespeare play – I’m talking about as an actor now – I would grow exponentially through what I would see that I hadn’t seen before,” Packer explains, “about humanity, about political structures, about the way we interact with each other.”
So she decided to tackle the Bard as a director. That way, she says, “I could have power to do what I wanted to do in the theater. And I made the switch very quickly – actually, I walked out of the television I was doing!”
Fast-forward to 1978. Packer nabbed a grant in the United States, and started her company. Not in a thriving theater hub like New York or London, but in the Berkshires.
“I wanted to see: can a classical theater company have an effect on a community?” she recalls. “You know, in New York or London, you can’t tell what impact you’re having on the community. So I wanted an identifiable community.”
The troupe took up residence at The Mount. And current artistic director Allyn Burrows -- who joined the company as an actor in 1989 – fondly recalls performing all over the estate. They did shows in the house, the stables and outdoors, in the Mainstage Theater.
“Basically, you had the largest usable outdoor space in the country. It was 100 yards wide,” he says. “We could bring horses up onto the stage, and trucks – I remember doing Taming of the Shrew when we couldn’t get the pick-up truck to start in a downpour!”
And on clearer nights, he describes how “in front of an audience of about 700 people, you would have the moon rising up above the pines while Shakespeare in text was being delivered in total silence.”
But Shakespeare & Company didn’t just perform Shakespeare. They started a training program for actors, and an education program for schools.
Kevin Coleman developed the latter. He says he particularly remembers “one little girl in a 45-minute workshop, and she was playing Ophelia. And at the end of that workshop she said, ‘I’ve learned more about Ophelia in 45 minutes than I have the last 4 weeks we’ve been reading it in the classroom!’”
During Shakespeare & Company’s earliest years, they performed two or three plays a season. By the 1990s, it was more than a dozen.
But with this growth came growing pains. Allyn Burrows says funds were so tight in the late 90s, they did what Shakespeare’s troupe did, and had actors handle the administrative work – from publicity to the box office.
As for Burrows, he started a pub.
That "largely meant that the actors’ paychecks could be circulated back through the pub!” he said with a chuckle.
Once they were in the black, they hired staff to take over. But it wasn’t long before another challenge arose: major tensions between the theater company and the nonprofit that owned The Mount.
“In any tenant-landlord situation, there are going to be different priorities, different visions, different agendas,” Burrows says.
After a drawn-out legal battle, Shakespeare & Company relocated to the sprawling, 30-acre campus that once housed the Lenox School for Boys. The company built one theater out of the school’s gymnasium, another out of the hockey rink. It converted the old dorms into apartments.
That was in 2001. Just as before, the company kept performing on stage, training actors and teaching Shakespeare in schools, but behind the scenes, the drama continued. At one point, the company created a new position: executive director.
“Basically, when the executive director was brought in, you know there’s a culture here that he maybe didn’t understand,” Burrows explains. “And then there were miscommunications, and when misunderstandings are accelerated, then they can become very acute.”
So “acute” that what happened next was straight out of a Shakespeare play: an artistic director was ousted, the executive director resigned, turnover and turmoil swept the company’s board. After a pair of interim artistic directors steered things for a spell, Burrows was hired in 2016.
“When I came in, stability was a real priority,” Burrows says. “Making sure that everybody was heard, making sure we put ourselves on a firm financial footing. And now we’re going to kind of steady the ship.”
Burrows plans to add more American classics to Shakespeare & Company’s repertoire. He also wants to foster new work through playwriting workshops and to bring company productions to New York – the very place Tina Packer avoided back in 1978.
If you ask Packer whether she thinks the company would have lasted this long had it begun in a big city such as New York, she answers without hesitation.
“I don’t think it would have,” she says. “We would never have been able to have the leeway to make the mistakes we did!”
Instead, Shakespeare & Company now has nearly 200 people on staff. More than 10,000 actors have gone through the training program. More than a million students have done the education program.
“So, can a classical theater company affect a community?” Packer asks. “The answer is yes. You know, we’re not just teaching the kids of the kids now; we’re teaching the kids of the kids of the kids!”
And they’re performing for them, too. Nowadays, nearly 33,000 patrons flock to Shakespeare and Company’s plays each season to experience the Bard in the Berkshires.