As theaters are bringing back in-person performances later this year, I want to train a spotlight on regional theaters across the United States. Recently, I was in contact with Allyn Burrows, who serves as Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. His directing and acting credits span an impressive array of productions at Shakespeare & Company, in the Boston theater scene, and Off-Broadway. He has also appeared in television programs including The Broad Squad, Law and Order, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and Against the Law. His film credits include The Company Men, Julie & Julia, and Manchester by the Sea.
On our call, Burrows assured me that Washington, D.C., where I’m located, is not too far from Shakespeare & Company. Having made the drive from D.C. to Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York a few times, I’d definitely agree with him. “The Berkshires is a welcome respite from the heat of the summer in the cities,” he added.
Here are the highlights of our discussion about his approach as Artistic Director, adapting to COVID-19 challenges, and what’s coming up this season.
Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?
I would have to say Much Ado About Nothing because I was playing Benedick in 2003. That was the summer I met my wife – not on the show, but that was the summer I met her. I have my favorite Shakespeares for a variety of reasons.
How would you say your longtime experience as an actor informs your approach as an Artistic Director?
It allows me, I hope, to have a level of empathy and insight from that side of things. It allows me in the process to have a more organic approach.
The short answer is that I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t attempt myself. You won’t ever hear me say, “Just do it like this” or “When I played the role…” I have done most of the canon now, either I’ve acted or directed in it. I try to let actors find their own way because it’s their personal journey in relationship to the character. They are the ones who are in dialogue and melding together.
This year has been really unprecedented. Could you highlight one or two ways you’ve had to pivot in addressing the challenges?
Well, I opened a drive-in movie theater. That was one big pivot. I screwed a big movie screen under the side of one of our old buildings. I collaborated with the Berkshire International Film Festival. We showed some Shakespeare-themed films, but also very impactful independent films and documentaries.
We pivoted to online programming big time. We became a tiny little film producing company with no experience at it before. I’d been an actor in films but I’d never done film direction.
We had to put everyone on furlough for three months, and then brought everyone back in the fall. It was an artistically emotional pivot as well. We were so programmed to do things every summer [the same way] and then we couldn’t. It did allow me to spend more time with my nine-year-old daughter in the summertime.
How have staff, creatives, and actors been faring and what’s the feeling about the next phase you’re entering?
With things opening up, people are needing to warm up to the notion of what it will mean to be back. There’s a level of intense emotion around it: relief, caution, and fear of the unknown. We want to embrace and trust it. Trust among individuals is manifesting a divide in the country. That comes down to personal interactions, which are at stake. I was reading an article today about countries normally coming together collectively to fight a common antagonist. It didn’t necessarily happen with the pandemic as we remain polarized. It could have been a unifying factor, but it wasn’t. I think the bottom line is that people are grateful to be working again and have something to be working towards.
I saw that you have a brand new outdoor theater, the New Spruce Theatre.
It’s in construction right now! [laughs] Where I’m sitting, I am looking at bulldozers rolling around. It moved very quickly, though there was a backlog for materials. It’s project I’d been thinking about for four years. Once COVID hit, all of a sudden, there was a new license to push it forward because then everyone could be outside in a 500-seat outdoor amphitheater. Until two days ago, we could only have 50 percent capacity. We’re going to see if we can up that based on people’s comfort level.
I built another smaller outdoor theater when I came back five years ago. This new one has a whole Roman inspiration. It has towering spruce trees and it overlooks the mountains. I’m looking forward to it. Christopher Lloyd will be playing King Lear.
What do you like most about King Lear and what are your expectations about this upcoming production?
I played Kent years ago with Alvin Epstein, who played the Fool to Orson Welles’ Lear in 1955. He was such an icon of American theater. It was an honor to be able to be up there with him. I’m playing the Fool this time. One expectation is that I hope I don’t muck it up too much.
It’s such a faulty play. [laughs] That is what intrigues me about it. The first act starts off impeccably and then it goes off the rails. That’s fascinating because people associate the play with being something that they know and yet, the layers are always getting peeled back if you sit with it. It’s a complicated and multi-faceted story.
I hope the story really comes through and that I built the theater in an intimate enough way that the powerful emotions of the play come through in this outdoor space. We’ll be performing in the afternoon so there won’t be the advantage of lighting tricks. The only lighting trick we have will be sunset.
Take us through the other highlights of this season.
We’re doing Art by Yasmina Reza, directed by Christopher Edwards. We have a new place by Debra Ann Byrd called BECOMING OTHELLO: A Black Girl’s Journey. There’s a workshop production of Measure for Measure. Also, in the fall, we’re going back inside with hang, by debbie tucker green, which is a really gut-punching play as the fate of the perpetrator hangs in the hands of its victim. That’s really strong.
Then we’re going back to absurdist comedy with Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs. Sometimes absurd times call for absurd plays, so that’s why we’re ending with The Chairs. It’s not a play that I would normally have produced, because it creates such divided reactions. People are either like “I love that play!” or “That’s clearly the worst play I’ve ever seen!” [laughs] That just makes me gravitate towards it.