“There’s such and incredible pool of talent up here… from Connecticut through Massachusetts into Vermont and throughout New York.” Jim Frangione is very expressive when talking about regional theater in the Litchfield Hills, the Berkshires, and the Hudson Valley. “We’ve got great theater here that draws incredible talent from New York and Boston. It’s the local talent that impresses us.”
The “us” Frangione refers to includes Great Barrington Public Theater co-founder Deann Simmons Halper, an actor/producer/director whose extensive list of theater credits compliments his lengthy listing of film, television, and theater roles as a writer/actor/director.
Together, Halper as managing director and Frangione as artistic director harnessed the energies and contacts of such celebrated efforts as the Aglet Theatre Company and Berkshire Playwrights Lab to form a unique addition to the regional theater scene.
Resumés worth noting… and applauding
Theater-goers through the region will likely have seen both company founders on the “boards” at Shakespeare & Company, Barrington Stage Company, Sharon Playhouse, and Aglet Theatre Company productions. They’ve been honored with not only excellent critical reviews, but nominations for theatrical awards including the OBIE and Berkshire Theatre Critics’ Award.
Halper reflects on the creation of the company in a way that reaches out to the entire creative and appreciative theatrical community. “Both Jim and I had been involved with presenting staged readings for several years, in various forms, and with several different theater companies. While readings are essential to the development of new plays, we’d heard from a number of playwrights that what they really desired was a production – actors not holding scripts, a lengthier and more substantive revision and rehearsal process, basically a deeper dive into the new play, opening it up to audiences and critics alike.”
Finding their niche as “the other guys”
“We’re the theatrical alternative,” offers Frangione when assessing the potential competition from the regional powerhouse companies that draw marquee names to appear in recognized plays. “We focus on new plays… pieces that may have had theatrical readings or small, regional productions, but are not widely known.” One such play is David Mamet’s The Christopher Boy’s Communion, which was to be the centerpiece of the company’s 2020 season but, for the obvious reasons of a national pandemic, had to be postponed for an anticipated East Coast premiere in summer of 2021.
Frangione’s connection with Mamet has deep roots. From Jim’s years with The Stage Company of Boston, where he first met Mamet, to his theatrical “break,” first as understudy to William H. Macy in Mamet’s Oleanna at the Orpheum Theatre in New York to stepping into the lead role on the play’s national tour, the two have remained personal and professional friends. Frangione appeared in Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, the film that boasts Steve Martin’s one straight dramatic role and will be remembered, locally, appearing in American Buffalo at Berkshire Theatre Festival in a production that starred Chris Noth.
Originally from Cape Cod, Frangione has been a local resident for years, connecting his oceanside roots to his passion for writing in a trilogy, the second part of which, Breakwater, was the premier production of Great Barrington Public Theater. “We have close connections to Bard College at Simon’s Rock and have been fortunate enough to find a home for our productions in their amazing theater complex.” The Daniel Arts Center at the college not only offers a state-of-the-art, 300-seat proscenium stage theater – the McConnell Theater – but the more intimate Black Box Theater that is designed for readings and lab productions of new plays.
Not unlike all of the regional theater companies, Great Barrington Public Theater exerted great energy in finding and presenting alternate presentations during a summer season completely erased by COVID-19 and the strict limitations required to attempt containment. From live, in-person performances to virtual performances designed to attract both the attention and the support of a burgeoning audience, the company has mounted two series. What would have been a live performance – Bear Tales – became Bear Tales – Six Feet Together, a series of solo pieces that matches area writers with area performers in bringing fresh work to the audience.
Drawing, again, on the long-term relationship with David Mamet and his wife, actor Rebecca Pidgeon, the free, online productions include a one act play by Mamet in which Pidgeon portrays the legendary, complex and tragic New York media personality, Dorothy Kilgallen.
A similar effort to bring the arts to a virtual audience is represented in a joint venture between Great Barrington Public Theater and the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, an organization that unites creative professionals throughout the region, serves as a clearing house for the skilled media disciplines and has brought together a star-studded list of board and advisory members. The Collaborative reinforces Frangione’s assertion that the region is peppered with extraordinary talent, so combining the reach of the Theater with the skills of the Collaborative has resulted in Berkshire Outdoor Shorts, an ongoing series of short films that focus on the natural environment of the Berkshires.
The websites of every arts program in the region echo the uncertainty and resilient hope that each has for a 2021 season that may bring at least a half-step toward “normalcy.” As the months continue to pile up and the virus continues its relentless march through the population, it is the hope of available vaccines that keeps the flame alive. Well within the collection of organizations hoping for a brighter future is Great Barrington Public Theater. Their founding mandate, to be “a collaboration of seasoned theater professionals and newcomers to professional theater, all committed to bringing new work, new voices, local talent, and always-affordable tickets to audiences in the Berkshires” lives on. The theaters at Bard College at Simon’s Rock remain dark, awaiting their hoped for return. In the interim, both Deann Halper Simmons and Jim Frangione, along with the other talented individuals who have linked themselves to the theater – Anne Undeland (associate artist/playwright/actor), Andy Reynolds (associate artist/playwright/grant writer), Elizabeth Nelson (associate artist/playwright/marketing), and Mike Clary (marketing/communications) – soldier on. •
It was a gift, created out of love, respect and the spirit of the community. After 133 years, the gift endures and continues to honor the man whose name it bears – Orville Dewey.
Dewey Memorial Hall in Sheffield, MA, is no common effort at celebrating the life of a stalwart community resident. It is not a statue tucked on a corner, attracting flocks of pigeons that would decorate it. It is not a fading sign near a minor bridge or a dedicated mile or two of highway.
The Hall is an impressive presence in a quaint New England town … an anchor for the civic life of a community that has changed dramatically since Orville Dewey bookended his life in this place. He left a young scholar and returned, many years later, as a recognized, celebrated and sometimes controversial preacher and social thought leader. He was always, however, a presence and his devotion to his hometown never seemed to waiver.
So widely was Dewey respected that it was openly acknowledged that Orville Wright, co-creator with his brother Wilbur of the first successful heavier than air flying machines was named for Orville Dewey.
Dewey Memorial Hall recognizes the impact Dewey’s life had on the community and continues to be a place where the people of Sheffield can gather for listening, learning, dancing, laughing, celebrating, and sharing. Although the raging pandemic of 2020 may have kept its doors closed, temporarily, the prospect of an end to quarantine and isolation will find Dewey Memorial Hall still standing, still welcoming the community that was the recipient of the gift.
Dewey Memorial Hall was never intended to be anything other than a place where the community could assemble and share. The original thinking, which Dewey had started as he returned to Sheffield from a career that had taken him from three years at Williams College (he was so well prepared that he skipped his freshman year) to Boston, New York … to Washington, across Europe then back home to Sheffield, was to create a welcoming space where ideas could be shared.
“Good and kindly feelings …”
Central to his thinking had been a voracious appetite for reading, so the first gatherings above the general store were named the Sheffield Friendly Union and the effort began to accumulate a library and provide that magical element of community – a central place to gather. In the words of the organizing group in 1871, the Friendly Union was formed “to increase good and kindly feelings and promote intelligence and cheerfulness.”
It was not to be a church that could, by the very nature of dogma and belief, divide a community. Dewey experienced that kind of dramatic division in his own life. Best known as a leader of Unitarianism, his departure from stricter Calvinistic theology had him banned from his own home church in Sheffield until 1876 when the National Centennial afforded him a chance to return. He was 82 years old. The Friendly Union would not be competitive to the Grange with its focus on the agricultural life of the community. The Friendly Union would be just that – welcoming and bonding for a community.
The continuum of history
The importance of a community place, of finding a location to share common experiences is as old as humanity, itself. Archaeologists have combed and sifted through hundreds of locations where gatherings were held, where religious rites were conducted, where laws were passed, leaders selected, and culture sustained. The common space in the most primitive communities hosted athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life experiences.
Rings of weathered stones in Portugal still bear witness to the Almendres Cremlich dating from 6000 BCE. Villages in ancient Greece were built around the agora, a place of meeting, political and eventually commercial life. The Agora of Athens has become iconic as the wellspring of philosophy after hosting Socrates, Plato and their followers. The still mysterious generation and use of Stonehenge on the plains outside of Salisbury, England looks back to 3000 BCE to see the dedication and determination of people to come together. From 930 to 1798 AD the people of Iceland would gather every year for their national parliament, Alþingi, at Þingvellir to maintain a sense of order and common good. It was their “place.”
Closer to home, the creation of Fanueil Hall in Boston was prompted by the need for a place that could both foster commerce and conversation … a space where the community could gather to transact its daily business and to share ideas.
What $10,000 could buy
When Orville Dewey died in 1882, seven days short of his 88th birthday, the community experienced a significant loss – a loss that motivated his children, supported by long-time friends and associates, to decide that the best way to commemorate his legacy was to give the community the space he had always wanted it to have.
Raising money from across the region, the fund grew along with the plans. Five years after Dewey’s death, Dewey Memorial Hall opened its doors to the people of Sheffield. Inside the fieldstone, marble, and shingle building was a room to hold the all-important library that had been so important to the community organization. And, there was a central space with amazing acoustics that would welcome lectures and debates, concerts and, eventually dances … weddings, parties, anniversary celebrations, the longtime home of the Sheffield Senior Center, and, each holiday season, a party hosted by Volunteers in Medicine to honor their volunteers. Musicians who have graced the stage at Dewey Memorial Hall over the years have noted that significant amplification is not needed. The design and construction of the main room is so well done that sound travels easily in the space.
There were art installations and concerts promoted by local arts groups from string quartets to swing band concerts. The Hall has been available to all for their use and enjoyment. And, there has been dancing. The contra dances at Dewey have become legendary. Groups from all of the Northeast have been attracted to the traditional dances in the Hall.
The gift that will keep on giving
When the COVID-19 pandemic made large gatherings impossible, the normally vibrant – even hectic – cultural season in the region came to an abrupt halt. Concerts and programs scheduled for Dewey Memorial Hall were swept away in the same tidal wave that sent every cultural group scurrying to find “virtual venues” to sustain connections with their audiences. With social distancing strictly adhered to and the “abundance of caution” that seems to be the defining moment for every effort to present theater and concerts, Dewey Memorial Hall manager, Maggie McRae and Board of Trustees member Beth Carlson came up with a series of outdoor events to keep the community both entertained and engaged.
With sustaining funding always an issue for performing arts venues, an online fund raising concert was presented on October 29 featuring local musical powerhouse, Wanda Houston and her talented band. The concert, entitled Keep the Lights On honored long-time board member Priscilla Cote, was streamed and made available through the Hall’s website. Presented without cost, donations were requested with the hope, the belief that the community would respond and provide on-going support for the gift that has been a continuous presence in Sheffield for nearly 134 years … for “this place.”
Continuing information about Dewey Memorial Hall is available on their website www.deweyhall.org.