The stage is set for fresh works

In Lenox and Central Square, new spaces mean wider opportunities

Two companies will share the Central Square Theater on Massachusetts Avenue, while pooling staff and resources. Two companies will share the Central Square Theater on Massachusetts Avenue, while pooling staff and resources. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

Anyone who's been through a home renovation knows the peculiar mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that a construction project can bring. When it's a theater being worked on, however, there's an added element of excitement.

For it's not just a new building that's coming into being. It's a new opportunity to create different kinds of work, as this summer's "soft openings" of two Massachusetts theaters make clear.

In Cambridge, more than a decade of planning, fund-raising, and construction will culminate in the opening of the Central Square Theater, with a unique resident-company structure that partners the Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater. In Lenox, Shakespeare & Company has renovated a massive building on its Kemble Street property to house its scenery and costume shops, rehearsal rooms, and the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

The Central Square Theater features a 200-seat black-box main stage, as well as a smaller Studio Theater (about 50 seats) for more intimate work, late-night cabaret shows, and rehearsal space. That's in addition to classrooms, storage areas, and workshops.

But what's even more exciting to its leaders - executive director Catherine Carr Kelly and Nora and Underground Railway artistic directors Mary C. Huntington and Debra Wise, respectively - is the way in which its shared spaces will allow them to share staff, resources, and ideas while still remaining separate artistic entities.

"There are lots of financial reasons to share space," Huntington says. "But we realized what you have to do is share staff, too - while still maintaining the vision, mission statement, and unique style of each theater."

Another key element of the new theater's identity, Wise says, is its commitment to involving the people who live nearby. "Making the connections between the venue and the community dynamic and personal was really important from the start," she says, "largely because the community got involved in making this happen."

The theater's programming will reflect those community roots. Its first offering, "QED," focuses on the life of iconoclast/physicist/bongo player Richard Feynman. As it did in previews at this spring's Cambridge Science Festival, the production (starting July 24) will incorporate discussions with scientists from MIT, Harvard, and Boston University, including some who knew Feynman personally. It will play in repertory with "Coming Up for Air: An AutoJAZZography," the Norton Award-winning solo performance piece by local jazz musician Stan Strickland. In August, the main stage will see a new interactive work by "hip-hop harpist" Deborah Henson-Conant.

New work is also key to the identity of Shakespeare & Company's new Production and Performing Arts Center, already nicknamed PaPA. The Bernstein Theater will have a flexible configuration - seating 186 with a thrust stage, or anywhere from 65 to 150 in an end-stage set-up. The smallest size is particularly conducive to more intimate modern plays and literary adaptations, such as the Edith Wharton interpretations that S&Co used to stage at Spring Lawn, the mansion it had to sell a couple of years back.

"It's charming, also, but much more functional" than the old space at Spring Lawn, says Nick Puma, the company's new managing director.

After a one-night, invitation-only gala performance by artistic director Tina Packer of "Shirley Valentine" on July 12, the theater will make its public bow Aug. 1 with the world premiere of "The Goatwoman of Corvis County," by company member Christine Whitley. But there's more to see than just the plays, according to architect Stephan Green of Clark & Green, the Great Barrington firm that designed the renovation.

"The building itself is, we believe, going to be an attraction," Green says. "It will have everything under one roof, and there will be tours, so people will be able to see rehearsals, watch the costume shop, the scene shop."

For the moment, this kind of nuts-and-bolts construction of much-needed production and training space is taking precedence over the company's plans to build a historically accurate replica of Shakespeare's Rose Theatre.

"We'd like to see how well the PaPA center works, then get involved in those other plans," Puma says. "The Rose will never succeed if it doesn't have that foundation to build on."

For complete schedules: Central Square Theater, Cambridge; 617-491-2026, Shakespeare & Co., Lenox; 413-637-3353,

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