hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture


Theater festival goes urban

Berkshire Fringe finds new home in Pittsfield arts district


By STACEY MORRISBerkshire Fringe co-directors Timothy Ryan Olson, Sara Katzoff and Peter Wise.
Contributing writer


After nine years of producing cutting-edge summer theater in Great Barrington, The Berkshire Fringe will celebrate its 10th anniversary in August at a new home in Pittsfield’s Upstreet arts district.

From its new urban base at the Shire City Sanctuary, a former church at 40 Melville St. that’s owned by the textile artist Crispina ffrench, the fringe festival will join Pittsfield’s growing menu of cultural attractions. These already include the mainstream theater productions of Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theater Group, which runs the historic Colonial Theatre.
But the fringe festival’s leaders say the move, which has been aided by Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development, won’t change the festival’s commitment to affordable, boundary-testing theater.

The Berkshire Fringe got its start when its artistic co-directors – Sara Katzoff, Peter Wise and Timothy Ryan Olson – were in their early 20s. The trio of graduates from Bard College at Simon’s Rock had a dream of organizing their own version of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and giving the Berkshires a venue for affordable theater and a place to showcase up-and-coming theatrical talent.

The threesome founded Bazaar Productions in 2003, inspired by the growing movement of experimental and multi-media “fringe” theater in Europe and Canada and elsewhere in the United States.

“We wanted to diversify the cultural landscape at home and bring an international and experimental element to our community,” Katzoff said. “One of the things we valued and wanted to bring to Berkshires was a younger voice in performing arts. We wanted to create a home to support emerging artists and new work, because we felt that was wasn’t being represented in the Berkshires.”

In 2005, Bazaar Productions launched the first season of The Berkshire Fringe, a 21-day festival of theater, dance, music and multi-media works by actors and performing artists from across the United States and beyond.

In its nine years so far, The Berkshire Fringe has been held every July and August and was based at the Daniel Arts Center at Simon’s Rock. The festival has been recognized as a vital testing ground for new work and has hosted more than 500 emerging performers and presented nearly 100 full-length original productions. 

“Even during our first few seasons, the response was great,” Katzoff recalled. “We’re a very small organization, with a small budget, and relied pretty heavily on word of mouth, because social media was pretty new back then.”

The three partners, all natives of the Berkshires, used their personal connections to spread the word about the festival.

“Very quickly, the momentum grew, because people were very excited to see this kind of work being done here,” Katzoff recalled. “It was very inspiring and encouraged us to evolve the festival in a very organic way since starting 10 years ago.”


Growth and changeThe Berkshire Fringe
A decade after its founding, the festival’s place in Berkshires’ cultural landscape now seems cemented. The Berkshire Fringe has garnered critical acclaim, including from The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

A piece in the Globe last summer discussed how the festival “inspires others on the edges of the region’s theater,” including the new Mass Live Arts festival that debuted last year and also made Simon’s Rock its home base.

Across the past nine summers, The Berkshire Fringe has presented everything from vaudeville to a nouveau opera that packed Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center last summer and featured a bearded, stiletto-wearing Cupid among its 30 cast members.

With attendance growing each season, Katzoff said she and her partners decided it was time to change venues.

So with assistance from Pittsfield’s city government, The Berkshire Fringe found its new home at the former Notre Dame Church, a grand brick structure built in 1895 that includes nearly 14,000 square foot of floor space.

Ffrench, who has owned the building since 2006, maintains her studio in the bottom level of the former church. From the end of July through August, Berkshire Fringe will rent space from her for productions.

“Crispina is very much an activist and artist,” Katzoff said, noting that ffrench is also in the process of installing a commercial kitchen in the church building for local food artisans.
For its upcoming season, the festival will have events at ffrench’s Shire City Sanctuary from Aug. 2-18. To celebrate The Berkshire Fringe’s first double-digit anniversary, a celebration and fund-raiser titled “Retro Spectacle” will kick off the festival on Saturday, Aug. 2.

Katzoff credits Megan Whilden, Pittsfield’s director of cultural development and a self-professed Fringe fan, for being instrumental in making the move happen.

Whilden said she’d had the festival in her sights since the beginning.
“Ever since the Fringe was founded, I’ve thought that Pittsfield was the perfect place for it, because I think of fringe festivals as being imbedded in street life and community, and we have so many different kinds of spaces to use here,” Whilden said.

Katzoff said her conversations with Whilden developed over time, and her interest in Pittsfield grew through her work WAM Theatre, an organization founded in 2010 whose performances are intended to benefit women and girls.

“Over the years we’ve stayed in touch, because Megan’s a great champion of the arts,” Katzoff said. “I’ve directed a couple of shows for WAM in Pittsfield, and it just felt like a great fit.”
Whilden said the fringe festival fits perfectly with Pittsfield’s effort to reinvent its downtown as a center for the arts and cultural events. She cited some of the successes of the past 10 years: the Third Thursdays street festivals, the First Fridays Artswalk, the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival, the WordXWord spoken word festival, the 10x10 Upstreet winter arts festival and, most recently, the plans for a free outdoor Shakespeare performance at Springside Park.
“I think we’re known for being welcoming to new creative enterprises,” she said.


Keeping art accessible
Katzoff said that although the theater at Simon’s Rock was a great venue architecturally, the out-of-town location of the college campus put the festival farther out of reach than its directors wanted it to be.

“The new space isn’t necessarily bigger,” she said. “It’s a more fringy space. Our former space was a more traditional theater venue, whereas this is unconventional. It’ll be a challenge to figure seating and lighting, but also an adventure.”

With the festival still dedicated to affordable pricing, Katzoff said she hopes the more visible and central location will allow it to attract a larger audience.

“From the start, our mission has been to create a more accessible cultural experience,” she explained. “I sometimes don’t get out to things, because ticket prices are pretty high. Our highest ticket price is $20. It’s more of a movie-ticket model, and because of it, we have a lot of families coming as well as first-time theatergoers.”

One of the festival’s most popular events is its occasional “pick your own ticket price” night, at which patrons pay what they’re able.

“People show up and bring spare change,” Katzoff said. “Sometimes farmers bring us a CSA share. We do the ‘pay what you can’ on opening night, which is the reverse model of most theater companies, but we feel it helps connects people to the arts.”

The festival gets regular grant support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, individual contributions and development campaigns as well as an annual gala that raises one-quarter of the group’s budget.

Looking ahead to the 2014 season, Katzoff said she and her partners are anticipating their most vibrant year ever.

“It’s a great location; we love that we’re a part of the Upstreet hub,” Katzoff said, referring to Pittsfield’s arts district. “It will allow us to be more out in the community and interface more with residents and tourists. We’ll be close to where people are shopping and running errands and eating at restaurants.”

“The fringe festival’s former location was more a destination: You had to plan a visit and make your way there,” Katzoff said. “We were in our own little bubble for awhile. There’s a new exciting energy in Pittsfield. Everyone’s been very warm and welcoming.”

For more information on the Berkshire Fringe’s 2014 season, visit www.berkshirefringe.org or call (413) 320-4175.