As they launch their 97th season the Town Players of Pittsfield are having a homecoming of sorts. For the past eight years they have been wandering minstrels – presenting performances and readings at the Lichtenstein Center, the Whitney Center for the Arts (aka The Whit) as well as some high school auditoriums, banquet rooms, and other small spaces around the city – but those spaces didn’t allow the group to mount the big musicals and fully staged plays they were known for in the past.
Now they are returning to Berkshire Community Collegee (BCC), their home from the opening of the current campus on West Street in 1972 until a parting of the ways in 2009. They will be presenting two productions in the Boland Theatre and one in the smaller K-111 space, as well as a series of staged readings this season. Their opening production will be Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show, an extravaganza the company hasn’t tackled since 2007.
“This is an exciting opportunity for Town Players to expand our offerings and the type of shows we can present,” Ryan Cavanaugh, President of the Board of Town Players explained. “We have had a wonderful time at The Whit and done a lot of fantastic work there, but it was hard to envision the kind of expanded programming we wanted in that space.”
Cavanaugh said the college approached the Players last spring, offering performance and rehearsal space at a reasonable price.
Cavanaugh, who taught technical theatre at BCC and now does the same at Pittsfield High School, looks forward to an exciting future for Town Players, a real come-back after a few years of smaller shows in smaller spaces. “This move expands our possibilities. I want to get our name out there more, grow our membership, get more students involved, and concentrate on community outreach involving doing fundraisers for other non-profits and not just for Town Players.”
A Little History
“All stage-plays and players of interludes and common plays are hereby declared to be, and are, and shall be taken to be, rogues…” – from an act of Parliment, c 1647
The Puritans who first settled New England in the early 1600’s are the same folks who closed Shakespeare’s Globe along with all the other theatres in London in 1642. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, as America expanded and more diverse immigrant populations brought their music and theatre traditions to the country, that attitudes began to change and growing towns and cities considered the construction of a public performance space to be a sign of wealth, culture, and prosperity. What became North Adams had its first legit theatre in 1860, and The Academy of Music, located on North Street, was home to Pittsfield theatre productions from 1872 until it burned down in 1912.
Before the Civil War theatricals were probably very much of the homespun variety described in Little Women. Putting on plays was frequently a part of weekend house parties in large homes like our Berkshire Cottages. And by the turn of the 20th century funds were being raised and plans drawn up for opulent theatres like North Adams’ Empire Theatre (opened 1902, burned 1912), which was the template for the Colonial (opened 1903), and the Mahaiwe (opened 1905). Smaller communities were home to wooden “opera houses” or had town halls that doubled as performance spaces, like the ones still standing in West Stockbridge and Hancock, both built in 1854.
So it is not surprising that by 1910 a group called the Town Players formed in Pittsfield. For its first decade the group changed gears several times, morphing from amateur to professional and back again. In 1920 the name was changed to the Colonial Players, as the group began to perform in that space, and then changed again in 1921 when they formally incorporated at the Town Players of Pittsfield, Inc.
Now the Town Players are one of the oldest community stage companies in the country. The group’s first president was the Rev. Charles B. Joy, the pastor of the city Unitarian Church, which hosted the group’s first production in 1922. The set was built in the sizable barn on Bartlett Avenue owned by Dr. Fred K. Chaffee, starting a long tradition of sets being constructed in garages, barns, and workshops around the city.
In 1924 the group launched New England’s first one-act play festival, inviting groups from neighboring cities, towns, and colleges to participate. By 1955 Town Players’ season consisted of four full-length plays, the one-act festival, and “the maintenance of a theatre workshop for instruction and practice in all phases of theatre production and acting techniques.”
The founding of Berkshire Community College, one of the oldest community colleges in the country, in 1960 and the arrival of professor Robert M. Boland (1925-2016) the following year relieved Town Players of the need to offer instruction. Boland became involved in staging plays and musicals at BCC and with Town Players – and, after 1972, with the Town Players at BCC – for many years. Town Players penultimate production at BCC was a lavish staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in June of 2007 in the Boland Theatre under Boland’s direction.
The company will do Boland proud when it returns to his namesake theatre this fall with their fully staged production of Rocky Horror, directed by Matthew T. Teichner, on an elaborate two-story set.
Lots of people are familiar with the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but the 1973 stage version on which it was based is very seldom performed. Like the film version, there will be an opportunity for audience participation, but only with prop kits purchased from Town Players.
“The house staff will make sure the audience and actors stay safe. You can’t lob things at live performers the way you can at a movie screen,” Cavanaugh laughed.
“For our return to BCC we wanted to do something surprising, and Rocky Horror is a real out of the box choice for us,” Cavanaugh explained. “It is cool and hip with a huge cult following, but it hasn’t been done by any of the high school, college, or professional theatres in the area. So the board said ‘Let’s take a shot and see what happens.’ Whatever else it is, it will be impressive!”
Cavanaugh looks forward to an exciting future for Town Players. “There has been a push for us to go back to doing big musicals. That makes some people nervous, but I think it is more exciting than anything else. I think we’re on the verge of something great, being back in that theatre, on the verge of another golden age.”
Town Players 97th Season 2017-2018