On April 14 PS21: Performance Spaces for the 21st Century will open the doors to its new state-of-the-art black box theater. For the previous 12 years PS21 has presented a dynamic program of contemporary dance, classical and roots music, and live theater in the summer months under a saddle span concert tent. The new facility is an extraordinary leap from tent to fully equipped professional theater.
“We couldn’t do any monumental technical feats in the tent,” said Andy Smith, the Technical Director of the new building. “World class musicians and dance companies came through over the years and after first time they weren’t expecting the pampering of a larger venue; they were coming for the beauty of a tent on a hill in an orchard between snuggled between the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley.”
Judy Grunberg, PS21’s founder and Board President, purchased the first property, a 60-acre commercial apple farm called Macintosh Farm, in 1999, following a suggestion by her husband, Paul, that Chatham could use a performing arts facility. Later, the adjoining 40-acre farm came on the market. Grunberg purchased it and eventually converted the house and barn on the property into housing and rehearsal space for visiting artists.
The new organization couldn’t afford to build a permanent facility right away so the Grunbergs’ architect son, Noah, found the saddle-span concert tent and designed the space. Over the years PS21’s audiences grew steadily, and enough money was raised to begin to design and build a permanent theater space.
“The tent is all gone now,” Judy Grunberg said of the iconic space. “Everyone loved the tent but for the performers and the tech crew who had to assemble and rig and disassemble it – and then worry about the weather – it was not so great.”
“The new PS21 has the most technically advanced audio and lighting system outside of NYC, the best money can buy,” Smith, who operates a full scene shop in Chatham, said proudly. “The building is 100% LED lighting, including the stage lighting. And the audio is 100% digital, down to the networking and patching of audio.”
The new theater, designed by New Lebanon-based architect Evan Stoller, has an elegant, flexible design and includes state of the art sound and lighting. The black box is a flexible 40’x60’ performance space that is enclosed in the winter and seats up to 99. In warmer months, the east wall slides open and the black box transforms into the stage for the 300-seat open-air pavilion theater. This seasonal portion will open for the first time on June 30.
Other features of the building include a green room, dressing rooms, a small kitchen, gift shop and ticket office, offices for staff, and an elevator. The building has been under construction for two years.
“We were going to build something simple and inexpensive, but you can’t do anything that is simple & inexpensive,” Grunberg laughed. “
Stoller, who also works as a sculptor and furniture craftsman, got his first taste of theater design assisting with the renovation of Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Main Stage on Union Street in Pittsfield.
“There is an element of show business in all aspects of theater design,” Stoller explained. “I wanted the PS21 building to work as an impressive wonderful space on its own, but when show goes up the theater disappears. If it doesn’t you haven’t done your job right.”
“It was so exciting seeing the actual structure rise from the ground,” said Grunberg, reminiscing about her regular visits to the construction site. “At first it was like Etruscan ruins and I was curious what is it was going to become. Every now and then I wanted to shout ‘Stop! It’s perfect the way it is!’ Then those spaces disappeared but the memory of the process stayed with me.”
Stoller explained that the big challenge came when the decision was made to expand the building from just an intimate black box to include the summer pavilion. “When a theater gets twice as large it gets five times as expensive! We created a balcony that can be an alternative stage which increases the possibilities of the space. We added a loading door off the rear of the building, and a basement green room area.”
As the building grew, Stoller focused in integrating it into the hillside on the north, “I didn’t want it to become a monster out there in the countryside,” he explained.
And he wanted to retain some special touches from the original design. “I wanted to keep the columns, as they are beautiful and express something special,” Stoller said, “And I was really glad I was able to design and build the railings because I couldn’t have found another person with the same eccentricity and quality.”
“To think back on it, it was daunting. We went from a tent with port-a-potties and exterior pods for performers to change in, and now we have an Elevator! Electricity! Bathrooms!” Grunberg exclaimed. “It is almost embarrassing to have such a beautiful building. It’s scary and really exciting. But if it takes a new building and new technology to get people to come and see the wonderful things that happen inside…that’s good enough for me.”
“The biggest challenge in terms of designing sound and lighting systems is that it’s really two environments occupying one space,” Smith explained. “Equipping the building for both uses was a challenge for everyone, from the HVAC engineers to the folks who had to key the locks. All of the equipment has to shift 90 degrees from where it sits when used in the pavilion to where it needs to be for the black box theater.”
In meeting this challenge, it became clear to Stoller, Smith, and the crew that there couldn’t be a central control booth. “The control booth became this monolithic thing ruining the Feng Shui of the building,” Smith said. “So we designed these beautiful custom-made camber-topped desks – one for lighting, one for audio, and one for stage management – that roll around and attach to ports all over the theater. You can move the desks around on stage, backstage, in the middle of the house, from the balconies. That’s one of my favorite parts about the building and it was just a happy accident that makes so much sense.”
PS21 has announced their 2018 season. Marking the inauguration of the new state-of-the-art black box theater will be a festive opening and dance performance by Caleb Teicher and Nic Gareiss. Other season highlights include three live theater productions: a staged reading of Erma Bombeck’s At Wit’s End; and two plays presented by The Actors’ Ensemble: The Gun Show and The Chairs. The spring season will also include dance performances by Jamal Jackson Dance Company and Larry Keigwin and Nicole Wolcott. Summer Season highlights include: the 13th Annual Paul Grunberg Bach Concert with cellist and guitarist Yehuda Hanani and Eliot Fisk sharing the stage to perform the Bach cello suites, and a smashing performance by Igudesman & Joo, the brilliant (and hysterically funny) violinist/pianist duo.
“We have a wonderful season planned,” Grunberg enthused. “And I am still dedicated to presenting dance, so we will once again have our August Chatham Dance Fest with four wonderful dance companies performing. Dance is the least accessible of the performing arts, people have to go out and find it, which I think is sad, but it is as much a part of life as music. I think if everyone learned to dance from the time they were born we would have fewer wars.”
“We had a gala in the new building in November and people said ‘Yay, you’re done!’” Grunberg laughed. “And I said no, this is like the moment when you bring your infant home from the hospital and get him/her settled down and then hear that first cry from the nursery. You realize this is just the beginning! All that time and labor brought you to this point, but now the work begins. You can only go forward in this life. It is complicated to get something built, but now we have to sustain it and keep the audiences coming.”
“We’ve gone from being a little local presenter to almost world class, and that’s a little scary. How do we change and grow, yet maintain our sense of humor and proportion?”