At Barrington Stage, 10 new plays; one 'new' space

PITTSFIELD — The sixth edition of Barrington Stage Company's 10x10 New Play Festival begins Thursday at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center at 36 Linden St., where it will be running through March 5. The building, a former VFW post, may look undistinguished from the outside. Inside, however, is another matter.

The curtain goes up not only on an evening of 10 10-minute plays, audiences will get their first look at the newly renovated St. Germain Stage.

What were once, in effect, two lobbies have now been made one. The cafe, once separated from the theater itself by only a curtain, has been walled off, creating a self-contained cafe and lounge. The stage is deeper; there is wing space; and the stage footprint, BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd says, is now the same as the footprint for the stage in the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. Seating capacity in the Blatt's St. Germain Stage has been expanded from 110 to 136 seats.

"The box office area is now one with the lobby. Instead of two possible entrances to the building, there is now only one," Boyd said in a morning interview over coffee. "It's all meant to be very audience friendly."

It's also artist friendly. "I just love working on this new space," said Boyd.

The plays are the thing for Matthew Penn, co-artistic director of Berkshire Playwrights Lab, who is making his BSC directing debut in 10x10.

"The essence for me," Penn said, joining Boyd in the interview, "is enjoying the variety of the work."

Penn is directing:

- "Broken Window Theorem" by Suzanne Bradbeer, in which a PhD. candidate goes to unusual lengths to make a friend;

- "Compos Mentis" by Marilyn Millstone, about a not-your-average senior couple applying for a place in an exclusive senior living complex;

- "I Don't Know" by James McLindon, in which a drill sergeant runs smack into political correctness while leading hjs recruits on a cadence-singing run;

- "Raghead" by Tom Coash, abut a blind date between a New York City firefighter and a veiled woman;

- and Ann Marie Shea's "The Dirty Irish," a Prohibition-era play about a bootlegging couple and the immigrant workers they exploit.

Boyd is directing:

- Annette Storckman's "Desk Fort," about an employee who finds an unconventional way to escape a team building day in his office;

- Allie Costa's "Don't Shoot the Messenger Pigeon," in which a mafia messenger at a critical point in his career meets his match while on an assignment;

- Gwendolyn Rice's "Pockets," about two strangers going through the coat pockets of guests at a party;

- Scott Mullens' "Sandbox,"which finds a mother dealing with a group adults who are playing in a sandbox in her back yard;

- and Susan Middaugh's "When I Fall in Love," in which two spouses of two dementia patients form a friendship.

Unlike last year's 10x10 in which the initial submissions were so heavy in theme, tone and message that Boyd put out a second call for comedies, this year's entries, she said, were a bit lighter.

"We picked these plays because they were the best 10, but some deal with social action," Boyd said.

"I would say there are four or five that have some social awareness," Penn said.

"The quality was higher," Boyd said. "We had a good variety."

The number of submissions also was higher — 199, to be exact. "We typically get between 175 and 180,' Boyd said.

Based on a rating scale, the entries were whittled down to 20 from which the final 10 were chosen,

Some of the plays are skits; some are plays.

"We love the skits," Boyd said. "They're great for the actors and they help the rhythm of the evening," Boyd said.

The plays are being performed this year by Festival returnees Matt Neely, Dina Thomas and Peggy Pharr Wilson. Joining them are newcomers Jane Pfitsch, Lucky Gretzinger and Douglas Rees. They perform with a minimum of sets and props and wear costumes drawn from BSC's stock..

"In terms of technical support, we make do with what we've got," Boyd said.

"Creating a world with few technical elements, that's the fun," Penn said.

Dividing the plays between them was not difficult, Boyd said. Fsr more challenging, she added, was deciding how to divide the actors.

"We like to give them some variety," Boyd said.

"I just love the form," said Penn, who was approached to direct in last year's 10x10 but had to turn down Boyd's offer because he was filming a television series in Dallas. When she called him again this year, he jumped at the chance.

Rehearsal time is short — 10 days.

"You direct like you're double parked," Penn said. "You have to make clear, definitive choices immediately and then move on. There's no time for deep, profound discussions. It forces actors and directors into a good place."

"For the actors," Boyd said. "it means making a decision and then acting on it right away."

"From an audience point of view," Penn said lightly, "if they don't like a play, well, it's over."

Barrington Stage's 10x10 New Plays Festival is part of the 2017 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival, a collaborative effort between BSC, the City of Pittsfield and a number of businesses and cultural enterprises in the city that honors the arts in music, film, dance, spoken word and performance art.

"We began this [Upstreet] because we wanted to give Berkshires residents a reason to go out in the middle of winter," Boyd said.

With these 10-minute plays, Penn said, audiences will find an evening that's "fun, thoughtful and with a bit to say."

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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