Shakespeare & Company aims to open summer drive-in cinema

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LENOX — For the first time in 25 years, Berkshire County movie buffs may be able to revisit the past by attending a drive-in, custom-designed for the coronavirus pandemic era.

Shakespeare & Company, among many performing arts attractions that canceled its summer season, plans to offer films on an outdoor screen on Thursdays through Sundays, starting July 4 and continuing through Sept. 20.

The venture is a collaboration with the Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF) and its artistic director, Kelley Vickery. This year, BIFF had to postpone its annual late May festival until June 3-6, 2021.

The theater company at 70 Kemble St. has a public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals at 7 p.m. June 17 to seek a temporary variance and/or special permit to show films projected on a wall higher than 25 feet, including a small viewing stand, according to the petition on file at Town Hall.

“We want to make sure we honor the community, respect our neighbors and celebrate the collaboration we have embarked on with BIFF and Kelley,” said Shakespeare & Company Artistic Director Allyn Burrows in a phone interview. Details such as pricing are pending, he added, “and we’re taking Kelley’s lead on programming.”

A “stretch screen” of about 17 by 24 feet will be affixed to the south wing of St. Martin’s Hall, the large white building across from the entry driveway, Burrows said. To give viewers the optimal experience, 42 cars can be comfortably accommodated in the adjacent parking lot, he noted, with “social spacing” between vehicles. The soundtrack will be provided through an FM radio frequency.

“We’re hoping for a fun event that gets people out of their houses in a safe way,” Burrows said, “and we hope to have some kind of concession stand.”

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The town’s chief administrative officer voiced strong backing for the proposal, stressing that a go or no-go decision is in the hands of the zoning board.

“I am over the moon, enthusiastically supportive of what they want to do,” said Christopher Ketchen. He noted that while 200 cars may be parked on the campus for live performances in a normal season, the drive-in would host less than 25 percent of that total. “That’s less intensity than what’s already permitted on the campus,” he told The Eagle.

Burrows, who fantasized about screening films outdoors at the theater well before the pandemic, said that talks about the project began in early March.

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“We all have to take stock of so much these days,” he said. “If we can look back on certain things such as drive-ins nostalgically, it gives us all a chance of heal.”

Acknowledging that “it was a gut punch to pull up the drawbridge” by canceling the summer theater season, Burrows noted that “we feel really fortunate about all the positive response we’ve received for staying active” by continuing talks focused on a strategic plan launched last September. The goal is to consider selling, leasing or developing with partners portions of the 33-acre campus not used for theater presentations.

“Conversations about development are ongoing, not tabled,” Burrows stressed. “Although the conversations have been elongated, they have been surprisingly positive and constructive.”

The strategic plan's key financial goals include:

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• A detailed plan for the best use of the campus, including the possibility of a partial or entire sale, or a lease of the property to support the company's vision while improving and investing to achieve "a competitive advantage as a Berkshire destination."

• Funding to demolish or repurpose some of the dilapidated or condemned buildings on the site.

• Greater financial stability through a cash reserve of at least $500,000 during times of lower revenue and a $150,000 cushion to help reduce mortgage burdens on the property.

• A new, "quiet phase" capital campaign to pay off the mortgage and enhance the campus, while additional sources of revenue are developed for an even split between earned income ($1 million annually, primarily from the box office), and contributions from new donors and foundations.

The strategic plan emphasizes the need to reverse "a historic trend of financial instability" and it acknowledges that success requires "deliberate planning and thoughtful execution" by the board of trustees, staff and community members.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council recently awarded $30,000 to the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, a Pittsfield-based nonprofit, for a feasibility study to explore possible creation of a film production and education center called Kemble Street Studios on the Shakespeare & Company campus.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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