Shakespeare & Co. hies to a new home

"I feel mixed about leaving," says Tina Packer, the artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. "The Mount is not just a playing space; it has been our home. We've had people married there; babies born there. It's where I've done my principal work."

It's a hail-and-farewell summer for Shakespeare & Company, the theater company that has been based at Edith Wharton's former mansion, The Mount, for the past 23 years. Last year the troupe bought a 63-acre property barely a mile away on Kemble Street in Lenox, Mass., for its new home, complete with 22 buildings in various states of disrepair.

This summer marks the opening of two theaters at the new property and a farewell production on the company's signature outdoor stage at The Mount.

A price tag of $12 to $15 million is estimated for renovations at Spring Lawn (a 1904 mansion that will house one new theater), building a production center, and other infrastructure improvements.

But that amount doesn't cover Ms. Packer's audacious dream of building a replica of The Rose, the 16th-century theater that stood on London's Bankside near the Globe Theater. The Rose flourished as the home of plays by Christopher Marlowe ("Tamburlaine," "Faustus," "The Jew Of Malta") and Shakespeare's early dramas.

During a visit to the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts in the winter of 1978, the British-born Packer came upon a huge abandoned house. The interior was a wreck, but she knew she had found what she was looking for.

Starting with little more than her determination and a small grant from the Ford Foundation, she and a small band of actors settled in, cleaned up the place, and produced "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that first year.

Packer, an actress trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, had come to America to start a theater where she could teach actors to perform Shakespeare with special attention to making the language accessible to contemporary audiences. She succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, producing works by Shakespeare and other playwrights each summer at The Mount. Packer also opened the rustic Stables Theatre and other locations on the grounds for additional productions.

At the same time, Shakespeare & Company built an extensive year-round education program, sending its actors to teach and perform in schools around New England. A training program that also offers seminars for professional actors attracted the likes of Alicia Silverstone and Raquel Welch, among others.

This summer, Packer will again present "A Midsummer's Night Dream" on the outdoor stage at The Mount, but it won't be just a revival. "At our first rehearsal this year, I asked the actors to remember moments at The Mount," Packer says. "Somehow I'd like to work in some of the memories."

The Mount will remain a historic house and museum under a separate entity, Edith Wharton Restoration Inc.

The first of the theaters at the new property, the Founders' Theatre, opened in mid-June with a revival of last summer's critically acclaimed production of "Coriolanus," directed by Packer. The play fits the Elizabethan-style theater space perfectly because of the close relationship between the actors and the audience. This intimacy is established from its opening scene when the actors enter, introduce themselves by their real names, and don their costumes to begin the play.

The Founders' Theatre seats between 350 and 450. It can be changed into five possible configurations by moving the location of the stage. And for veterans of the facilities at The Mount, the sight of indoor plumbing comes as a welcome change.

The Founders' Theatre was constructed within a former gymnasium that was part of the Lenox School for Boys in 1950. After the school closed, the property was acquired by a religious organization, and then by the National Music Foundation. The NMF sold it to Shakespeare & Company when it fell into financial difficulties. The Founders' Theatre design is the inspiration of British theater consultant Iain Mackintosh, along with American architect George E. Marsh, Jr.

Shakespeare & Company raised $5 million in just a year to purchase the property, complete the Founders' Theatre, make preliminary repairs to Spring Lawn, and cover move-in expenses. The theater in the living room at Spring Lawn opens tomorrow (June 30) with two one-act plays adapted from short stories by Edith Wharton and her friend Henry James, a frequent visitor to The Mount. The performances at Spring Lawn continue in the afternoons all summer.

A large outdoor theater on the slope behind Spring Lawn is planned for 2003, to replace the outdoor stage at The Mount. Packer envisions a space shaped like an ancient Greek theater, backed by woods and with a view of the Berkshire Mountains in the distance.

But constructing a replica of The Rose remains a key goal for her.

"We're totally devoted to building The Rose," Packer says. "It's the artistic center of what we're doing. It will give us the authentic building from which the work can spring. These [Elizabethan] theaters were extraordinary pieces of architecture in their own right."

As for paying for it? "We just don't know," Packer says, "but we'll get it done."

For Shakespeare & Company's schedule, log on to www.shakespeare.org

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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