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In Lenox, a new era with the Bard’s classics

By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2010

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LENOX — “It was an absolutely magical time,’’ recalls Tony Simotes, the new artistic director, about Shakespeare & Company’s first season. Thirty-three years ago, the “merry band,’’ as Simotes calls the troupe, took up residence at The Mount, the Gilded Age estate of author Edith Wharton, which was then a beat-up, slightly spooky mansion with a ruined garden.

“We cooked, we cleaned, we hung posters for our performance — ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ — but we weren’t sure if anyone would come. Then people showed up and sat on the grass, and we said, Wow, we’re actually doing it!’’

Although new to the position vacated last summer by the company’s founder, Tina Packer, who stepped aside to focus more on acting, directing, and fund-raising, Simotes hardly stepped into the role cold. He had been one of the company’s artistic associates since 1995 and had done several guest turns as director and fight director during the company’s gradual transformation into one of the Berkshires’ premier cultural venues.

Simotes’s first season rolls out Shakespearean classics — including “Richard III’’ (July 2-Sept. 5), “The Winter’s Tale’’ (July 15-Sept. 5) — and introduces new work such as “The Taster’’ (July 29-Sept. 4), “Women of Will’’ (Aug. 25-27), and “Mengelberg and Mahler’’ (June 11-Sept. 10).

Let’s face it, for a big chunk of the general public, words like “forsooth’’ can provoke yawns. Shakespeare & Company slays this demon with hilarious introductory productions such as “More Words! More Play!’’ (Aug. 12-Sept. 5), a humorous romp through the life, times, and language of the Bard.

The company is starting ticket prices at $5, offering a host of discounts, and doling out a generous helping of free street theater, lectures and demonstrations, behind-the-scenes tours, and actor chats.

One free lecture (July 15) features Simotes demonstrating how actors pull off mock swordplay, groin kicks, face slaps, and other contact feats. “Shakespeare is the Olympics of theater,’’ he says. “The material demands physical and psychological gymnastics. Actors have to rely on something much bigger than required for modern plays.’’

Such depth of artistry and understanding are hallmarks of Shakespeare & Company, and have earned the troupe the respect of theater professionals and the loyalty of audiences. Ten years ago, the company purchased the 30-acre campus of a former school on Kemble Street in the center of Lenox, about a mile from its original home at The Mount. While the elegant campus, now replete with three theaters, has contributed to the draw, Simotes believes that the three basic tenets of the original company lie at the heart of its success. “The emphasis on training, performance, and education — these three prongs drive the company’s energy, creativity, research, and exploration,’’ he says.

The education piece unfolds in school classrooms, where children learn about the language and stories enfolded in Shakespeare plays. “He was creating stories of what it was to be human,’’ says Simotes. “There’s an adolescent energy within the language at times that kids can really relate to.’’ The training prong is designed to serve students of theatrical craft through professional workshops in acting, directing, speaking, moving, and the like.

Since taking over, Simotes admits undergoing a whirlwind education of a different kind. “I’ve had to learn to deal with bankers and lawyers,’’ he says, adding that the company has had to tighten its belt to grapple with a hefty mortgage in a troubled economy. Almost a year later, he is breathing easier, with a lineup he feels good about and ticket sales already ahead of last year’s.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at janeroybrown@verizon.net.

If You Go

Shakespeare & Company
70 Kemble St., Lenox
413-637-3353
www.shakespeare.org