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Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" is known for its theatricality, its magic and its music. But Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) artistic director Allyn Burrows opens a low-key, intimate production of the play this weekend at United Parish in Brookline.
Performed by eight actors, with a female Prospero (Marya Lowry) leading a cast that is half women, the pared-down production "tells a story of family friction, magic and imagination," Burrows said. "But it is really about a personal exploration — a journey."
Burrows is embarking on a new phase in his own journey. After six years as artistic director of Actors' Shakespeare Project, the itinerant troupe he co-founded in 2004, he was tapped in September as the new leader of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.
This fall, he’s been spending approximately half his time at the Berkshires campus, and half of it wrapping up at ASP. Burrows and his wife, the actress Tamara Hickey, are in the process of moving to western Massachusetts with their young daughter.
How Burrows Got His Start
An award-winning actor, Burrows grew up in the Boston area, and graduated from Boston University with a degree in international studies and a minor in theater. He moved to New York, and spent 18 years running a small theater company, and racking up off-Broadway credits and regional theater roles around the country. A few of those roles took him to Shakespeare & Company, where he became a company member and artistic associate — and served as a board member from 1993 to 2006.
Shakespeare & Company is the place where "I cut my teeth as an actor, and where I really came to understanding the value of what we do in presenting Shakespeare, and in the theater in general," Burrows said.
"[Shakespeare & Company is where] I cut my teeth as an actor, and where I really came to understanding the value of what we do in presenting Shakespeare, and in the theater in general."Allyn Burrows
As it happens, he met Hickey while both of them were performing in Lenox. In the mid-2000s, he moved back to Massachusetts, to be closer to her and help care for his ill parents. A gifted actor, Burrows was soon turning up regularly on small and medium-size stages in the Boston area. Burrows and 11 other veteran theater artists, most of them based in Boston, launched the Actors' Shakespeare Project in 2004. He was still a relative newcomer when he won the 2006 Elliot Norton Award for his performances in ASP’s "King Lear," "The Homecoming" at Merrimack Repertory Theatre and SpeakEasy Stage Company’s "Five by Tenn."
As Burrows tells it, he hadn’t been to Shakespeare & Company for 12 years until this past summer, when his wife was cast as Portia in "The Merchant of Venice."
"I had planned to go back and forth and chase our 5 year old around," he said, sitting in ASP’s colorfully cluttered offices in Somerville on a damp November afternoon. “And then they lost someone in their production of ‘Or,’ " a contemporary restoration-style comedy about the poet, spy and first female playwright Aphra Behn. “And I guess I was standing there, so they threw me a contract."
Burrows had applied many months earlier for the artistic director’s position. In late summer, he learned he’d beaten out 14 other candidates for the job.
The Bard — From The Berkshires To Boston
Founded in 1978 by the visionary actor, director and author Tina Packer and an ensemble of fellow theater artists, Shakespeare & Company is one of the largest and best-known Shakespeare festivals in the U.S. Now approaching its 40th anniversary, it has earned a reputation for artistic excellence — as well as organizational instability.
Shakespeare & Company is nearly 30 years older than ASP, with three times the budget and a much wider audience base (many from New York), Burrows observes. The Berkshires ensemble supports a full-time staff of 32, while ASP employs 11.
But the younger, smaller and scrappier troupe has tallied some impressive achievements in its dozen years. According to a company spokeswoman, ASP has tackled 35 of Shakespeare’s 37 titles, staging 53 productions in 28 "borrowed" spaces that range from the basement of The Garage in Harvard Square, to community arts centers, schools and an assortment of local churches. Burrows has located many of the troupe’s found spaces himself, zigzagging around Greater Boston on his motorcycle and knocking on doors.
ASP is now a $1.8 million operation, with a small but loyal subscription base of about 800, according to Burrows. It is also the only resident acting company north of New York City other than Trinity Rep in Providence, Burrows points out.
Expanding audiences, putting on programs that appeal to a public with seemingly unlimited entertainment options, and finding new sources of income are key to both Burrows’ old and new artistic jobs. They are particularly pressing at Shakespeare & Company.
“Within the past decade, while staging what is often extraordinary work, [Shakespeare & Company] has been in a perpetual state of crisis,” according to Clarence Fanto, a long-time reporter, writer and columnist for the Berkshire Eagle, who has observed the organization closely for many years.
According to local and national media reports, Shakespeare & Company came close to filing for bankruptcy in 2009, but managed to right itself in just in time. Soon thereafter, though, there was tumult at the top of the organization: an artistic director and long-time company member was pushed out; an executive director arrived and departed within six months; and a board head bid an unhappy goodbye. Burrows is stepping into a position that’s been vacant for 18 months, its essential duties filled by two interim co-directors.
Looking Toward The Future
Burrows has big plans for Shakespeare & Company. He plans to build an outdoor theater on its 30-acre campus. And he wants to make it more of a destination — a place that stands out not only among the four big theaters in Berkshire County (with Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group and the Williamstown Theatre Festival), but also competes with nearby organizations such as Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and the Clark Art Institute.
He promises to nurture new playwrights and develop new plays. Rather than augmenting the company’s summer Shakespeare schedule with new work by contemporary playwrights, as the company has done in recent seasons, Burrows hopes to cast Shakespeare & Company actors in plays from the “modern canon,” by authors such as Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Sarah Ruhl and Lynn Nottage. (Aware that this idea might raise some eyebrows, Burrows is quick to note that he isn’t talking about “safe” programming. “It’s going to be something proven, something with an edge,” he said.)
Despite the differences in scale and location, the challenges at both his old job and his new one are similar, Burrows said.
"We have to figure out how to convince people that investing in something as ephemeral as theater is a worthy investment," he said. "It’s up to us to show that it speaks volumes. It’s powerful, it’s light, it’s dark, and it’s searing and generous.
"Making experience happen for people without a lot of production values is really our hedge against Netflix," he said.
For now, though, Burrows’ sights are trained on his production of "The Tempest." It focuses, he said, "on the breaks that occur when there’s a betrayal, a rupture, in a family relationship." And it explores "how we become prisoners of our own thoughts."
"The Tempest" has also offered fresh challenges and discoveries to Burrows, he said. In particular, casting a female Prospero has been a revelation. "With apologies to my male colleagues," he said, smiling slyly, "when you work with someone like Marya in this role, you may come to think that no one else can speak those words but a woman."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented box office earnings at ASP. We regret the error.
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