PITTSFIELD – Barrington Stage Company (under the leadership of Artistic Director Alan Paul and Managing Director Meredith Lynsey Schade) and Jewish Federation of the Berkshires will present a free panel, “Reflections on Antisemitism and the Cautionary Tale of Cabaret” on Thursday, June 29 starting at 10 a.m. at the Boyd-Quinson Stage, 30 Union Street in downtown Pittsfield. Join a discussion with Jewish thought leaders on the relevance of art and theater in promoting understanding and combating antisemitism. There will be a 10 a.m. coffee and bagel reception in the Boyd-Quinson Stage lobby. The panel discussion begins at 10:45 a.m. in the theatre.
This panel features Alan Paul (BSC Artistic Director), Dr. Barbara Waldinger (Ph.D. Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center) and Dr. Roselle Chartock (author and artist, Professor Emerita of Education), and moderated by Jeffrey Robbins (former US Delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission).
In May, the BJV's Linda Burghardt had the chance to talk to Alan Paul about Cabaret, his Jewish connection, and his new role as artistic director at Barrington Stage Company.
“Downright Bashert”: Alan Paul, Barrington Stage, and the New Production of Cabaret
By Linda Burghardt / Special to the BJV
Elie Weisel is known for saying, “In Jewish history there are no coincidences,” and the celebrated author, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel laureate certainly knew what he was talking about when it comes to the serendipitous – the downright bashert – match of Alan Paul and Barrington Stage Company.
Paul arrived in Berkshire County from Washington, D.C., toting bags packed with passion for directing new plays and musicals and a considerable talent for reinventing the classics, along with unique skills at mixing classical and popular culture into potent new blends of sound, scene, and sensibility. He gracefully took over the reins as artistic director of Barrington Stage from its beloved leader, Julienne Boyd, who retired at the end of the 2022 season after leading the company for 27 years.
“Barrington Stage Company is a major force in Berkshire County, a place that’s full of people who feel a strong sense of ownership of the arts scene here,” said the recently installed 38-year-old artistic director in an interview. “I wanted to be part of it in order to help make it bigger.”
Barrington Stage is the fastest-growing arts venue in Berkshire County, with 60,000 patrons attending shows at the award-winning theater every year. Paul’s goal is to build on the theater company’s legacy as an incubator for new plays and musicals created from a wide range of perspectives. “Musicals are my first love,” he said, “and I plan to make the advancement of musical theater a cornerstone of my vision.”
In D.C., Paul had worked with both acclaimed artists and young debut performers as he shaped sets of new plays and musicals as well as those in the theatrical canon in his role as associate artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Shakespeare Theatre Company. Here, in Pittsfield, the concept of providing opportunities to give life to new voices in a variety of genres has long been enshrined in the artistic legacy of the BSC, and his talents have found a smooth fit, virtually an embrace.
“My ambitions and theirs are the same; even the chemistry is there. We admire the same plays, the same productions. It was clear right from the start that we’re a natural together,” Paul explained. “The theater where I worked in D.C. used to put on only classical productions. I directed the first musical there, and it had a great box office record. I’m going to build on that success here.”
For Paul, the dynamic combination of past experience and new goals, particularly in the area of musical theatre, which he says is a cornerstone of his vision, will give rise this summer to a new production of the legendary Cabaret, a complex, multi-layered show which is likely to both delight and offend audiences in profound and subtle ways when it runs from June 14 to July 8 on the Boyd-Quinson stage.
It’s dark; it’s devastating; it’s drenched in debauchery and despair. Yet audiences can’t help devouring productions of Cabaret with unrestrained appetite. And thanks to the efforts of Paul, who will direct the show, this award-winning musical masterwork about the Jazz Age in late 1920s Berlin will once again offer Barrington Stage audiences its unrivaled provocative sensations, complete with its carefree hedonism and tragic-comic depiction of between-the-wars culture and society.
“Cabaret may be about Europe in a particular time and place, but its themes and characters are universal,” says Paul. And revisiting this enduring classic at the BSC this summer, a play that was first staged there in 1997, seemed particularly appropriate in today’s atmosphere, he remarked, given that virulent acts of antisemitism are once again on the rise, a fact reinforced by recent statistics from the Anti-Defamation League.
“This is a very timely play,” Paul points out. “There’s plenty of cross-dressing in Cabaret, for example, and plenty of controversy over drag in today’s society. It’s a statement about free speech and identity, its power and contemporary appeal. For example, when the Nazis join hands at the end of the first act and sing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me,’ you can’t help noticing who isn’t in the circle. You think about white identity, and about everyone who is pushed out and made to feel they are ‘other.’”
Paul said he hopes to open a dialogue about this point and others like it when he takes part in a panel discussion on June 29, a joint effort of the BSC and Federation. “Reflections on Antisemitism and the Cautionary Tale of Cabaret” will bring together thought leaders from several diverse venues to debate the relevance of art and theater in promoting the understanding of antisemitism and determining the most effective ways to combat it.
A graduate of Northwestern University in Chicago, where he became involved with the city because of having family there, Paul said he plans to become an active member of the community here, as well. “The Berkshires are a magical place for theater, and I love all the facets of art and architecture that exist here in this very aesthetically-minded area.” In addition to the art world, he plans to get involved in the Jewish community.
“I grew up in a D.C. suburb in a big Jewish family. Each of my three siblings and I became a bar mitzvah,” Paul said, with warmth and feeling. Even then, at the tender age of thirteen, he was interested in the theatre. “My bar mitzvah party theme was Broadway,” he added. “Today, I couldn’t be happier that we’ll be putting on two shows this summer with Jewish themes.”
Opening the 2023 summer season on the St. Germain stage, and running from May 24 to June 17, will be the world premiere of a play called The Happiest Man on Earth, a one-man show about an Auschwitz survivor who grapples with how a person can find happiness after surviving the Holocaust and how he found what was worth living for once the war was over. The play is based on an uplifting memoir by Eddie Jaku, an author whose work pays tribute to those who were lost by telling their story.
“My mother was very involved with survivor groups when I was growing up,” Paul explains, reminiscing about his childhood in Potomac, Maryland, a close-in suburb of Washington, D.C. “It developed a certain sensitivity in me. Judaism has always been a big part of my identity. And I feel strongly that this is a piece that speaks to the moment, to embodying the great fear of Holocaust survivors that what happened to them will be forgotten.”
And through artistic programming at the BSC, Paul hopes to keep these memories alive and, with some good planning and hard work, extend them to new groups of people who might not yet have the knowledge and familiarity with Jewish themes of this nature.
“This summer will be the trifecta of Jewish entertainment,” Paul said, “with Cabaret and The Happiest Man on Earth and three nights of Mandy Patinkin, arguably the most significant Jewish Broadway performer of our time.”
The BSC will offer seven productions this summer, each unique, including a play about the Harlem Renaissance called Blues for an Alabama Sky” about which Paul says thoughtfully, “We will all identify; we will all be able to see ourselves in each other’s stories.” It is scheduled to run from July 8 to August 5 on the Boyd-Quinson stage.
Paul sees his role as artistic director of such a vital organization in the Berkshires as the BSC as having components that transcend directing plays and spearheading the artistic efforts of the theater. “I want to get involved in the effort to expand the robust educational programming in the community and help develop a year-round presence for the stage company. To do this, I’ll be looking for ways to tie our programming into the community itself,” he says. “I also want to put on plays that will encourage the growth of a younger crowd of theater-goers.”
One facet of this vision has led him to partner with the Williamstown Theater Festival by planning the production of A New Brain, scheduled for August 16 through September 9, which Paul said he hopes will alert North County residents and vacationers to the high level of theatrical entertainment at the BSC. “I love collaborating and getting new ideas and energy by sharing our views on what’s important and how to make our vision real,” he says. “All the theaters working together will help build a thriving theater community here.”
And does he enjoy his new job so far? “I love it,” he says, with enthusiasm. “I loved theater as a child. I’ve always wanted to be part of show business. Even then I knew you don’t choose theater; theater chooses you.”
But he says he is aware that artistic work has risks: “It’s a tightrope walk. You’re in the hot seat. You have to have box office success, but you have to please the people as well; you can’t let them down. But when you do please them, there’s no greater pleasure. And nothing could make me happier than to have this challenge.”
Linda F. Burghardt, Ph.D., is the Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in New York and a part-time resident of the Berkshires.