At home with Kate Maguire, Artistic Director, Berkshire Theatre Group
Photos By Megan Haley
Kate Maguire paints a picture of her beginnings in the Berkshires, some 30 years ago: Her twin eight-year-old girls are looking out a large window, from an apartment that was once Norman Rockwell’s studio, above what was once Nejaime’s Market in the heart Stockbridge’s Main Street. The beautiful, curly blond-haired duo and their mother watch small tours walking by, on their way to the Red Lion Inn.
“I’d think, here I am this single mom with these two daughters, and it looks kind of perfect, and it’s nuts,” says Maguire, sitting in her Richmond home surrounded by her family. Several years later, they moved to one-half of a carriage house across from the Red Lion. “We would see all these parties that were happening because of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, but I was just watching it then, not a part of it. It was interesting and fascinating.”
They also had a boxer, Feste (the name of a fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but perhaps better named Fiesty), who was known to drag the girls through town on a leash. “Feste would get loose and run through the dining room at the Red Lion. I remember a police officer who worked with good ol’ Chief Wilcox, he came to my house and was like, Kate, really. We’d rather if the dog doesn’t romp through the dining room. My dad ended up taking Feste.”
Maguire, director for the past 24 years of what is now the Berkshire Theatre Group, grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, in a traditional family—her mother came from a Greek-immigrant family, her dad was a police officer. Her mom wanted her to be a teacher, to move back home after graduating from Boston College. Maguire married young, had her daughters Emma and Isadora at age 23, and was divorced by the time they were in kindergarten. She was also an actress at Boston Shakespeare Company (which has since dissolved), when Tina Packer was the artistic director. Packer also had earlier founded Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires and invited Maguire to join her. “I thought, wow, I can work in the theater in this beautiful environment and really bring up my girls in a way that will be less hectic than being in Boston,” says Maguire.
She took on many positions at Shake & Co.—then located at the Mount—as general manager, development director, marketing director, performer. “That is the kind of place that you do everything, so it was a great training ground,” says Maguire. Her life became too frenetic, though, and she decided it was time to go. “I went to make pizzas for Naji Nejaime in Sheffield. He had this little spot, and the Nejaimes were great friends.”
The job lasted about five minutes. Maguire was offered the managing director position at Stage West in Springfield, and it was there that she met Eric Hill, who was the artistic director. They fell in love, and a year and a half later, on a visit to the Berkshires, they happened to be at the Red Lion Inn and met Fredric Rutberg, who was at the time board secretary at Berkshire Theatre Festival. He asked Maguire if she would consider moving back. “I said, yes, please,” recalls Maguire. Her daughters were longing to return.
“The fact that I left Lowell, broke away from those traditions, I was always finding myself in situations that were never predictable for what my life was supposed to have been, according to my mom. And so, I have always been able to change and I’m not afraid to create change. And that’s also a part of being an actress. You have to be able to change, right? It is fundamental to performance.”
At the time, Jane Fitzpatrick had been doing encores of the final act of a play that had to do with saving a theater company. She was president of the board for 25 years, a long run, and was looking for someone to take over the reins. She found that in young Maguire. During those first years after Maguire joined, Fitzpatrick was involved in every facet of the company. Blantyre hosted 700 people at Berkshire Theatre Festival’s annual gala, housing people on the entire top floor of the Red Lion Inn (which the Fitzpatrick family owns) every summer. “We were completely reliant on Jane,” says Maguire. “She was my mentor; I really loved her.” Gradually, Fitzpatrick weaned herself from the organization as Maguire worked with Arthur Storch to run the Main Stage, and the new Unicorn Theatre that soon was to be open.
When Maguire began working at Berkshire Theatre Festival, there were 75 employees in the summertime, including five administrative year-round staff, Storch, and herself. Now that number has expanded to 600 in any given year, with 28 year-round staff, and, in 2010, the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield merged with the company and, combined, it became Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG). The iconic Fitzpatrick Main Stage (314 seats), originally called Berkshire Playhouse and designed by Stanton White, opened on June 4, 1928, with The Cradle Song starring Eva La Gallienne.
Other stages include the Unicorn Theatre (122 seats); the Colonial Theatre (780 seats); and The Garage (in the Colonial lobby, for local and regional performers). BTG has had a rich history of actors on its roster, including Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Buster Keaton, Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Judd Hirsch, Chris Noth, Karen Allen, Cynthia Nixon, and many others. Most recently, last year’s revival of Children of a Lesser God has garnered numerous accolades and is now on Broadway. It stars Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff, who received a Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play. (The awards ceremony is June 10.)
“It was overwhelming in that we were invited to the Edison Ball after, and there were 1,000 people in this ballroom. It was like a huge wedding and I thought, this is a big deal,” saysMaguire. “We work with producer Hal Luftig. What I realized when I was working with him was that he cared about the play just as much as I did. You don’t notice all this other stuff around it, except that this needs to be seen by a lot of people.”
Another large soiree is planned right at home, on July 1 at BTG’s Main Stage, a gala marking the company’s 90th year. Honorary chairs are James and Kim Taylor and Chris Noth.
Maguire’s husband Eric is an actor and director with BTG, including an annual stint as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, drawing members of the community that one year included the Taylor family on stage, and numerous other productions. Beyond Broadway and big names, the education component is what’s most important to Maguire. “When I started, we served one classroom in Stockbridge, which was maybe 20 kids. We serve 13,000 children in our various education programs now. Every door that was opened in my life was through the theater. I started acting when I was four years old, and so I knew what the power of theater was about.”
She used to go to the John Hancock Building in Boston, where the Boston Children’s Theatre performed, and would see incredible productions with maybe 100 kids in the show. “In many ways, the program that we have now is modeled after of what I remember from what that was. And I was in grammar school, so really it was just my memories,” says Maguire.
Two questions stand out in her approach to running the company: Does it represent the community? And does it serve its audiences, which includes the actors and the students? It was the growth of the organization, together with the loyalty to the family, to the theater, and to herself, that anchored the company and carried it through difficult times. Her most challenging period—and biggest risk—was the merger of the iconic Colonial Theatre with Berkshire Theatre Festival. That was in 2008, when the financial crisis happened, and she became concerned about how they were going to succeed.
“I was watching the stock market plummet, and I thought, where’s the money going to come for all of us?” Maguire recalls. So, she spoke with her board and started looking for partners. Soon after, discussions began with the Colonial. It was good timing because they had begun to talk about a bigger space to do more shows with children that they couldn’t do in Stockbridge, and they wanted a bigger space to do musicals. The Colonial’s space was just beautiful, and the city was recognizing that the arts had the potential to revitalize the area. Combining the two theaters would mean that the summer organization could go year-round.
“We were able to do that in a much larger way in Pittsfield, and we have that building to be able to invite the community in a different way. In terms of what I had come from and knowing what theater could do, it all just makes sense to me. I also have a company of actors that are extraordinary actually. There are actors that come from New York, they are the highest quality. You have to have that for the kids to be able to see, to be able to work towards. So, somehow in my mind it all balanced.”
When Maguire was at the Broadway opening of Children of a Lesser God this spring, her daughter, Emma, chief of staff for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, asked to meet Jackson. They walked over to the actor, and he stopped his conversation, pulling Maguire to him and telling her that this was all because of her. She doubted that; her daughter was dumbfounded. And then it struck her: “I remember going to New York City when I was little and thinking if I would ever be on that stage. I was never going to be on that stage, but the ability to help something get on that stage, or just the mere fact that I was standing in front of my daughter and she realized what path my life had taken …” says Maguire, lost in thought on the journey she’s made.
She quickly pulled back into the moment, as her grandson, Theo, ran up to her and demanded her attention. The background became center stage again—her bustling home with her daughter Isadora, very pregnant and due July 4, a few feet behind the little guy. Her son-in-law is talking with Hill, and BTG’s communications director, Madelyn Gardner, is leading the photographers around the couple’s Richmond home. Maguire gets up and walks to a wall of images in one bedroom, showing a photo of their son, 23-year-old Alexander Hill. Then she goes into her bedroom and bends down to tenderly stroke her ailing 12-year-old yellow lab, Zeus. Gaia, their five-year-old black lab, jumps from one person to another—hopeful that someone has food. Three cats— Nala, Tekla and Juanita—are somewhere nearby, unseen. And in all this, Maguire sinks into a very special pink sofa that was passed down to her from her mother, and finds her peace.