I am abandoning it all—the work, the dog, and the heavy air of city life and heading for the Berkshires. This land of dance and drama, art and architecture, is like nowhere else in the United States. Bucolic hills give way to villages dotted with boutiques and cafés, and sequestered amid the lush fields and restored mansions I am about to discover a gay culture that manages to seamlessly blend into the fabric of everyday life.
by Matthew Wexler
For this New Yorker, getting to the Berkshires is a vacation in and of itself. It’s just Edith (the name I have given to my GPS, christened after turn-of-the-century novelist and local resident Edith Wharton), me, and the highway. First settled by the English after the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century, the Berkshires later blossomed as a respite for the elite during the Gilded Age. Summer cottages like Ventfort Hall (if you consider 28 rooms and 17 fireplaces a cottage) and The Mount were constructed as summer homes. It was an era of lavish recluse, but also of industrial turmoil—one that has echoed through the decades. Meanwhile, the arts established a regional identity that keeps second homeowners and tourists coming back regardless of the political or economic climate.
Edith calls it Route 20, but she really means Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway, the winding rural road that leads to the nation’s premier dance festival and my first stop, Jacob’s Pillow. A visit to “The Pillow,” as it’s commonly referred, offers performances from an international array of companies in a breathtaking natural setting. Director of Preservation, Norton Owen says, “From the 1930s until today, the Pillow has been reaching out to individuals. Shawn would talk about his dance, then move into the realm of a lecture or demonstration without the formality—there was a spirit of welcoming people in and we want to keep this alive. It’s the secret to what people respond to.”
Owen is referring to Ted Shawn, founder of Jacob’s Pillow. Shawn established the dancers’ retreat center in 1930 with his wife and dance partner Ruth St. Denis. It was a tumultuous relationship, and the couple separated shortly thereafter. Shawn then established Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, with early performances that exhibited a deliberate hyper-masculinity through movement. “Shawn came here and started discovering his identity as a gay man—but it’s more complicated than that,” reflects Owen. “He was grappling with and shifting the public’s perception of the male dancer. He was showing on a very basic level that you could be a male dancer and not be effeminate,” he adds.
I wander the grounds with Owen for hours, absorbing the creative energy that buzzes throughout the historic buildings and pouring over video archives and other materials that encapsulate more than 80 years of international dance history. I also think of John Cameron Mitchell’s award-wining film Hedwig and the Angry Inch and performance artist Taylor Mac who have capitalized on the freedom to push gender boundaries. But it was Shawn, in his own way, who set in motion an environment for performers of all types, ethnicities, and sexual orientations to freely express themselves. “The history is embedded in the whole experience here. It is integral to experiencing Jacob’s Pillow,” says Owen.
Jacob’s Pillow is but one of many performance venues that have a stronghold in the region. Tanglewood Music Center is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it recently celebrated its 75th anniversary in the Berkshires. If you can’t wait until next season, you can stream this past summer’s performances at the Boston Symphony Orchestra Media Center online. For plays and musicals, head in any direction and stumble across Broadway-caliber talent for half the price of a show in New York City. Performers love to spend their summers in the countryside, and you can often get up close and (platonically) personal with post-show discussions and symposiums with the artists. Barrington Stage Company presents a varied season of classics and new works including the Musical Theatre Lab overseen by Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist William Finn. If iambic pentameter is more your style, Shakespeare & Company delivers it impeccably along with a roster of cult favorites including this season’s holiday production of The Santaland Diaries (Nov. 30–Dec. 30) by gay humorist David Sedaris. Forget Central Park, Hollywood’s elite can often be found onstage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, where this past season featured Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, and Susie Essman, among others.