To be or not to be?

Don’t get me wrong, but I love the whole idea behind Shakespeare & Company. The amazing Tina Packer has done a phenomenal job developing and actualizing the idea. Their educational program in the schools has been inspirational and the idea of creating for the Berkshires an even greater, upscale cultural center is brilliant.

So have you heard me? I have just said some very nice things about Shakespeare & Company. I don’t want to take any incoming over what comes next.

Let me now say what so many people are thinking. What is the deal? How does any organization get so deeply in debt that they put their entire operation in jeopardy? Why would you spend what you don’t have, knowing there’s no real chance of recouping the money? Would you do it in your family? I don’t think so.

Tina is officially, well, not really — she is semi-out of the picture. But the place is, to put it bluntly, a mess. If this had been a divorce, someone would surely put a notice in the legal section of the newspaper saying, “I am not responsible for the debts of my former spouse.” I think fondly of the wonderful Elayne Bernstein who put all that money up for a new theater. She isn’t alone. The management of Shakespeare has let a lot of people down.

I am reminded of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. So many folks supported him with everything they had and felt betrayed when he fell from grace. Many people left their jobs and came to work for him.

They put everything on the line and were let down. I truly feel for all these good people. Every morning I examine the financials at WAMC. When things were not looking all that good a while back, I called the staff in and we made some very tough decisions. We put a hard freeze on salary increases and hiring. When the funding for a very popular program, “Word for the Wise” collapsed, we canceled a program that we dearly loved. We adopted the Nancy Reagan mantra, “Just say no.” Shakespeare has been losing money now for five consecutive years, way before the economy went south.

We now hear a back story in which some of the ingrates for whom state Rep. William”Smitty” Pignatelli did so much are now blaming him (instead of themselves) for not coming up with the millions of dollars from the commonwealth that Shakespeare needs. Can you believe that nonsense? Even after the Shakespeare people dissed him by asking state Rep. Dan Bosley (North Adams) from the far North to dig them out of the hole, Pignatelli still tried to help them.

That’s the kind of gentleman he is. But the commonwealth is dead broke — as broke as Shakespeare — and we are talking about a lot of money here. Maybe I’m counting wrong but I come up with more than $10 million dollars (a lot more). We are told there will be trouble making payroll and that the company has taken money from its successful capital campaign to pay for operating expenses. The situation is precarious. That’s something I always thought was a no-no. We are told that the company has begun to make the needed changes.

Anita Walker, who runs the state’s arts organization, has done the right thing here. In cooperation with Shakespeare, she pulled in the requisite bean counters who issued what could only be called a dismal and pessimistic report. The same group has delivered a similar coup de grace to other arts groups.

The final excuse is that the Shakespeare campus is cursed. The Bible Speaks and the ill-fated National Music Foundation once occupied the same campus.

All true if you believe in ghosts and curses. But, hey, when you take something big on, you had better go in with your eyes open.

The good news is that while Shakespeare is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is wildly popular with those who live for the Bard. Some of these people have got big money, trust me. In that regard, they’re like the opera folks.

Yet in the midst of all the troubles, we still hear that some of the dreamers at Shakespeare are thinking about building a recreation of the Rose Theater! You’ve got to be kidding. Pass the Kool-Aid. Oh, by the way, I hope Shakespeare & Company make it. The Berkshires would be a sadder place without them.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 10-19-09

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