Berkshire Theatre Group’s education program, BTG PLAYS!, reaches 13,000 Berkshire County schoolchilren annually. The education program serves children of all ages and offers a variety of programs from summer camps, live shows, internships, and after-school programs. Education has been a fundamental part of Berkshire Theatre since its inception in 1928. Since that time, Berkshire Theatre’s Education resources have grown and shifted into a comprehensive program.
Beginnings of BTG’s Education Program
During the first summer season in 1928, students from Yale University (F. Cowles Strickland’s alma mater) worked in the scene and costume shops. Strickland wanted to give them the opportunity to put to use what they had spent the school year learning. In 1929, Strickland formed a formal acting apprentice program. These programs continued to grow and expand under each new artistic director.
Acting interns were offered the chance to learn from world-class artists and took classes in movement, voice, make up, and dance, just to name a few. The Berkshire Playhouse attracted college students and young professionals from across the country. The pre-professional training programs offered invaluable practical experience, and many of them continue to this day. After the Playhouse was incorporated in 1966 and became Berkshire Theatre Festival, new programs developed.
Theatre for Youth was a new focus for BTF. Developing out of a desire to fully engage all members of the community, and make a positive impact on local youth, the Young Americans Playwright Program (YAPP) was established in 1984. Yapp partnered with local-schools to create a 14-week playwriting intensive. Students worked with BTF artists to create original plays. At the end of the 14 weeks, the artists would review the plays and select 2-4 to be fully staged as part of the Theatre Under the Tent Series.
YAPP was a unique program, and one of the first programs to partner arts and the local schools in the area. The program was a roaring success, and continued well into the 1990s. During this time, BTF underwent significant changes. Kate Maguire took the reins in 1998, and during her first year as Artistic Director she helped to overhaul and expand the education program with Allison Rachele Bayles.
BTG PLAYS! Today
BTG PLAYS! Year-Round Education Program, officially formed in 1998, combines all the best aspects of previous programs with innovative new programs. It is a comprehensive educational experience for all students from Pre-K to College. Allison Rachele Bayles—who helped found the program—stated, “When Kate and I joined BTF the education programs served rural school districts and a few hundred students. Since that time our programs have grown to include our Touring Show, After School Programming, Field Trip Opportunities, Summer Classes for Kids, and more.”
More than 20 years later, the program has become a fundamental core of BTG according to Kate Maguire, “Each of the children who participates in our program, becomes part of our BTG family, and will often continue on from the camps or after-school programs to the community shows or working as interns as they get older.” One such student, Hanna Koczela, has been with Berkshire Theatre Group since 2009 and is now an Summer 2019 Acting Intern, “One of my favorite memories every summer has been meeting the acting interns. I have always looked up to them and wanted to be one—I cannot believe it is actually happening!” she said. The Summer 2019 Acting Interns can be seen this summer in The Skin of Our Teeth and You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (Revised).
Each year, thousands of students are given the opportunity to learn, grow, meet new people, and experience art in a hands-on environment. The impact to each individual student is clearly seen every year. In the past few years, BTG has expanded its education program by adding in two new shows: Elementary and Middle School Spring Production and the Pre-K to Elementary Fall Production. Disney’s Aladdin Jr., welcomed more than 2,000 patrons in 2019. Part of MA ArtWeek, this show featured Elementary and Middle School students in all roles. Beyond the stage the students and their families helped in the creation of props, scenery, and costumes. The Fall show for 2019 will be Willy Wonka Kids, and will offer similar community-focused opportunities. These shows allow families from across Berkshire County to come together and create art. Many of the students performing in Willy Wonka Kids can also be seen in the 2019 Annual Community Theatre Production of Shrek The Musical in August!
BTG PLAYS! Impact
BTG PLAYS! Year-Round Education Program serves 13,000 school children in over 26 schools across 15 towns. There are approximately 5,429 students in Pittsfield, of which we serve 3,467. Of the students in Berkshire County, 51% are economically disadvantaged. Through careful planning and programming, BTG provides free and reduced ticket prices, camps, and apprenticeship fees for these programs. BTG PLAYS! Touring Performances reaches 28 schools and over 6,000 children.
BTG PLAYS! includes 12 different initiatives within three distinct categories: School Partnership Programs, Performing Arts for Young People, and Pre-Professional Internship Programs. The BTG PLAYS! Year-Round Education Program allows children from all backgrounds to come together and collaborate with their families, their communities, and each other.
Parents, students, and community members benefit from BTG PLAYS! see their stories below:
“BTG has taught me that the best actors and show makers are honest and true to themselves. Sure, we “act” and pretend we are something that we are not, but Berkshire Theatre Group trains and motivates their actors to do that in a thoughtful way. Each character that steps on any of the three stages at BTG has a full story- they are honest characters that the directors and creative team have put a lot of thought into. I’m not quite sure there is another place that teaches young actors this in an effective and creative way. I am so grateful this has been my foundation as I continue on to being a performer.”— Hanna Koczela, Summer 2019 Acting Intern
“Thank you for giving me such a ‘proud momma moment’ today! We are asked all the time, ‘Why BTG? What is it about BTG?’ BTG takes every opportunity to showcase their artists and give back to the community. They support and empower children to be confident performers, public speakers, and advocates in their community. BTG takes care of every actor, and…with seemingly little things like this…every FAMILY. Parents are educated, informed, included, and valued along with their children as part of the theater. It’s not ‘Why BTG?’, it just IS BTG! The line from Tarzan said it best, ‘Two worlds, one family!’ THANK YOU FOR THIS SMILE!”— Michelle Colvin, Parent
“What I liked about the BTG Program was when we started to write our stories we all encouraged each other.”— Madysen, Student
“I learned to be brave and tell our lines to other people and perform in front of little kids.”— Sabrina, Student
“In theatre, we take on tough topics. We bring understanding to the audience, and we teach kids to take positive risks in a creative and artistic way. It’s about accepting differences and celebrating each other as we are…no matter who we are.” –Lillian Colvin, age 12, Jasmine in BTG’s Aladdin Jr., 2019.
“I love acting! I love it all, the memorizing, the faces, the becoming of your character, and most of all, the fun! And while I was performing I could feel the excitement of my peers and the crowd.”— Stella, Student