Table read of BTF's 1966 production The Skin of Our Teeth with Anne Bancroft, directed by Arthur Penn. Photo courtesy of the Penn family.
Matthew’s Journey with Berkshire Theatre:
My first experiences with the Berkshire Theatre Festival date back to the summer seasons of 1966, ‘67, and ‘68. My father (Arthur Penn) and Bill Gibson were close friends and collaborators. They’d worked together on Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker, which were both Broadway successes. The Miracle Worker had also become a successful film.
Dad got involved with the BTF when Bill was the artistic director. [Pictured to the left: Arthur Penn. Photo courtesy of the Penn family.] I believe The Skin of Our Teeth (1966) starring Anne Bancroft was the first production Dad directed there. Annie and Bill and Arthur had become dear friends and artistic colleagues with a number of Tonys and one Oscar under their belts.
My first memories of the BTF were my occasional visits to the rehearsal room during that production of The Skin of Our Teeth. The theatre was an amazing place and seeing a play come to life was truly incredible. I remember darting in and out between the seats and aisles as they did their tech rehearsals for the production. [Pictured to the right, Anne Bancroft in The Skin of Our Teeth at BTF, 1966.]
The following season Dad and Bill had become co-artistic directors. Together they produced a number of plays, but one in particular stayed with me. It was a play titled Next by Terrence McNally starring James Coco whose performance was original in its tone and accomplishment. He was both funny and heartbreaking. It was a profound anti-war play about a man’s experience during his army induction examination. Watching a play that dealt with the draft and the war in southeast Asia as our country was being torn apart was a powerful event.
BTF was my first experience around the magic of theatre. It was the confluence of both family and dear family friends coming together to create some memorable theater with the Berkshire Theater Festival at the center.
Berkshire Theatre will always have a soft spot in the Penn family’s hearts. Interestingly my wife, Candace, who is a theatrical sign-language interpreter, was hired to be both the rehearsal interpreter and the performance interpreter for last summer’s production of Children of a Lesser God. In April, Children will open on Broadway and Candace will be interpreting the Broadway production as well. That’s one more connection that exists between the Penn family and the Berkshire Theatre Group. While I’ve had the great good fortune to direct many wonderful television series and plays, my own love of theater began at BTG.
It’s impossible to compare the many fine productions that have been created at BTG over these decades. For me it is hard to compete with that first blush of seeing the theatre first-hand and being in the theatre during those years. Next [pictured to the left] was a simple little one act, and yet it’s quite a profound play by Terrence McNally who would become one of the significant American writers of his generation. Likewise seeing Annie Bancroft as the maid for the Antrobus family in The Skin of Our Teeth was not a memory easily forgotten by a 9-year-old boy! That was a special time in America, a special time in the arts, and a special time at BTG and my recollections of those days are very dear.
I remember during the tech of The Skin of Our Teeth. I had a free run of the theatre. So like any 8-year-old I took it upon myself to explore every possible place, going downstairs, upstairs and all through the house. There was something incredible about that. At one point, the lighting designer took me up to the catwalk that surrounded the lighting grid and together we looked down at the stage. To be able to look down and see all these gifted people was an unforgettable experience for a young lad. Those images and those experiences have always stayed with me and doubtless have been part of my own affection and participation in theatre. [Pictured to the right: Rehearsal of The Skin of Our Teeth at BTF, 1966. Photo courtesy of the Penn family.]
Matthew Penn has directed and/or produced over 200 episodes of television dramas such as Law & Order, The Sopranos, Damages, House, and Royal Pains. He has also directed Beauty Queen of Leenane, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and Mother of the Maid at Shakespeare and Co. Last year he directed in the 10x10 festival at Barrington Stage, and will be directing there again this year. Matthew Penn is also a co-Artistic director of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab entering its 11th season.