A leap of faith for Pittsfield arts scene
Blind Boys of Alabama to perform in Pittsfield on March 26
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., March 25, 2004) – There’s nothing particularly unusual about having a monthly folk coffeehouse in a church – for decades church basements have provided a grassroots network for folksingers criss-crossing the country. And of course there’s nothing particularly unusual about hearing gospel music in a church – rather, for many listeners, churches are still the primary and still the proper home for music that testifies to religious faith.
But there is plenty unusual about what’s going on at the First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street, and a leap of faith surely enters into what is planned for Friday, March 26, at 8, when the Grammy Award-winning gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama are expected to draw the largest crowd to downtown Pittsfield for a performing arts event since Mort Cooperman’s ill-fated concert club, The Studio, located at the old England Brothers, fell victim to a wrecking ball several years ago.
Tonight’s concert represents a huge undertaking, a risky experiment, even something of a spiritual mission for some of those involved. It is also potentially just the first of a series of such events that are planned for the church – earlier this week, Helsinki Presents, the Great Barrington-based concert promoter that is staging the event, was negotiating to clinch a deal to bring Roseanne Cash to Pittsfield later this spring.
It’s also something of a testing ground for innovative partnering among key players on the local arts scene. “There are a lot of people really working for the best for Pittsfield now,” said Megan Whilden, who lives and works in downtown Pittsfield and is spokesperson for the Storefront Artists Project. “All the different pieces are starting to come together.”
“I’d like to see a few people waiting at stoplights because there are so many people downtown,” said Jim Hunt, a congregant at the church and a key volunteer and instigator behind its emergence as a community-oriented meeting space and performing arts center. “I’d like Pittsfield to be an exciting place for my kids to live in.”
If Hunt and others have their way, it soon just might. For tonight’s concert, which is expected to attract a sellout crowd of around 900 ticketholders, Helsinki has teamed up with the Colonial Theatre, combining their efforts and expertise to promote the concert and the idea that Pittsfield can draw crowds downtown through entertainment. Other collaborations are in the works – Marc Schafler, who also produces the shows at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, hopes to meet soon with Ray Schilke, who is developing the Berkshire Music Hall in the former Berkshire Public Theater on Union Street, to explore the possibility of presenting concerts in that venue’s projected 700-seat space.
“Marc and I have been talking about collaborating for a year,” said Susan Sperber, executive director of the Colonial Theatre, which when up and running will have 950 seats. “We’re exploring the relationship together, figuring out who does what best and how we can fortify that for the future. We are all about collaboration. I can see this is going to be the first step in a long-term relationship.”
Schafler says he is eager to do more shows in Pittsfield. “An important part of what we’re doing at Helsinki is producing shows in larger venues,” he said, “and Pittsfield was a natural in a sense that it’s a part of the community. We consider it hometown for us. It’s the Berkshires. Jim invited me to take a look at the church and I did and thought it’d be a great place to do music. It took us thirteen months to birth the right show, and this will be a wonderful introduction to our cousin in the north.”
For Jim Hunt, using the church sanctuary as a performing arts venue has both practical and spiritual implications. The church made a decision several years ago to stay in its 130-year-old downtown location even though the congregation has dwindled to below 200 people. In order to justify maintaining the building, however, the church has opened its doors to a variety of non-religious uses, including providing meeting space for groups like Narcotics Anonymous and the Sioga Club and headquarters for the Eagles Band, as well as making it available to groups like Shakespeare and Company and Barrington Stage Company as an alternative performance space.
The use of the church’s large sanctuary for concerts, however, is a big leap forward from the more traditional, monthly folk program the church runs as the Common Grounds Coffeehouse.
“I wouldn’t really call this a soft opening,” said Hunt, who was born and raised in Pittsfield and baptized in the church. “Two years ago we were dreaming about doing something like this but it was a kind of a joke. You hate to say you started at the pinnacle, but I can’t imagine doing anything more than what we’re doing Friday night.”
With the use of the church’s sanctuary as a performing arts space, a theme begins to emerge for the revitalization of downtown Pittsfield.
“The partnership between Helsinki and the Methodist church is about using available resources and space and using space in non-traditional ways in the same way that Storefront Artists uses empty storefronts,” said Whilden. “Pittsfield has a real history and beautiful architecture, and this is taking what we have that’s great and renewing it by infusing it with new energy and culture. The church, the Colonial and the music hall and Storefront Artists are all building on what’s already there.”
Even the Blind Boys of Alabama mesh with this theme. While the 60-year-old group – which performed a spectacular concert staged by Helsinki at Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Theatre several years ago -- maintains one foot firmly in gospel tradition, it also reinvigorates the tradition by infusing songs by contemporary artists, including the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Cliff, Stevie Wonder and Prince, with their hardcore gospel harmonies.
“We’ve always felt that music is more than just the sound and the notes,” said Schafler. “It’s what it pulls out of the heart. It’s community building. This is something that has broad-based appeal socially and culturally, and I knew it would look and sound fabulous in the church. Gospel in a church. What more could you ask for?”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 26, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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