The Foundry: Forging diverse connection in West Stockbridge

By Hannah Van Sickle
Published August 20, 2020
The Berkshire Edge

West Stockbridge — Amy Brentano’s belief in the power of live performance to bring people together is what ultimately led her to fling the doors of The Foundry open to the public for the very first time last summer. Brentano envisioned the physical space, originally built as a glass-blowing studio, with clear intention: to present relevant performing and visual art that is accessible for diverse audiences; art that connects and inspires us, and incites us to leap across cultural boundaries. The 40-feet-by-40-feet black-box theater, with seating for 99 people, was designed to replicate “the feeling of rubbing elbows at [Club] Helsinki,” the intimate Great Barrington music venue that closed in 2009 after hosting big names for 15 years. The changing performing arts landscape, currently restricted to the outdoors and dictated by capped crowds, has not deterred Brentano in the least; in fact, she remains more determined than ever to bring her vision to fruition: namely, for artists and audience members alike to feel some ownership in this venture she has created to serve everyone.

“The Foundry is a holding tank for raw, funny, challenging, empowering work that changes the lens through which we view each other,” Brentano told me Wednesday afternoon from the property’s patio. A torrential (and unexpected) rain had just moved through, exacerbating the wildly unpredictable Berkshire weather to which Brentano is beholden at present. Brentano, like others across the county, had to pivot when COVID-19 hit; she was given permission by the town to do outdoor programming early on, and Brentano decided to keep attendance under 40 patrons in order for her small team to effectively manage distance and safety protocols. Her goal to operate in a way that felt “really responsible for all, including artists, staff and patrons” has been easier than she had imagined. A full liquor license supports operating costs and leaves Brentano time to devote to her original intention: giving unheard voices a platform.

“My goal is to bring in really diverse work that is not happening elsewhere in the Berkshires, that will feel accessible to a wide audience,” said Brentano, whose background is in theater. In addition to a loyal following of West Stockbridge locals, audiences pop over from Albany and the Pioneer Valley; Brentano would love to attract Pittsfield audiences. “I want the audience to look as different from one another as the artists,” she said, citing the importance of coming together as one, considering the myriad differences that divide us particularly at this moment in history. When curating acts, Brentano calls music “easy to book,” especially now when performing artists are itching to get in front of live audiences. In April, a tango quartet from Berlin was slated to perform; Del Sol Quartet, from San Francisco, made their way to the Foundry in October rather serendipitously. “People scour the venues in the area,” said Brentano, when planning tours, and they are finding West Stockbridge — not unlike Charming Disaster, a duo who performed earlier this month after making their way to the 413 for a fringe festival. Brentano and her colleague, managing director Noah Bailey, are honing their livestreaming skills despite an affinity for the live experience, which will likely facilitate future productions from the black box come winter.

Brentano’s commitment to discovering new talent gave rise to the Thursday evening Emerging Artist Series, which celebrates performers creating new work. “[There is] so much young talent here, [and they are] so appreciative to have the opportunity to perform live,” she added. Tonight’s performance includes the Pluto String Ensemble, five Pittsfield-based musicians: Joe Weinberg, bass; Ethan Maisonneuve, viola; Bella Penna, violin; Gerdlie Jean-Louis, violin; and Gerdrose Jean-Louis, cello. The high-school-aged musicians have been in residence for the past two months, availing themselves of a proper venue in which to rehearse. The second half of tonight’s program will include a performance by Molly Weinberg, a singer and rising senior at Sarah Lawrence College (who got rained out earlier in the season); all donations made to Weinberg’s Venmo will go directly to the Okra Project, a collective that delivers free, delicious and nutritious meals to Black Trans people experiencing food insecurity. Rounding out this week’s talent are high-school pals Will McLaughlin and Andrew Weston who — using a projector, mad PowerPoint skills and witty repartee — are Presented With Comment. Performances start outside on the Patio Bar at 5 p.m. There is no cover charge, but audiences are encouraged to support the artists through their Venmo accounts.

“People seem to really love it,” said Brentano of the emerging artists, “and [the performers] walk away with some cash in their pocket and feel appreciated,” she added. Then, as if on cue, a pair of pedestrians passed. ”Hello, Miss Amy!” one called. “We’re going to miss Joe tomorrow,” the other announced. “Neighbors,” Brentano told me, of Joe and Lori Rose of Stone House Properties. It turns out Joe is an accomplished musician himself who turned up last week to accompany cellist Joseph Cracolici. This is precisely the community and connection Brentano seeks to cultivate, one she called “delightful and unexpected.”

On Saturday, Patio Productions presents VEERdance Company’s “Can You See Me?” Choreographed and performed by Fern Katz and Taylor King, “Can You See Me?” is an invitation to look into two varied human experiences, a friendship, individual struggles, joy and how everything converges. “While this piece began as an exploration of relationships, after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, our focus shifted,” the artists explain. “We began to ask ourselves what the audience might see in us upon first appearance. This led us to discuss how different our experiences have been, shaped in part by external perceptions because of the color of our skin. No matter our intersectional experiences, Blackness and Whiteness are always at the forefront.” Perhaps this performance, one that explores de-centering Whiteness and celebrates human life and strength in the midst of hardship, speaks to what fuels Brentano in her work.

“There is a freedom attached to making [The Foundry] a for-profit business, and that freedom allows for the artistic freedom that I want,” she explained of her decision not to become a nonprofit. Brentano knows, firsthand, what comes with a board of directors. “I know how work has to be curated when you are beholden to your major donors,” she said, harkening back to the decade she spent running a theater company in New York City. Brentano’s training — which occurred at New York University in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s under the tutelage of theater legends like Anne Bogart and the late Spalding Gray — “was entirely ensemble,” she said in a nod to the fact that she and her colleagues learned how to work together to create work in a model that was “more about horizontal ways of working, and less hierarchical,” which, at the end of the day, is where she feels most comfortable.

Most importantly, Brentano “live[s] here, and want[s] to stay here.” After 25 years in New York, she has been proud to call the Berkshires home for the past 18, and sees her current position — to create inclusive, equitable programming at The Foundry — a great privilege. And of the challenges the past six months have presented? “I feel this tremendous gratitude — for this unique piece of property in a unique community — where I can continue to do what I love,” said Brentano, who exudes a generosity of spirit. “I do not want to play to only a white audience,” she made clear, adding, “I want this patio to be filled with people who look different from each other.” For the moment, that work hinges on creating dialogue and inviting others to the conversation. As to her segue? “Come in; what do you have to say?”

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