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Why Jacob's Pillow Canceled A Season For The 1st Time In Its 88-Year History

Jacob's Pillow — the country's longest-running international dance festival — is the latest cultural casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The festival, in Becket, Massachusetts, typically draws more than 100,000 visitors to the Berkshires every summer. But this week Jacob’s Pillow announced it is canceling its upcoming season for the first time in its 88-year history.

Pamela Tatge, executive and artistic director at Jacob's Pillow, said several factors prompted the decision.

Pamela Tatge, Jacob’s Pillow: If you look at the trajectory of the virus in China — that's still not at the end of it — it's been five months since they first reported outbreaks, so that would take us through to the end of August.

Secondly, we are a festival that celebrates a form that's all about intimacy and touching, and requires rigorous rehearsal. And many of the companies that are preparing to perform at the festival — none of them are able to rehearse right now, except virtually.

Another factor is we serve an older demographic, the demographic that is squarely at risk during this outbreak. And we were having a hard time imagining when people would feel comfortable gathering again.

So for all of those factors, the safety of our staff, we took what we felt was the only responsible action.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: What is the financial impact on on the Pillow? It runs not only the festival, but a school as well.

That's right. Fifty percent of our annual income comes from the festival and our gala and all of the related activities that generate revenue during the summer.

That, coupled with the losses in spring programming — we had to cut our budget in half. We went from an $8 million organization to a $4 million organization in just two weeks.

And the impact on staff?

We had to reduce our workforce by 40%. We reduced other positions to part-time positions. And everybody at the Pillow that remains will receive pay cuts ranging from 20 to 30%. We had to cancel all of our seasonal staff. That's more than 40 people.

And then our internationally renowned internship program had to be canceled as well. And that brings together 33 really talented young people from around the world. And that was just terrible news to have to deliver.

But most importantly, people's livelihoods, those that were laid off — those moments have been some of the worst of my professional life.

Beyond the impact at the Pillow, what is the economic impact to the local region?

Well, when you think about the numbers of hotels, restaurants, the vendors that provide the cafeteria services for the dancers and staff, the people that run a restaurant or cafe — all of the many vendors. The impact is really hard to quantify, but it's in the millions.

That's a major hit on the region.

It really is. And it's a hit on the spiritual health of our region as well, because of how Jacob's Pillow brings people together around a form that is all about possibility and agility and strength and imagination.

And to lose that for a community — for a group of tourists who flock to western Massachusetts every summer — we're so sorry that they won't have that experience. But you know, there will be 2021 to look forward to.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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