Fire destroys Jacob’s Pillow dance theater in early morning blaze

Fire destroys Jacob’s Pillow dance theater in early morning blaze
Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob's Pillow. Photo: Monterey Fire Department.

A fire destroyed the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Tuesday morning, issuing a blow to a dance community already rattled by the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis.

No injuries were reported, and the flames did not spread to any of the other buildings on the organization’s historic 220-acre campus, located in Becket, Mass. The cause of the fire has not yet been released.

Crews arrived on the grounds around 7 a.m. Tuesday and stayed until midday, according to a message posted by Jacob’s Pillow on its website. Becket’s fire, police and EMS personnel responded to the quick-paced blaze, with additional aid provided by fire departments in the surrounding towns of Hinsdale, Monterey, Otis, Chester and Lee.

Opened in 1990, 216-seat Doris Duke Theatre was one of two indoor stages at the dance center. The versatile studio-performance space has hosted innovative dance companies and artists such as Urban Bush Women, Dorrance Dance, Trisha Brown Dance Company, Kyle Abraham and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, among many others.

“While we have lost some precious, irreplaceable items, those experiences and memories will last forever,” Pamela Tatge, executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, said in the statement. “We are heartbroken and we are relieved that no one was hurt.”

Once on the campus, firefighters faced initial delays in extinguishing the flames due to faulty hydrants, Becket Fire Chief Paul Mikaniewicz explained in The Berkshire Eagle. Crews were able to shuttle water to quell the blaze, which ripped through the theater’s wooden structure.

Support for the dance organization, founded in 1933 by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, quickly flowed on social media as the fire was reported in local media sources. Elizabeth Warren, who represents Massachusetts in the United States Senate, stated on Twitter that her “heart goes out to the Jacob’s Pillow staff and the town of Becket for this tragic loss.”

“Bruce and I always look forward to the world-famous Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival,” Warren wrote of the organization’s historic festival. “It’s a Western Mass treasure that has already been hit hard from this pandemic.”

Becket Town Administrator William Caldwell said in a statement to ALL ARTS that “Jacob’s Pillow is one of the premier dance facilities in the nation,” noting the art center’s school outreach programs and performances.

“They are a vital part of the community and a large tourist venue which attracts thousands of people into Becket and the area annually,” he said of the dance hub, which also holds a vast archive of rare dance materials. “The Town wishes Jacob’s Pillow well and hopes that to assist in their future plans.”

The fire marks an additional setback for the western Massachusetts organization, which canceled its expansive summer festival for the first time in its 88-year history in March due to the COVID-19 health crisis. When announcing the closures, Jacob’s Pillow reported that festival sales and ancillary activities account for nearly 50% of its annual revenue. To account for the loss, the institution reduced its full-time workforce by 40% and “institute deep pay cuts” for remaining employees.

The dance institution isn’t alone in its financial struggle. A new survey conducted by Mass Cultural Council released last week indicated that cultural organizations in Massachusetts have lost approximately $484 million since the start of the COVID-19 health crisis. Across the state, more than 30,000 jobs in the arts and culture sector were affected.

As in-person events were canceled, Jacob’s Pillow turned to digital platforms to fill the gap. And in October, the performing arts center announced that a small number of artists were invited back to the campus to create new works as part of residencies.

In a message to the community, the institution noted that it will continue to provide updates about the fire on its site.

“On behalf of everyone at the Pillow, we are grateful for the firefighters and officials who have responded so quickly to this devastating emergency on our grounds,” Tatge said. “We are grateful for the outpouring of support from around the world we have already received. We will rebuild.”