New plays, musicals, Shakespeare: Ryan Levitt heads for Massachusetts, for a few brief summer months cultural capital of the US

Summer traditionally means only one thing for most actors in the States - closed theatres. In the humid hills of Massachusetts, however, playhouses are open and there is a plethora of performances - many outdoors - and intimate musicals which transform this pocket of North America into the continent's cultural capital. Recent seasons have seen big names such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Joanne Woodward and Stockard Channing grace the stages of small theatres across the region, which often premiere work by prominent playwrights.

For a decent tour of America's "culture corner", begin in Boston. If you love musicals, this is a good base for visiting North Shore Music Theatre, 25 miles away in Beverly. It features performers and directors straight off Broadway. The company, which opened in 1955, is dedicated to the preservation and performance of American musical theatre. This year's summer season includes the Sondheim rarity Pacific Overtures and a new musical, Memphis, featuring music and lyrics by David Bryan of Bon Jovi fame. Cats, too, is on offer. Children's musicals are shown on Friday afternoons throughout the season.

For the big names and big talent, however, you need to go west to the Berkshires, where the big three summer stocks are set in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts. Here you find Hollywood stars slumming it in productions worthy of a West End run.

Lenox houses one of Berkshire's most respected theatres - Shakespeare & Co. While not strictly a summer playhouse, the company comes into its own during the warmer months, when it opens its grounds containing several venues as a showcase. The 2003 season is based around the tagline "Lunatics, lovers, madmen and clowns", with productions taking place in the outdoor, tented theatre and on the lawns and terraces that surround the property. Theatregoers are encouraged to enjoy strawberries and a glass of chardonnay (or two) in the sprawling grounds that overlook the trees of Tanglewood - summer home of the Boston Symphony orchestra - and Lenox Mountain. For a full day out, explore the hidden corners and trails that wind through the 63 acres that make up the estate and discover impromptu outdoor performances before hitting the actual theatre in time to see the curtain go up.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year is the Berkshire Theatre Festival in historic Stockbridge. The third-oldest theatre company in America, it has a strong reputation for putting on American premieres and well-staged comedies that keep patrons coming back year after year. Sigourney Weaver, Calista Flockhart and Gene Hackman have all called BTF home at some point during their careers. Among critics, the productions are known for their professionalism and quality. You often catch rising stars on Berkshire stages years before they hit the big time.

Berkshire's hometown of Stockbridge is quintessentially American, notably described by the illustrator Norman Rockwell as "the best of America, the best of New England". Summers here are gloriously green and flower-filled, followed by autumns marked by riots of changing colours on the trees. Prerevolutionary landmarks dot the main street, with signs and symbols from the reign of George III.

For the biggest names in theatre, your final destination has to be Williamstown Theatre Festival. Here you will find some of Hollywood's, Broadway's and the West End's most noted performers at the peak of their talents. Williamstown is the shining star of summer stock, with productions often transferring to New York. As productions run a maximum of two weeks, you can often pack more than just one play into your visit. This year's season features performances from the indie-fave Lili Taylor and the Broadway star Betty Buckley. Tickets are snapped up weeks in advance, however, so you are well-advised to book before your departure.

A trip to Williamstown is a full-on cultural experience. The town boasts fine examples of 18th- and 19th-century American art at Williams College Museum of Art and Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, set in 130 acres. It also has Mass MoCa, America's largest centre of contemporary art, which fosters experiment and offers a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. It is also an incredible place to pick up a very modern souvenir of your cultural-country vacation.

Performances at all of the above venues often run well into September and can therefore be combined with a trip to view the changing leaves. While summer provides the best opportunities for sampling fresh produce, visiting farmers' markets and basking in glorious sun, a New England autumn is incomparably beautiful with red, brown and golden hues lining every back-road and farmstead.

The Facts

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic (01293 747 747; is offering return fares in July from around £500.

Being there

North Shore Music Theatre (001 978 232 7200;

Shakespeare & Co (001 413 637 3353;

Berkshire Theatre Festival (001 413 298 5536;

Williamstown Theatre Festival (001 413 597 3400;

Further information

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism offers a free Massachusetts 2003-4 getaway guide (020-7978 7429;