BOSTON -- The Boston Symphony Orchestra players tuned, then laid down their instruments before a note had been played. Stage lights blinked off during a performance of Shakespeare. Unemployed ballet dancers lighted candles in a vigil.

All around the Berkshire hills, at precisely 8:30 p.m. Saturday night, about 30 groups taking part in the traditional summer festival stopped dead for three minutes to protest reduced government funding and censorship of the arts, said "arts blackout" organizer Frank Bessel.

"The primary consideration is to recognize culture as a priority, even as an election issue. More and more people are not getting {a moral education} or they're getting it from television sitcoms," said Bessel, artistic director of the Berkshire Public Theatre in Pittsfield, in western Massachusetts.

The protest also was aimed at the National Endowment for the Arts, which has cut the funding of some controversial artists.

At Tanglewood, a retreat for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Managing Director Kenneth Haas stopped the musicians shortly after they tuned their instruments, said BSO spokeswoman Kim Smedvig.

Haas told the audience of 10,000 that "across the Berkshires at this moment, theater, dance and musical performances are being interrupted or delayed to request a few minutes of reflection on the importance of art in our lives and the problems we are facing as result of a loss of government support."

The symphony, the most popular cultural attraction in the Berkshires, has spent each summer since 1937 at the former country estate in Lenox, about 130 miles west of Boston.

Lenox's population of 6,500 doubles each summer as urbanites arrive to beat the heat and immerse themselves in the arts. The local economies rely heavily on the tourist trade.

In nearby Pittsfield, about 100 members of Berkshire Ballet and their supporters held a candlelight vigil. The dancers lost their jobs when the summer season was canceled because of cuts in federal and state arts funding.

At Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, the stage lights went down and actors stopped the comedy "As You Like It" at the end of a wrestling scene.

"Because we're outdoors, it was in complete darkness. {The audience} could see the outline of the white clothing of the actors on stage. And when the lights were restored, the audience applauded," said Dennis Krausnick, the company's managing director.

The last line before the blackout was "bear him away," said Krausnick. "We thought it was appropriate because that's what might happen to the arts."

The Hubbard Street Dance Company from Chicago, performing at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in nearby Becket, delayed the start of "Read My Hips," an American jazz dance piece choreographed by Daniel Ezrlow, said Sam Miller, a festival spokesman.

The Berkshire Public Theatre is showing Larry Gelbart's "Mastergate," a political farce based on the Iran-contra scandal. The lights went down just as an actor portraying a senator investigating the scandal rapped his gavel three times.