For our 40th Anniversary, Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly has penned a four-part series on the history of California Shakespeare Theater. Each piece appears in our playbill before arriving on the blog–four articles for each of our four summer shows. Part one of the series originally appeared in the program for A Raisin in the Sun.
By Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly
By the 1970s, Berkeley had established itself at the heart of the counterculture, a multifaceted outgrowth of the Beat movement (“cool jazz,” “beatitude,” anti-materialism, anti-institutionalism) in which the children of post-war Americans sought to express their independence. These young people rejected their parents’ drive for security and prosperity, forming collectives and movements of their own that pushed for environmental reform, sexual freedom, and a stop to the Vietnam War. There were profound engagements with non-Judeo-Christian beliefs, including Buddhism, the EST self-realization movement, and the Hare Krishnas; the hedonism led by Timothy O’Leary, a direct outgrowth of drug-taking; and the music of Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Janice Joplin and the Woodstock Festival, iconic political embodiments of youthful idealism.
The California Shakespeare Theater had its origins in this culture. It began as a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts who wanted to stage performances. Led by Peter Fisher, graduate student and musician, the group originally met as the ”Emeryville Shakespeare Company,” gathering in a shed in Emeryville, with an aim to stage only Shakespeare, leaving other playwrights to other newly-established theater companies like the Berkeley Repertory Theater and the American Conservatory Theater. Every decision was to be arrived at, where possible, through a non-hierarchical governing structure—what plays to perform, in what order, who to direct, and what budgets could be allocated. Each director, once selected and given a budget, had the freedom to cast and staff the show at will.
In 1974 the company pooled funds to establish a season budget of $3000, moving to the ready-made amphitheater provided by Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park. They re-named themselves the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival. The park was shaded by a glorious oak tree, and at an early performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Puck swung onto the stage from one of its branches. Bay trees scented the amphitheater, and old, broken-down redwood benches, probably dating back to the 1930s, were built into its tiers. Once the City of Berkeley had replaced the benches with gravel, audiences camped along the tiers, making themselves comfortable on cushions and lawn chairs, often arriving very early—through either the bottom or the top of the park—to secure their favorite spots. Many brought sleeping bags so that when the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped, they were able to stretch out, warm and snug, with a picnic and a bottle of wine. (In the first few seasons the company members also made a big pot of stew for each performance, which was offered to the audience at intermission.) Two dank, dark old toilets were available for use at the perimeter of the audience area, later to be upgraded via the rental of porta-potties. Over time the electricity was upgraded and, under the supervision of production manager Michael Cook, lighting towers were constructed to allow full stage lighting. Elaborate sets were designed for the space in front of what is now left of the old stone fireplace. From 1974 to 1976 the company didn’t sell tickets or charge admission, suggesting instead a donation of $2.00 per show. Effective publicity consisted of parking old cars topped with large painted signs at strategic locations in Berkeley and near Hinkel Park. The cars had to be moved from time to time, but the advertising system was effective. By the end of the first season, the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival had become very successful, filling to capacity and scoring reviews in local papers and even one in the highly prized international journal, Shakespeare Quarterly. Company members were able to reimburse themselves for their investment, also setting aside a small sum to bankroll a winter production of All’s Well That Ends Well and to start up the next season. The collective awarded every participant—from directors to the children who were fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest—exactly $1.00 for each performance. Those who were there for every performance would receive a total compensation of $41.00 for the season.
This system of collective governance worked well, but after its third season the board began contemplating ways to expand, and members discussed the possibility of appointing an Artistic Director. In 1979, against some objections, the collective appointed its first Artistic Director, George Kovach. It also elected its first Board of Directors, which included Bernard Taper, journalism professor at UC Berkeley and one of the original “Monuments Men” who tracked down works of art pillaged by the Nazis and restored them to their rightful owners.
From the appointment of Kovach, the Festival went through four artistic directors, two of whom—in the grand tradition of Shakespeare’s Lear, Coriolanus, Prospero, Richard II, Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, the Thane of Cawdor, and Macbeth— were banished by collective command. The company’s second Artistic Director, a brilliantly resourceful actor/manager named Dakin Matthews, instituted season concepts, as well as company “sharers,” an early version of today’s Associate Artist structure. Under Matthews’ five-year tenure (1983–1987) the Festival produced four plays in repertory every summer, and actress Lura Dolas was recruited to run a Summer Conservatory. During this period, however, the company outgrew its premises, prospective audience members were being turned away, and the neighbors were complaining about noise and parking. Audience members often came out after a performance to find their tires slashed, and one irate man was caught taking an axe to the stage. Even after an 11pm curfew was instituted to mollify the neighbors, the unrest continued, and a new location was clearly on the menu. But more about this in next program’s article, where we look at Artistic Director Michael Addison who led the company through its search for new premises, culminating in Professor Hugh Richmond’s near-arrest and an eventual move to the Bruns.
Many remarkable artists joined the Festival in the early days, including Annette Bening, Robin Goodrin Nordli, Howard Swain, Nancy Carlin (who continues as an Associate Artist with the company today), Lura Dolas, Richard E.T. White, and Julian López-Morillas. The collective spirit required everyone to pitch in to make ends meet, and Dolas, for example, recalls her multiple roles on and off-stage—administrative work, publicity, directing, script cutting, driving the van from venue to venue, and, in the off-season, running a teaching conservatory. Jim Carpenter, lacking a beard, was obliged to carefully cut the hair of the company mascot dog for a performance of The Comedy of Errors (opening on June 28, 2014, hopefully, though, with no need to coif Jonathan’s Chihuahua, Lucy). The company members’ resourcefulness in these early days puts me very much in mind of how Shakespeare and his actors must have worked. They, too, made and hauled their own props, and they, too, had neighbors who didn’t want them (forcibly shut down at one point, Shakespeare and his troupe had to break down their theater and carry its parts across the Thames in the middle of the night.) “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves…” Four hundred years apart, the members of regional theater companies are living proof of this.
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