by Philippa Kelly
Recently I fed watermelon to three pigs and wondered how such sentient creatures—each a unique embodiment of the life force—could ever be eaten by myself or any other human. By coincidence, later that day, Napoleon the Pig was the protagonist at Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST where, on a beautiful afternoon, I walked through Live Oak Park, grabbed a cup of coffee and a cookie, and settled on my travel cushion (the seats are hard) to watch The Farm in a space tucked into the leafy edges of Walnut Street. Jon Tracy’s adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm was performed in Trump-America: the chilly recognition of a nation’s self-induced tyranny existed in a theatrical world of utterly engrossing dance and song—a paradox that only art can freely embody.
But…life in small theaters is not all song and dance. It takes a mighty heart to run a small artistic organization. Yes, small theaters can adjust their programming more nimbly to respond to changes in the world, making great, timely, provocative theater. But their big dreams wage a daily battle with the sheer economic challenge of impossibly elastic budget goals.
In the last months, I’ve seen so much wonderful theater created in the network of small organizations that make up much of Berkeley’s verdant theater life. Ubuntu Theater Project kicked off its season with a heart-breaking Death of a Salesman starring Julian López-Morillas and Dawn L. Troupe, moving into a stream of impressive new works beginning with To the Bone, a portrait of life in the chicken industry. At Symmetry Theatre, Stacy Ross stunned audiences with her portrait of a woman at the onset of dementia in The Other Place. Aurora Theatre Company gave us Luna Gale, tracking the life of a social welfare worker dealing with Child Protective Services, a nail-biting scenario delivered by a fabulous cast in a spectacular, tight-paced production. Shotgun Players, which served up an unforgettable Hamlet in 2016 where actors picked their roles nightly out of a hat, this year churned up every organ in my body with Sarah Kane’s horrifying Blasted. Crowded Fire (where the magnificent Christopher Chen is resident artist); Word For Word; the Playground; African American Shakespeare, Central Works, Indra’s Net, Actor’s Ensemble of Berkeley: I come away from an evening spent at these theater companies with so very much more than the tiny price I pay to get in.
For small theaters and theater projects, all the world is often actually a stage, as they find imaginative and affordable ways to make their work. Cal Shakes’ rehearsal hall, waiting hungrily for the warmth and life of next season’s preparations, was recently home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On translation project, where Lue Douthit joined director Lisa Peterson, Playwright Christopher Chen, Dramaturg Desdemona Chiang, and a group of Cal Shakes’ finest actors to spend three days workshopping Chen’s progress on Antony and Cleopatra. The Paul Dresher Ensemble recently expanded its precincts in West Oakland to provide a home for many more artists, and amidst an assortment of musicians, dancers (the Ensemble has a fully sprung dance floor), opera companies and shadow puppeteers, Ubuntu Theater has made its new rehearsal home, creating site-specific productions to travel throughout the community. The New Conservatory Theater and San Francisco Playhouse have their stages in hotels; The Sandbox Theater sits atop the Strand at ACT; Theater First shares its space with Symmetry Theater and Actors Ensemble of Berkeley; on Potrero Hill Crowded Fire shares space with Golden Thread, 3Girls and the Actors Playground in a community where, as Artistic Director Mina Morita says, “we’re eating, buying our coffee and talking to our neighbors: this is where we’re also performing.” And if you can’t afford a shared space, try a moving car (for a maximum of three audience members) as did the artists who made Car Play this year.
When I see plays at small theaters, I am truly aware that artists are born to exercise a very special gift for illuminating and re-imagining the world: and that no matter where, or how, this theater gets made, it must be made: each one of these productions provides its own unique prism through which our worlds can be bigger and bolder and richer and more generous.
Philippa Kelly is Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, and upcoming dramaturg for Quixote and War of the Roses.