#PGEpocalypse: an oral history

PG&E Outage Map, October 10, 2019. Purple is  without power.
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As an outdoor theater, we are no strangers to weather-related drama! In the past few years, it’s become more and more clear that climate change will bring an ever-increasing influence on our bottom line: we’ve canceled shows due to 110-degree weather that put our artists and audiences at risk; we’ve delayed technical rehearsals and canceled previews due to “atmospheric rivers” drenching the set and electrics (not to mention those working on them); and we’ve added a smoke/air quality protocol to our growing list of acts of nature to plan around. 

In an attempt to avoid a recurrence of last year’s terrible fire season, huge swaths of the Bay Area were without power this week as high winds and dry conditions made the threat of fire more immediate. Cal Shakes began planning early in the week for impending outages: like everyone else in the area, we had heard that the power could be cut off for a day or up to five days; that we may not have much advance notice; that the outage maps we were looking at may be correct or not; and that they couldn’t tell us if it would shut off or, if it was off, when it would come back on. Complicating things, we had three Student Discovery Matinees scheduled this week—and while onstage lights aren’t that essential for an 11am show, our team didn’t know if schools would close, if parents would send their kids out of the house, and if the tunnel to the theater would be open, among other concerns.

PG&E Outage Map, October 10, 2019. Purple is without power.

But as they say: The Show Must Go On. Until we knew for sure that the power was going out, and if we couldn’t figure out how to put on a matinee without technical elements, and unless all of the schools canceled, and unless we weren’t able to get generators for the evening performances, then it was… on with the show!

On Wednesday afternoon, the outages began. Some staff members lost power at their homes, but our offices at Heinz Ave in West Berkeley were just outside the shutoff zone. We weren’t sure what was supposed to happen with the Bruns, and as the theater is located in an unincorporated area of Orinda, we weren’t sure which grid we may be drawing power from. We prepared all day for power to go out, frantically calling around to find rentable generators—the same idea apparently every other business in the East Bay had—but that day’s student matinee went up as planned. With one exception: no blood. Teens generally like gore, but since we had to be prepared for the power to go out at any time, we didn’t want to risk the costumes being covered in sticky blood without laundry facilities to clean it up. Let’s hope that with the power of imagination, there was even more blood in their heads than in the actual production!

The Bruns power stayed on through the entire student matinee, but the crew took precautions by taking equipment that needed charging home, and laundry that needed washing to the Heinz offices. Wednesday proved to be a dry run for Thursday, when we would have not only a student matinee, but an evening performance to plan for. Sure enough, the electricity was shut off at midnight—and hundreds of kids were going to start showing up with their teachers at 9am for an 11am matinee.

Donna Vennemeyer, Facilities Manager: “About 8-8:30 am Thursday morning, there was still no electricity and no hope of any before noon at the earliest. People were showing up with random lanterns (USB, solar, battery) to light the bathrooms and dressing rooms. And only one cell phone working…Tirzah [Tyler] (our former Interim Managing Director) texting us asking how things are going, me replying ‘we’re making it happen, a bit crazy, could use more coffee.’  Texting her again half an hour later ‘I was not kidding, we really need more coffee.’ (Managing Director) Sarah [Williams] showed up an hour later with six giant to-go coffee pots from Peets. And a silent but heartfelt cheer went up from all on the grounds.”

Have coffee, will Macbeth!

Thursday’s student performance was old school outdoor theater: no lights, no microphones, no sound cues, and no blood. The actors made several blocking adjustments so that they weren’t muted behind plexiglass. Chris and Richard (Board Ops), and Cheryle (Stage Manager) sat onstage at a makeshift foley station, and did foley work in place of sound cues. They had a bucket, a drum, several different drumsticks, a tamborine, and a thunder sheet.

"The MacBeats Band"

Clive Worsley, Director of Artistic Learning: “Because actors were having to make adjustments to blocking on the fly, and the fact that they had to adjust all the work they were doing vocally, there was a level of focus and a depth of power to their performances that was beyond what we’d been seeing in other performances. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary responses.”

Warren David Keith, actor (Duncan, Porter): “I thought it was thrilling to be doing an outdoor performance without mics, to see a sheet of metal standing in once again for thunder, and a plastic bucket making beautiful music. We saw actors really needing to connect with their audience and a new performance that evolved from all of it. Loved it.”

We were lucky in that our offices in West Berkeley never lost power. Our box office was inundated with hundreds of calls all week, but particularly Thursday, when our final week of evening public performances was to begin.

Kimberlee Hicks, Sales Manager: “Box office staff had a long, hard day yesterday answering numerous phone calls about the power situation without knowing much more than the people who were calling.” From the look of things, though, this ace team took it all in stride!

Cal Shakes continued to inform people throughout the afternoon that we were proceeding as though the show was going on, despite our uncertainty about when, if at all, power would be restored. We offered patrons free exchanges into other days of the weekend, but otherwise treated the outage as another act of nature: we’d prepare for the worst, but hope for the best, and only cancel the show if we absolutely had no choice.

The Bruns grounds opened on schedule Thursday at 5:30pm, and we welcomed the intrepid, hopeful few who were first to arrive. By then, we’d decided that the go/no-go time on the show would be 6:30pm.

Eric Ting, Artistic Director: “As the cut-off time for canceling the show got closer, I was walking around the grounds saying hello to folks and thanking them for coming out, but simultaneously managing expectations in case we had to cancel. There was a patron who had brought his eight-ish year old son. Seeing Macbeth live was on his bucket list. He’d been living in China the last 20 years and just moved to the Bay this past year. I took them on a little tour of the Bruns.”

Andrew Page, Grants Manager: “I was up there by the subscriptions renewal/welcome center at 6:00 and feeling a sinking feeling. Wondering when we were going to have to give up on the show. And then a flicker of light. And it’s funny because they don’t all come on at once; some seemed to be on but they looked like emergency lights…and then a cheer went up from the amphitheater from the actors confirming there was power and that the show would go on.”

Eric Ting: Rey Lucas (Macbeth) was walking up the path for his call. I waved at him and as he passed by, I noticed the foot light glowing just behind him. And then the flood lights started glowing. And the light under the bench at the base of the green roof. And then we heard a loud roar from the cast in the Green Room.”

Jomar Tagatac (Actor, Banquo): We were playing cards in the green room, the cast and I, it’s 6:20-something and getting pretty dark. We’ve all sort of succumbed to the idea in our own way that the show will most likely be cancelled. All of a sudden we hear the sound of the microwave beeping. And then we put it all together in a split second that the power is on!!!!! Yay!!! And here’s the realization. That sound of the microwave beeping in a funny way is the universal sound for the power is back on. I had never seen a group of people jump up and scream and be so excited over the beeping of a microwave.”

Andrew Page: “Due to a miscommunication, we didn’t have food and staffing for the café, and people had started to arrive ready for food. Eric greeted folks at the café with a bottle of wine and we tried to order some pizza from Orinda. Between poor cell phone reception and the slow dawning realization that a pizza place with no power for the day was unlikely to be open, Sarah [Williams, Managing Director] and I hit the road to Mountain Mikes in Temescal. Sarah called in an order for ten pizzas—which they got done in 20 minutes—then back on the road through the tunnel traffic to arrive about 5 minutes to curtain. So we started handing out slices to the audience.”

The show went on with full tech: blood, lights, sound, and microphones. With a smaller turnout from the day’s outage, many folks were able to move down into better seats, and pizza and wine flowed throughout, along with free Peet’s Coffee at intermission. We’d all made it!

Kimberlee Hicks: “It felt so good to hear that the power had come back on as I was driving home last night, I felt like all the work we’d done, telling folks to come out to the theater on a hope and a prayer, had paid off.”

Eric Ting: Over drinks the night before the power outage (but after a day of expecting it to go out), we’d done a pool on when it’d be restored:

  • Sarah—won’t go off
  • Jamila (Production Manager)—4:30pm
  • Eric—5:30pm
  • LeeAnn (Artistic Associate & Casting Manager)—7:30-9:30 Saturday night (aka during the canceled showtime)
  • Charlotte (Shop Supervisor)—Sunday

I won $5.”

Catherine Luedtke, Actor (Ross): “The joy from community is something that came out of it. When the power came on, we leapt up and some of us ran out on the stage and danced around hugging each other. After the show I had conversations with strangers about it, and we were all so grateful just to be here sharing in this experience. It was such an energetic show!”

We made it to the end of this tumultuous season—which started with torrential downpours; proceeded through heat waves, last-minute artist changes, and the birth of a baby; and finally ended on a high note with a private wedding proposal onstage! We’re looking forward to next season’s events—click here to learn about the shows we have lined up for 2020 and to subscribe.

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