• Regina M.

Berkeley Theatre during the Pandemic

One of the ironies of living through a pandemic is that when we most need to be engaged, enlightened, and entertained by live theater, we can’t be.

Although our local theaters are dimmed, they are nevertheless working hard to provide entertainment and education to their constituents. In that regard, Berkeleyside interviewed the three largest, full-season Berkeley theaters, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Aurora Theatre Company, and Shotgun Players, to find out how they are connecting with their audiences now and how they are planning for an altered future. Interestingly, each has chosen a different creative model to accomplish its goals. 

Aurora Theatre Company https://auroratheatre.org/ recently announced a unique membership plan for its 2020/2021 season. This new membership ($150 for a single membership and $250, dual membership, with monthly and individual event tickets available) includes a brand new audio drama planned for the fall of 2020, collaboratively written by three local playwrights, Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith, and Jonathan Spector (“Eureka Day”). They are together creating an intimate, timely production about Berkeley neighbors thrown together during the Covid-19 lockdown. It will be directed by Josh Costello, Artistic Director of Aurora.

When asked why Aurora is creating audio rather than Zoom productions, Costello said, “With Zoom, actors can’t make eye contact, and it’s difficult to sync up correctly. Aurora’s expertise is in presenting nuanced language-based drama rather than video.”

Other planned events are: an audio drama directed by Dawn Monique Williams, which will be produced in the spring; access to a Zoom reading of a new play in development; admission to monthly interactive salons and webinars for in-depth discussions with Josh Costello and featured artists, designers, and theater-makers; and, a monthly book club hosted by Dawn Monique Williams exploring the complete works of August Wilson. Membership will also include access to live performances in Aurora’s physical space if produced there before July 2021.

“We are also exploring doing full live performances in an alternate space where social distancing is possible, perhaps at an outdoor venue with more seating, for example, at Mills College, one of our community partners,” said Josh Costello.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre https://www.berkeleyrep.org/ is forging a different path. Susie Medak, the Rep’s Managing Director, said that the Rep looks forward to “… making theater again. That’s the long game. But there is so much virtual content online that we don’t have to be at the forefront of pushing out content. The kindest thing we can do for our audience is not add to the cacophony.”

Instead, this summer, the Rep will be conducting over 20 virtual theater classes via Zoom with subjects such as the art of storytelling, voice for stage and daily life, high school film making and acting intensives, and several courses on improvisation. Susie Medak said, “One of the delightful surprises is that our theatre school has been very well-positioned for this moment. A lot of adults, in particular, as well as children, have been enrolling in our classes. Some classes are completely filled up.”

The Rep is also making available on its website free access to “Play At Home,” the nationwide theater project that grants micro-commissions to playwrights. These short “joyful” plays can be downloaded and enjoyed at home, by acting them out or by reading them.

“What’s in a Play?” is Berkeley Rep’s free discussion group led by members of the Berkeley Rep staff. It discusses one play each week, via Zoom. One must purchase a copy of the play at a local book store to read each play before the session begins. Invitations to “What’s in a Play?” were sent to over 20,000 people on the Rep’s mailing list. Interested participants who did not receive an invitation can join the Rep’s mailing list. https://tickets.berkeleyrep.org/account/create/brief?returnurl=/account/interests Unfortunately, the Berkeley Rep website does not contain any information about “What’s in a Play?” at this time.

Shotgun Players https://shotgunplayers.org/ is concentrating its efforts on producing a series of podcasts. Some of the 14 completed to date cover a broad range of theatrical informational subjects from stage managing to special effects. For those who crave dramatic content, there are podcasts of scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry V as well as several full-length plays, including the new production of the 75-minute, three-person U.K. drama, “The Claim” by Tim Cowbury. It’s the story of an African asylum claimant struggling through an immigration interview.  The podcasts, which have been heard by thousands of listeners so far, can be downloaded from the usual places or at https://shotgunplayers.libsyn.com/

As a special treat, Shotgun will live-stream “The Niceties,” a play about a Black student and her Ivy League professor, from July 9, 2020, to July 12, 2020, on Zoom. It’s a timely performance (written in 2016) by Eleanor Burgess and directed by Leigh Rondon-Davis.

Liz Lisle, Shotgun’s Managing Director, said that the company is “exploring the feasibility of producing new plays on the Ashby Stage for live streaming when health considerations permit safe rehearsals.” A new and timely one-person show by Josh Kornbluth, Citizen Brain, is an early choice. Tickets would be sold for a short series of live performances to watch when performed or when convenient.

One of the moments I miss most about the theater is that frisson of excitement during the first few minutes of a play when the lights are dimmed, and the action begins — when we don’t know what we will experience, and we can’t wait to discover it. Sadly, we will have to wait patiently until we can return to seeing live theater. Still, in the meantime, we can savor what these three impressive companies are offering and give financial support to their efforts and the arts community.

This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside

By Emily S. Mendel

© Emily S. Mendel 2020   All Rights Reserved


San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.