Berkeley theater adapts to new generation

Theater companies are struggling to garner funds and attract young audiences. This means that they must form new models of approach.

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Caragh McErlean/Staff

I

f conversations about the state of live theater were plugged into a word cloud generator, right next to “Hamilton” in the biggest font would be phrases like “limited resources” and “aging audiences.”

Theater has had a high-profile past year, but not everybody can be a “Hamilton.” For nonprofit theaters producing art that isn’t a Disney-brand spectacle, the long-term prognosis is marked with uncertainty and the looming necessity of adapting old models to new audiences and technologies.

The Berkeley theater scene is mostly made up of nonprofits and UC Berkeley’s theater department and student organizations. These spaces are characterized by a focus on intimacy and freedom to experiment. Their models make for great art or, at the very least, new and ambitious art, but never much money.

Stephanie Weisman, founder and artistic executive director at The Marsh, is blunt about the issue: “We need more money  —  that would be great.”

Low funds are a given, but Weisman is quick to follow up her statement with the kind of plucky resolve that characterizes both Little Orphan Annie and most theater administrators. “I actually feel very positive (about the future of theater),” she said confidently.

While The Marsh is atypical of standard nonprofit theaters — it lacks a subscriber base because rather than a season, it mounts hundreds of shows a year — its priorities are typical of the East Bay.

It emphasizes affordability, social progressivism, artistic exploration and active efforts at inclusion — all traits that characterize theater in Berkeley as a whole.

A more standard case of what troubles nonprofit theater can be seen with what’s happening to the Aurora Theatre Company and its neighbor, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

“One thing to know about Aurora’s audience and many theater audiences is that we really rely on subscribers to be our base audience and sell a lot of our seats, and I think we’ve all been learning that younger patrons aren’t as interested in subscribing,” explained Aurora’s marketing manager Rebecca Longworth.

Longworth attributes this to a “cultural shift” in how people consume media. It’s not that millennials are philistines; it’s simply hard to commit to an entire season at one institution when faced with a constant barrage of competitive distractions  —  First Fridays, Netflix, actually studying  —  as well as the pitiful nature of their bank accounts.

“You’re creating art, you’re not creating science … you’re putting people in a room that you think are going to create something great, but it relies on a whole lot of intangibles.”

Theater professionals like Longworth are trying to figure out what their next step is. Robust social media presences are a necessity. Some theaters offer discounts and rush tickets — at Berkeley Rep, there’s a significant discount for anyone under 30. Berkeley Rep also does Instagram-ready photo booths when it feels right for the show.

That being said, nobody seems caught up in pursuing patronizing gimmicks. “It’s really about bringing a consistent level of artist to the stage as opposed to thinking about how many young people will get to the show,” said Peter Yonka, Berkeley Rep’s marketing director. As Yonka put it, people are too quick to generalize what millennials will and won’t like.

There’s no formula for making theater that draws big crowds. “You’re creating art, you’re not creating science … you’re putting people in a room that you think are going to create something great, but it relies on a whole lot of intangibles,” Yonka said.

It’s an exciting alchemy, but terrifying if the future means relying on the mercy of single-ticket buyers rather than subscriber bases who have already placed their trust in an organization. The alternative to subscribers and donors, of course, is government funding, but if that was insufficient before, the prospects of increased federal spending under a president who allegedly plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts are slim.

For now, theater administrators in Berkeley are focusing more on diverse programming and greater inclusivity than on elaborate schemes to incorporate technology. There’s an emphasis on affordability and a laid-back attitude toward notions of proper theater decorum. “Come as you are,” said Yonka. Birkenstocks are the norm, engaged audience reaction is encouraged — though taking videos will still get you kicked out.

That’s the attitude of theater’s next generation, too. “If you’re supporting the theater and enjoy it, you can do whatever you want,” said Alex Scoolis, BareStage Production’s marketing director and a senior TDPS major.

The theater community in Berkeley is optimistic, in the way that people with modest expectations and good work ethics tend to be.

“Theater survived the rise of movies, and then television and home video, and then the internet. Technology is just more layer for the arts to explore, challenge, incorporate and/or transform,” wrote TDPS director of communications and development Melissa Mae Schultz in an email, voicing her personal view on the matter, not an official TDPS stance.

Confidence comes easier with a stable job. “You have to expect shitty pay and shitty coverage and you have to…do it for free for so many years in order to be respected and hired,” Scoolis pointed out. It’s hard to imagine a more diverse theater dependent on a generation that could afford to work for free.

There’s work to be done, but it looks like it’ll be done collaboratively. “The theater community is really small, we all know each other and we work together a lot,” Longworth said. Any friendly competition rests on a foundation of support — in such close quarters, what’s good for one theater is good for the next.

Looking ahead to an uncertain future, Longworth admitted, “I don’t exactly know what it looks like yet,” but then added, “I think that it’s going to be really fraught and nerve-wracking, but also exciting.” Whatever shape that path forward takes, no theater will be traveling alone.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.

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  • Igor Davis

    As a veteran of theater groups and musical bands in the Northeast and Berkeley for decades, Ms Singer is quite correct that community based theater is much more attractive than the perceived pretension of groups like BRT and Aurora by the younger generations. Experimentation in theater and music has gained a larger share of this audience in recent years. Much like when DJ’s took over for live bands in the ’80s, theaters that seek subscriptions for traveling theater groups doing national tours are not as attractive as local groups who do performance art/theater and thrive on ‘being’ new and daring. BRT is mostly patronized by a wealthier crowd who would rather sip wine than actually experience something new in their new facility. Just an experienced point of view of course, but after living in Berkeley for 27 years from NY, doing sound for live shows all over the Bay Area and attending a couple of shows at BRT, I think the ‘upper crust’ has a lot to think about. NO one wants to pay those prices anymore.