Right in our backyard: Berkeley Playhouse celebrates 10 years of exceptional theater, education

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Ciecie Chen/Staff

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Nuzzled in residential South Berkeley, in what was previously the Julia Morgan Community Church, resides the Berkeley Playhouse. A unique neighborhood theater, the Playhouse produces five professional musicals per season with actors from the Bay Area, as well as several musicals with children ages 3-18 through its Conservatory division. This Friday, the opening of its musical “Sister Act” marks its 10-year anniversary as an integral and quality part of the Bay Area theater community.

Unlike many other theater companies, which originate with professional productions and add on an educational branch as time progresses, the Berkeley Playhouse puts education first.

“Education is core to our mission — it is held in the same esteem and value as the professional season, which is a rarity in professional theaters,” explained director of education Rachel Eisner. Indeed, in one year alone, the Playhouse hosts more than 1,500 children in camps, after-school programs and large-scale productions, making sure that everyone gets a quality theater education.

Eisner, a recent Cal alumna, emphasized the unique qualities of a theater education. “We are living in a world where people are becoming more and more isolated, where you don’t talk to people outside your ‘track’ of people, whether it be race, class, gender or something else, but somehow, theater seems to require crossing over. The kids from here who may otherwise not interact are brought together in this bond that makes them achieve a community that ideally lasts beyond the show.”

It’s not just the children who create a community at the Playhouse. The teachers, directors, choreographers and support staff for the Conservatory are often actors in the professional productions and are sometimes even Cal students.

“We have a big commitment to community, to this feeling that this is a place where artists can come and work and perform and teach and be a part of a community that’s more than just a theater,” remarked producing artistic director Kimberly Dooley.

Even the audience is an integral part of the Playhouse community. “It’s really important to have the people, our community who come see the shows, also represented on our stage,” managing director Gretchen Feyer explains. “Diversity is huge for us. We want to make sure everybody is represented — race, body shape, everyone.”

The Playhouse insists on making theater accessible for all. In 2011, it instituted “pay what you can” nights, during which anyone from the community can come see a show, regardless of their income. Normally, there is one night per production of this nature, but for its 10th anniversary, the Playhouse has doubled the frequency — “to celebrate the community,” Feyer explained.  

The theater has grown immensely from its days as the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts — an educational children’s theater — yet still has maintained the integrity of the space. Originally a church, the Playhouse is not your typical theater. Dooley explained, “there is no wing space, fly space — everything that is there, we put in and are trying to make it better.”

While preserving the historical site, the Playhouse has expanded an outdoor lobby, installed new lights and sound equipment, and converted the priest’s quarters into an office space. It’s still difficult at times — while telling a story about loading in a specific set piece, Dooley laughed, “It didn’t fit! It didn’t even fit through the front door.” Yet, despite the challenges, the origins of the space create a special theater environment unique to the Playhouse.

Looking forward, Feyer hopes to continue expanding the mission of the theater by showcasing diversity not just in casting, but in its productions as a whole. This season, for example, selection was heavily influenced by the election. Shows such as “Ragtime,” a musical set in the early 1900s that follows the life of a Black pianist in upper-class New York City, have a particular relevance in today’s political climate.

“It was important for us to have a piece like ‘Ragtime,’ especially now with everything going on with DACA, that talks about immigrants and race,” said Feyer. In the future, Feyer is looking to remake works about “social justice and female empowerment, messages that are current and are not really being met in the traditional ‘golden age’ musical.” Feyer’s current hopes include a redone “Alice in Wonderland” for the professional theater and a re-envisioned “Robin Hood” with a female as the leading role for the Conservatory.

Regardless of age, race, class or background, the Berkeley Playhouse offers a unique, challenging and entertaining performance for everyone who walks through its — albeit small, but always open — door. Its mission to create an inclusive, professional-quality theater with a large emphasis on community engagement and education has created a space in Berkeley to which people can escape, if only for an hour or so.

Don’t believe it? “Come see a show,” Dooley says. “You will see it’s a really joyful moment to be with these people in this space and feel like you are part of creating something really powerful.”

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].

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