Berkeley Rep’s managing director discusses the theater’s response to social distancing

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The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt by everyone, as many attempt to navigate a world that has been abruptly altered by social distancing. Susie Medak, the managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is also dealing with the impact that COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, has had on her company, as well as the nature of theater itself.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Medak explained her role as Berkeley Rep’s managing director. 

“(I’m) responsible for charting a course for the organization, for establishing a vision for the organization that conforms to the mission of the theater,” Medak said. 

And while historically that mission has been to produce theater, Berkeley Rep has halted operations and is no longer producing plays. Medak explained that by nature, theater is not recorded or virtual. 

“(The thing) that has made (theater) exist since the beginning of time is that it is about people sitting together in a room and sharing stories,” Medak explained. “There’s something really different, as we all now know, (between) virtual meetings and being in a room with each other.” 

The effects of COVID-19 are having far-reaching impacts on the theater’s future, its staff and its artists. Medak imparted the dire need for fundraising, as the company is positioned to lose millions of dollars, she said. Like many other companies, Berkeley Rep has had to make hard decisions about its staff and will have many of its artists on temporary leave, according to Medak.

Beyond producing live shows, Medak stated that Berkeley Rep has also had to halt other community-focused efforts. 

“(We’ve) discontinued our construction project. We were building 45 apartments for artists and three more classrooms for our school. (We’re) trying to renegotiate all of the loans and financing around that,” Medak said.

Instead, Berkeley Rep has turned its focus toward other modes of community support. 

“(We have) mobilized so much of our technical staff to be making masks and smocks for, not only hospitals, but also for retirement homes and nursing homes. We’ve got a huge operation that we’re just putting in place this week to do that. Our carpenters are standing by and we’ve been in conversation with the Alameda County (Office) of Emergency Services, and if they find that they are in need of emergency dwelling or isolation units, we have a whole staff of craftspeople who are standing by, ready to be deployed,” Medak described.

But in Medak’s view, the greatest challenge for Berkeley Rep is the unknown nature of this pandemic. 

”We don’t know how long the shelter in place will go on. … Those of our staff who make things, whether it’s actors, directors, designers, carpenters, stitchers (or) tailors, they can’t work until the shelter in place is over,” Medak said. “And then the second piece of this is the greater unknown, really. How long will it take before it’s possible for people to reconvene, (for) audiences to reconvene? How long will it be not only (for) government mandates (to) allow it, but … before people feel comfortable doing so?” 

While COVID-19 has left many artists dislocated and unemployed, Medak did point out that it has also inspired some new artistic work. 

 “I do think one of the upsides … right now is there are many people who have creative capacity who have not been able to exercise those juices in real life,” Medak explained. “This period of isolation is leading some people to explore their creative capabilities.”

Medak also specified, however, that there are many artists with work that is unfinished as a result of the closures. 

“For people like composers and playwrights, there’s a point at which their art is not fulfilled until somebody else has performed it,” Medak said. “So that stage of their creative journey won’t be completed until we can actually get out of our homes and start working again.”

Significantly, there are two perspectives to art: that of the artist and that of the audience. And for the theater, the audience is an essential component of the experience. 

Medak zeroed in on the necessity of an audience, saying, “Discovering and rediscovering is the joy and the need for communal participation and for live (performance).” 

For Medak, this communal experience can never be matched by recorded material such as television. 

“People can watch television — they can watch nudity on television — it doesn’t phase them. They can watch violence on television and it only phases them somewhat. When you watch it live … people are so much more unsettled by it,” Medak said. “And what that tells me is that there’s something really different about knowing that you have live people in front of you, rather than watching an edited, filtered, mediated (and) sometimes truly inauthentic experience on television and film.” 

Congruently, Medak stated that the relationship between actors and an audience is always “movable and changeable,” with the audience’s responses altering the nature of the play and the actors altering the nature of the audience. With recorded content, such as film, this interaction is almost impossible. 

To conclude the interview, Medak invited those who are interested in Berkeley Rep, and the production of theater in general, to check out Berkeley Rep’s Ovation website, which will be open until April 18.  

Medak described: “There will be little scenes (and) teasers about all of our departments and what they do and what it takes to make a play. … Over time, we’re going to be interviewing tons and tons of artists who come through our doors who will be showcasing and putting their thoughts about the theater up on that site.” 

So while Berkeley Rep has closed its doors, its need and impact continues to be felt.

As for Medak, she can only hope for the future. 

“At what point do the doors break open and we all step outside and go, ‘We need each other, and we need to be in rooms with each other, and we need to be hearing each other laugh, and experiencing each other cry?’ ” she said.

This article is part of a series in which local artists and art organizations discuss how closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak are impacting them.

Contact Nathalie Grogan at [email protected].Contact Nathalie Grogan at [email protected].