Berkeley Playhouse amid COVID-19: An interview with managing director Mary Lins

Illustration of Berkeley Playhouse
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Like many aspects of life that have been drastically altered by the coronavirus, the performing arts have undoubtedly felt the impacts of shelter-in-place orders, especially performance venues that rely on audiences. Berkeley Playhouse is one of these venues, with its box office indefinitely closed. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Berkeley Playhouse’s managing director Mary Lins detailed the repercussions of the closures on the company and on the theater community as a whole. 

Although the theater is currently closed to patrons, Lins said Berkeley Playhouse has not stopped working to provide theater to the Berkeley community, even amid the chaos of a pandemic. The playhouse is now offering theater education classes over Zoom, mainly to groups of kids that were meant to perform an original “Robin Hood” musical in May.  

According to Lins, this rapid transition to Zoom classes is a source of pride and success for the company. “It has been an incredible amount of work and decision-making in real-time and a lot of staff hours,” Lin said. She believes the Zoom classes have helped provide structure and comfort to children as they deal with the recent closures of Berkeley public schools in light of COVID-19. Additionally, Lins said, these theater education classes will help to keep Berkeley Playhouse financially secure for a longer period of time, since the theater is unable to produce its mainstage shows without an audience or in-person rehearsals. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic came at an inconvenient time for the playhouse. Lins noted that closures of public venues began as Berkeley Playhouse was “at the heart of (its) season.” 

First and foremost, the virus meant Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “Memphis,” expected to last until March 15, had to close a weekend early. Lins expressed the unfortunate nature of the show’s premature closure, saying, “That particular show, I thought, brought a powerful and important story, especially considering the current context that we find ourselves (in) politically in the nation.” 

As for the rest of the season, Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “In the Heights,” previously set to open April 3, was canceled, according to Lins. She said this particular show’s cancellation was a “heartbreak for everyone,” especially since it was directed by Berkeley Playhouse’s artistic director Kimberly Dooley, and described it as “a huge loss for us artistically to not be able to see that (production) come to the stage at this time.” 

Fortunately, the production has been moved to the company’s third slot of the 2020-21 season with a tentative premiere date for February 2021, according to Lins, leaving hope that audiences will be able to see Berkeley Playhouse’s take on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s innovative show. As for “Newsies,” which is currently scheduled to open June 19, no final decision has been made yet about whether to reschedule or cancel the production, but Lins says the company is heavily weighing its options and will make a decision based on more information from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Just as with “In the Heights, Lins hopes that if “Newsies” ultimately faces cancellation, the cast will be able to perform the show at another time. 

Outside of Berkeley Playhouse’s previously scheduled productions, the company has remained connected with its audiences, namely through cabaret-style Instagram Live performances through the company Instagram, @berkeleyplayhouse. Through these online renditions, past members of Berkeley Playhouse shows are able to share songs, check in on viewers and discuss their own lives. Additionally, the cast of “In the Heights” rallied together to perform a song from the show through a virtual choir. This performance is available on Berkeley Playhouse’s Facebook page. 

It’s amazing,” Lins said of the cast’s performance. “It’s just a really powerful piece.”

Speaking on the precarity of theater as a whole at this time, Lins commented: “With the (COVID-19) crisis, it really has created a domino effect of challenges because you have these independent artists who have lost all of the gigs that they’ve booked, then you have theaters who have had to just close box offices. And if we don’t have an open box office, then we’re not selling tickets, and if we’re not selling tickets, you’re not bringing in income to perpetuate the work of the theater.” 

As theater relies upon in-person human engagement and a constant stream of gig workers as actors and musicians, it is extremely vulnerable to huge losses through an extended shutdown. Regardless of how grim the situation may look for the theater industry, Lins remained positive, remarking, “When we are able to turn the lights back on and get back to business and … continue our professional season, … it’ll mean more in a way.” 

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 Caitlin Keller at [email protected].