‘Place/Settings: Berkeley’ playwright Daniel Handler talks place, writing from personal history

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Berkeley Repertory Theater/Courtesy

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“If theaters are magic, because they are, can cities also be magic in the same way? Cities hold stories too, most of which go unseen and unheard most of the time.” These are the words that introduce Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Place/Settings: Berkeley,” a project which explores these unseen and unheard stories, taking the theatrical magic of the stage and applying it to the city of Berkeley.

Berkeley Rep’s “Place/Settings” is a 10-part podcast series in which local writers share a story centered in a specific location in Berkeley, inspired by their own personal histories. What results is an aural tour of the city of Berkeley through a celebration of the many stories a single place can hold.

Local writer Daniel Handler, known also for his children’s books “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “All the Wrong Questions” under the pen name Lemony Snicket, drew from his own experiences growing up in San Francisco to write his episode, “Black Mass Sonata.” In the episode, a listless teenager wandering through Berkeley winds up at The Musical Offering Cafe on Bancroft Way. While listening to Alexander Scriabin’s evocative “Black Mass Sonata,” he finds comfort in the shared human experience of feeling lost. 

“It’s a true story from my life,” Handler shared in an interview with The Daily Californian. Speaking to his personal connection to Berkeley, he shared, “As someone who grew up in San Francisco, Berkeley seemed very glamorous to me when I was young. It was full of young people doing exciting things, and when I was in high school, the idea of many people in their twenties doing something more glamorous and exciting than what I was doing was certainly very appealing.”

According to Handler, the decision to write a story taking place at The Musical Offering Cafe was one that came to him immediately. As Scriabin’s “Black Mass Sonata,” a piece that embraces dissonance, plays a large part in the story, Handler, who is a musician, elaborated on how music impacts his writing and the connection between music and literature. 

“I had a pretty serious classical music upbringing. I studied piano for a long time and I was in the San Francisco Boys Chorus. I learned a lot about how pieces of art are made. Because when you rehearse something you kind of really have to study it and know what it’s made of, and I think that was very helpful for my writing.”

While this podcast series is one that explores place as a concept, it is certainly true that the way space is experienced has been impacted by the pandemic. Handler noted that the project was one that probably wouldn’t have come about if not for the current theater restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“One of the things I miss most about the time that we’re in now is getting to just freely wander places,” Handler said. “Whether it’s just traveling to someplace far away or just kind of wandering my neighborhood and feeling like that’s a safe thing to do.”

Places/Settings is not Handler’s first collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Handler has previously worked with Berkeley Rep for two productions of plays, most recently “Imaginary Comforts” in 2017. 

Handler contrasted the highly collaborative process of these previous projects, in which preparing for production required many meetings and problem-solving, with the highly remote and isolated nature of the “Place/Settings” podcast. 

“The nature of the piece, unlike theater, is that you don’t get to see the people who are enjoying it, so you kind of just put it out into the ether and hope someone notices,” Handler said.

And even though the process of writing for “Place/Settings” was isolated, Handler said he admired the other authors included in the project and expressed gratitude for being in their company.

The conclusion of “Black Mass Sonata” is one that finds comfort in disorder, harmony in dissonance; it’s a resolution fitting to this current moment of pandemic-induced anxiety and listlessness. True to the series’ theme, Handler unearths some of the magic hidden in the world around us.

“The important thing if you want to write stories is to be around stories,” Handler said. “So I think the important thing is to lead and listen and watch things that inspire you and move you.”

“Place/Settings: Berkeley” is streaming now, with a new episode released every week. Tickets are available here.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].