Patrons mill around a buzzing lobby, holding drinks and cookies. They file into the darkened theater and settle into their seats. This used to be a familiar scene in the East Bay’s world-renowned theaters, but during the last six months, they sat empty. The pandemic put a halt to live theater, and the nationally recognized theater companies throughout the East Bay were forced to find new ways of connecting with their audiences through virtual shows, educational programs and more. The results are reinventing theater—and community—for the Covid-19 era.
Although audiences cannot gather in physical spaces right now, especially small ones like intimate theaters, a sense of place is still central to the work of Oakland’s and Berkeley’s playwrights and actors. Several local theaters have created audio shows themed around life in our particular corner of the Bay Area, in this moment and beyond.
“Our role is to be the storyteller for our community, right?,” said Josh Costello, the artistic director for The Aurora Theater Company. “Humans understand the world through narrative, through story. We have a deep need for stories that will help us understand this new world that we’re navigating.”
When it became clear to Costello that Aurora’s usual lineup of new works by regionally and nationally known playwrights would be impossible, he decided to create something new: an audio show about a group of neighbors in Berkeley who navigate a government-mandated lockdown, a crisis in racial justice and their relationship to one another (sound familiar?). Costello commissioned local playwrights Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector to write the piece. The show, called The Flats, releases Oct. 23. It accompanies an extensive menu of virtual programming—including online classes and discussions—offered by Aurora.
Berkeley Repertory Theater has also created a locally themed audio show.
“We’ve commissioned a whole slew of local writers to write about their favorite places in Berkeley,” said Berkeley Repertory Managing Director Susie Medak. “We are calling this series Place/Settings: Berkeley. There’s an unbelievable list of people who have come through this community.”
In addition to Place/Settings, Berkeley Rep is releasing an audio show version of It Cannot Happen Here, a darkly satirical play about a demagogue who becomes president of the United States, based on a 1935 novel of the same name. Berkeley Rep debuted the play in 2016, just a week before the election. Now, they are sharing the radio play with 79 partners all over the country—including Howard University and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.—ahead of this November’s election.
“All over the country, we’re figuring out ways to find partners to share the value of that production, so that’s amazing,” Medak said. “It is really cool. The whole message is about ‘get out and vote.’”
Alongside virtual and audio shows, theaters are supplementing their lost income—and connecting with their audiences—through online educational offerings. Berkeley Repertory moved all theater classes online, and its staff was pleasantly surprised by the attendance from all over the world.
“It’s worked remarkably well, and people have really valued it,” Medak said. “People are coming back, signing up for their second courses having taken their first course. We are feeling really good about that.”
Berkeley Rep is also running a series called What’s in a Play, where attendees are invited to read and discuss a play over several evening sessions.
“People are really enjoying digging deeply into the work and developing a vocabulary to talk about it,” Medak said.
Aurora is also running educational programming, such as a series of discussions on the works of August Wilson run by their associate artistic director, Dawn Monique Williams, monthly salons with Bay Area theater artists and partnerships with local community groups.
“We have a very intellectually inclined audience that just loves learning,” Costello said. “It’s so fantastic.”
In spite of their inventive new approaches to theater during the pandemic, the reality remains that for most theater companies, this is one of the toughest financial challenges they will ever face. No ticket sales, coupled with minimal government support and rent still to pay, are leaving theaters on the edge of collapse.
“It is hugely important to support theaters during this time—there will be many theaters who do not make it through,” said Costello. “It is a shame in this country that we do not have governmental support and theaters are forced to compete with other forms of entertainment for earned income. This should be something that is supported by the community as a whole. But we depend on individual donors and foundations to be able to do our work.”
Aurora is accepting individual donations but also encourages patrons to join their new $150/year membership program, which gives access to all virtual programming for the rest of the year and any live performances, as well. Berkeley Rep is asking patrons to subscribe for next season in advance.
“Of course, we love contributions, but what would be most meaningful is to subscribe for our next season now,” Medak said. “Because that is an investment in the future.”
Even as they fight to survive, the East Bay’s nationally recognized theater companies are pushing the boundaries of theater as an art form. Although much of what defines theater—a live audience, a group of actors working together—has become impossible, Aurora, Berkeley Rep, and theaters like them are taking the stage home.
“Everything that we do this year we are thinking of as an experiment,” Medak said. “Everything is about learning new ways to do things. New applications for what we’ve done in the past.”