A recent production of Richard III by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at Live Oak Theatre. Photo: Anna Kaminska

TheatreFIRST, which is to lease Live Oak Theatre at 1301 Shattuck Avenue, plans for a greatly increased community involvement at the venue in North Berkeley.

“We’re looking forward to a cross-pollinating, really lively environment,” said Michael Storm, artistic director of TheatreFIRST. “One of our goals is to make this space a true facility for the community.”

But Actors Ensemble of Berkeley remains concerned about the transition to TheatreFIRST. Actors Ensemble has managed Live Oak for 34 years and performed there for 48, but it has been on a month-by-month agreement with the city since 1986. In 2011, the city started a competitive Request for Proposal process for the Live Oak Theatre lease. A panel of two independent theater professionals and three city staff determined that TheatreFIRST’s proposal was preferred.

“I know that TheatreFIRST has put forward a new proposal [since the City Council meeting],” said Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who has been working to get agreement between TheatreFIRST and Actors Ensemble. “I’m hoping we can conclude an agreement by next Tuesday.”

“It seems to be going well,” agreed Storm. “We’re trying to work out a guideline agreement with Actors Ensemble. I know that it’s going to be a much-improved environment.”

According to Jerome Solberg, president of Actors Ensemble, the key issue for his organization is to get a long-term agreement for use of the theater. The current proposal with TheatreFIRST would run for one year.

“We’re looking for an agreement so the theater has more community focus over the long term,” Solberg said.

At last week’s Berkeley City Council meeting, Storm said his company was eager to keep existing groups connected with Live Oak Theatre.

“We’ve reached out to all the schools and all the arts organizations who have used the space,” he said. “We are accommodating all these companies with space in the theater.”

The lease requires TheatreFIRST to provide no fewer than three shows per year, with public performances running not less than five weeks for each show. Storm said that TheatreFIRST did not intend to use Live Oak for more than that, opening up the theater to other performing groups. Storm said in 2013 there will be productions by Symmetry Theatre, Just Theater, Virago Theatre, Actors Ensemble and TheatreFIRST at Live Oak.

“We’ve been working with TheatreFIRST and the helpful mediation of Laurie Capitelli to ensure that Actors Ensemble will continue to have a place to perform,” said Solberg at the council meeting. “I have great confident that such an agreement will be honored.”

Actors Ensemble hopes to reach an agreement with TheatreFIRST that will enable them to plan beyond a project-by-project basis. The lease with TheatreFIRST calls for the group to use “best effort” in the transition between Actors Ensemble’s management and the new agreement.

The lease between the city and TheatreFIRST calls for zero rent for the first three years of the lease, and then $500 a month in the fourth year. In the fifth year, the rent increases 4% and the city also takes 5% of the net box office. In return for the favorable rent, TheatreFIRST is committed to capital improvements valued at $125,000 over ten years (the bulk of the improvements are required in the first five years). The major part of the capital improvements involves bringing the theater into compliance with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

TheatreFIRST was founded in Berkeley in 1993, but it has been based in Oakland for most of the last 20 years. But its own difficulties in finding a steady home has led it to a wide variety of venues, including a number of recent productions in the Berkeley City Club. Storm said his experience finding venues for TheatreFIRST made him sensitive to the requirements of other theater groups.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...