Some of the cast from Berkeley High's Independent Theater Projects. Photo: Juliet Wayne
Some of the cast from Berkeley High’s Independent Theater Projects. Photo: Juliet Wayne
Some of the cast from Berkeley High’s Independent Theater Projects. Photo: Juliet Wayne

In 1913, Thornton Wilder, then a junior at Berkeley High School, wrote a one-act play, The Advertisement League, that was good enough to be selected for the school’s wildly popular vaudeville show.

Like many teenagers, Wilder felt constrained by his father’s demands, according to Penelope Niven, the author of Thornton Wilder: A Life. So he included a figure designed to irk his father, one based on Mrs. Lydia Pinkham, the Massachusetts woman whose popular “medicine” apparently cured all evils.

The skit is “a truly original conception,” wrote the yearbook Olla Podrida, according to Niven.

One hundred years later, that spirit of dramatic whimsy and defiance continues at Berkeley High. It can be seen in this year’s Independent Theater Projects, which take place at the Hillside Club March 22, March 24, and March 29 at 7 p.m.

When Wilder directed a cast of six, he found rehearsals “perfect nightmares,” when the teachers were not around, according to Niven. That’s not the case at the ITPs, which are student-led, student-run, and student-driven. Ostensibly founded because some student actors found the Berkeley High Drama Department stultifying, the participants in ITPs take immense pride in their independence. There is not a teacher in sight.

“There is something about ITPs that is really special,” said Tessa Corrie, who is directing Fat Kids on Fire by Bekah Brunstetter. “It’s about the community and how tight knit it is. I like how it’s all student directed. We don’t have grown ups telling us what to do. We get to be grown ups for the first time, which is great because all of the directors are going to college next year.”

Andrew Chiang, who is directing The Marriage Proposal by Anton Chekov.
Andrew Chiang, who is directing The Marriage Proposal by Anton Chekov.

Having students select the one-act plays, cast, rent rehearsal space, collect all the props, and organize fundraising bake sales means that everyone has to pitch in, according to Andrew Chiang, who is directing Anton Chekov’s A Marriage Proposal. All that work creates camaraderie often absent in traditional, teacher-led productions.

“Something about being directed by your peers gives you a lot more bonding,” said Chiang. “You are not so separate from the director. Doing ITPs is very liberating for people.”

Each year, the directors choose the next year’s directors from among those who already performed in the plays. The directors select the plays they want to produce. Each must be one act and no longer than 30 minutes. This has led to the selection of some unusual plays, according to Ellen Cushing of the East Bay Express.

“The lack of adult supervision allows the students to consistently put on plays that feature dark themes, absurdist humor, and preternaturally good acting — and that are much more interesting than what you might typically expect from a high-school production.” Cushman wrote.

This year, Juliet Wayne, a senior, is directing one of Wilder’s plays, Cement Hands, which Wilder began writing in 1958 (full disclosure: Wayne is my daughter). In his diary, Wilder described it as about “the neurotic avarice of Massachusetts millionaires, and on the deformations in character caused by great wealth.” Those themes still resonate today, especially in today’s go-go high tech culture, said Wayne.

All of the directors think their plays will be relevant to high school audiences. Chekov wrote The Marriage Proposal in 1888-1889. The play is often seen as a satire of upper class life and marriage and Chiang thinks the way it takes apart social constructs is relevant today.

Brunstetter wrote Fat Kids on Fire in 2008. Corrie selected it because she thought it mirrored the tensions and insecurities that high school students have to overcome to find their way in the world.

“I thought it would be fun to go out with a bang with a parody of high school,” said Corrie. “[The characters] overcome their insecurities and awkwardness and save the day. A lot of people in high school find their way. They find who they are. They find their footing and where they belong.”

The Independent Theater Productions will be at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar Street, at 7:00 p.m. Friday March 22, Sunday March 24, and Friday March 30. Suggested donations are $7 for students, $14 for adults.

Berkeley High School students produce independent theater [03.18.11]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...