Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement started 50 years ago. The central characters in a new Shotgun Players production bookend the turbulent times of the FSM. Photo: Courtesy of Bancroft Library
Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement started 50 years ago. The central characters in a new Shotgun Players production bookend the turbulent times of the FSM. Photo: Courtesy of Bancroft Library

How do you write a play about Berkeley? First, which Berkeley are we talking about: Berkeley in the heyday of the Free Speech Movement and student strikes, or the way things were back in the day of trolley tracks and a bustling Hink’s department store? What about the Berkeley of today, with neighborhoods in transition, a vibrant theater scene, and a second Berkeley Bowl?

For playwright Dan Wolf and director Rebecca Novick — both relative newcomers to Berkeley — the answer to these questions propelled them into a year and a half of collecting stories about the city from as many groups as they could gather together in “story circles.”

As part of their desire to make their play about Berkeley a community process, they spoke with students from Berkeley High, a group of day laborers, the founders of CIL, long-time residents in many different neighborhoods, the Cal swim team, and a group of folks who meet daily at a bait and tackle shop on San Pablo — and began to form an idea that eventually became “Daylighting,” a newly commissioned play that opens in a Shotgun Players production on May 30. 

Both Novick and Wolf have worked on community-generated theater projects before. In 2011, Novick created The Triangle Lab, which brings together artists and other community-based organizations to use the tools of theater artists to build a broad civic dialogue. Wolf was the creative content producer for San Francisco Jewish Community Center’s 3200 Stories project, which nurtured the voices of a far-flung community. The story circle technique they used was developed by Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company.

One of the first creative decisions they made in the Berkeley stories project had to do with placing the play’s action before and after the Free Speech Movement and taking the focus off the iconic moments many people think about when they think about Berkeley. Instead, the central characters bookend those turbulent times. While it’s a story closely associated with Berkeley, the history of the FSM it isn’t the story they wanted to tell.

But how do you sort out which stories you do want to tell? As Wolf and Novick soon discovered, everyone they talked to in their story circles had a “clear narrative” about the space they live in. At the bait and tackle shop, amid a lively discussion about the city’s history, one man repeatedly piped up saying, “That’s not right! That’s not the story of Berkeley!”

It helped, they discovered, to stick to the same set of questions as they spoke with various groups around town: Why do you live here? Why do you stay? They also asked: “If you had one place to bring people that is magical, where would you bring them?” They learned about things that happen late at night or early in the morning, and some elements of these stories are woven into the play. In fact, some of these stories inspired the time frame of the play, which Novick described as “a time when you don’t know whether it’s too early to get up or too late to go to bed: magic time.”

The two main characters of the play, through whom we learn the history and lore surrounding Berkeley, are Bee, who has just graduated from Berkeley High, and her grandfather, James. On graduation night, we follow Bee on her quest through campus as she decides her future. She explores what Berkeley was in the past, and what it is now. The characters are compilations, the story is fiction, but the play is grounded in reality. “Our goal,” Novick said, “is to be authentic to the many parts of Berkeley.” Some familiar characters are referenced in the play, including “the naked guy,” and the well-known-to-old-timers Bubble Lady of Telegraph Avenue.

During their research, Wolf and Novick learned a great deal about local history, noting both Native American and Spanish influences in the area. They wanted to make Berkeley’s geography a character in the play. The title, “Daylighting,” refers to a technique of bringing buried creeks back to the surface. In Berkeley, Wolf pointed out, the creeks once provided a source of salmon for the local black bear population. He raised the question about the connection between submerged creeks and submerged dreams — what happens when they come to the surface?

Initially they thought Berkeley was “too good to be true,” Novick said. “It has this story about itself: everyone is happy, everybody’s liberal. They say, ‘It’s not Oakland, it’s not the suburbs.’”

She and Wolf expected to find a divide between some of the groups they talked to, but instead what they found was more complicated. “People say, ‘It may not be perfect here, but it’s so much better than everyplace else.’” She also realized that “people are surprisingly willing to hold onto two ideas at the same time about Berkeley.” Only two?

Shotgun Players will provide a booth for recording your 60-second Berkeley story, in case you’d like to add your opinions and memories to the show’s website. Whether you’ve lived in Berkeley for a long time, or whether you’re still trying to figure out this town, Wolf and Novick hope you’ll be surprised and delighted to find your Berkeley in “Daylighting.”

“Daylighting: The Berkeley Stories Project,” is in previews from Wednesday, May 21 to Thursday, May 29, when ticket prices start at $8. From the opening on Friday, May 30 through June 22, ticket prices start at $20. Shotgun Players, The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. 

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Freelancer Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay. She spent many happy years on the UC Berkeley campus, both as a student and as an employee. She has...