Thirty-six years after Berkeley Rep opened its first permanent home on Addison Street in downtown, the theater company will, on Saturday, unveil a comprehensive overhaul of its original stage. (See below for details of the Grand Opening event for the public.)
Those who show up to see the renamed Peet’s Theatre will not necessarily notice any major differences to what used to be known as the Thrust Stage, however. As Artistic Director Tony Taccone put it at a media and donors’ launch event Thursday: “It’s a bit like inviting people over to your home when you’ve put in a new foundation.” Much of the $7.5 million renovation work is invisible.
Arguably the most impressive new feature at the theatre will be heard rather than seen. A state-of-the-art “constellation acoustic system,” installed by Berkeley’s Meyer Sound, provides a much improved sonic environment for the audience, as well as better clarity for actors and more tools for sound designers to play with, according to the Rep’s Managing Director, Susie Medak.
Helen Meyer, who runs Meyer Sound with her husband John Meyer, said they provided the system to the theatre at a favorable rate. “It’s an amazing gem of a theatre. It’s a privilege and an honor to work with them,” she said Thursday, adding that the only other similar theatre to get such a system was in Lithuania.
The other key partner in the nine-month renovation project is lead supporter Peet’s. As with Meyer, the Berkeley-founded roaster is not a new Rep partner: its coffee was first served in the theatre in 1969, a year after the theatre was founded in a storefront on College Avenue. As a result of the company’s sponsorship, the Rep’s smaller theatre — it seats 400 compared to the Roda’s 600 — is now known as the Peet’s Theatre.
Visitors may also feel, rather than see, an enhanced experience when they sit down at the Peet’s Theatre — all the seats have been reupholstered and are significantly more padded.
Taccone described the newly refurbished theatre — originally designed by architect Gene Angell as an intimate space with seating that surrounds the stage on three sides — as being “perfectly imperfect.” “Its angles present challenges,” he said. “But those challenges unleash levels of imaginative responses.” He said the redone space would help the Rep to continue to “expand the definition of what a play is.” Conceding that this approach has its detractors, he explained the need to appeal to a young audience. “We want to give voice to new artists who use new languages. Our job is to be fluent in those languages,” he said.
The Rep already does much work with the younger population. It has one of the largest arts education programs of any regional theatre in the nation, with programs including Story Builders, the Student Matinée Series and a Teen Council. And in a bid to nurture new work, in 2012 it launched The Ground Floor, an artistic innovation incubator that operates out of the Rep’s Harrison Street campus in West Berkeley.
Other key changes at the theatre on Addison Street include a new, centrally located box office and a reconfiguration which allows the Rep to have one main entrance. Now theatre-goers walk directly into the central courtyard, from which both stages are easily accessible. They may also want to stop in at Michael’s Second Act Bar, where mixologists from Berkeley’s East Bay Spice Company shake up the craft cocktails.
Marcy Wong and Donn Logan Architects oversaw the redesign. There’s new, energy-efficient lighting and plumbing, heating and ventilation improvements and new ADA-accessible, gender-neutral restrooms.
The Peet’s Theatre project sees the first phase of the Rep’s five-year, $50 million CREATE Campaign completed. So far, the theatre has raised $34 million, according to Board of Trustees President Stewart Owen. Along with the Peet’s Theatre renovation, funds raised are going towards general operations, The Ground Floor initiative and an expansion of the Harrison Street campus, including the construction of additional rehearsal halls.
The Peet’s Theatre Grand Opening takes place Saturday, Jan. 9, noon–3 p.m. The event is free and families are invited to join the festivities. The program includes backstage tours, demonstrations of Meyer Sound’s acoustic system, theatre workshops led by Berkeley Rep School of Theatre’s Teaching Artists — including clowning, stage combat, improv — a costume booth, Peet’s coffee tastings and food trucks. For details, visit the Grand Opening event page online.
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