One of the ironies of living through a pandemic is that when we most need to be engaged, enlightened, and entertained by live theater, we can’t be — or at least not in a real-life, live environment.

Although our local theaters are dimmed, they are nevertheless working hard to provide entertainment and education to their audiences.

Berkeleyside checked in with Berkeley’s three largest, full-season theaters — Berkeley Rep, Aurora and Shotgun Players — to find out how they are connecting with their audiences now and how they are planning for an altered future. Each has chosen a different creative model to accomplish its goals.

Aurora: Pivoting to audio production

Josh Costello, left, Aurora’s artistic director is directing a new audio drama planned for the fall of 2020. Photo: Scot Goodman
Josh Costello, left, Aurora’s artistic director is directing a new audio drama planned for the fall of 2020. Photo: Scot Goodman

Aurora Theater Company recently announced a new membership plan for its 2020/2021 season. This new membership ($150 for a single membership and $250 for a dual membership, with monthly and individual event tickets available) includes a new, yet-to-be-named, audio drama planned for the fall of 2020, collaboratively written by three local playwrights: Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector (Eureka Day). It will be an intimate, timely production about Berkeley neighbors thrown together during the COVID-19 lockdown. It will be directed by Josh Costello, Aurora’s artistic director.

When asked why Aurora is creating an audio rather than a video production, Costello said, “With Zoom, actors can’t make eye contact, and it’s difficult to sync up correctly. Aurora’s expertise is in presenting nuanced language-based drama rather than video.”

Other planned events include an audio drama directed by Dawn Monique Williams, which will be produced in the spring; access to a Zoom reading of a new play in development; admission to monthly interactive salons and webinars for in-depth discussions with Josh Costello and featured artists, designers and theater-makers; and, a monthly book club, hosted by Dawn Monique Williams, exploring the complete works of August Wilson. Membership will also include access to live performances in Aurora’s physical space if produced there before July 2021.

“We are also exploring doing full live performances in an alternate space where social distancing is possible, perhaps at an outdoor venue with more seating, for example, at Mills College, one of our community partners,” said Costello.

Berkeley Rep: A focus on classes

This summer the Rep will be conducting over 20 virtual theater classes via Zoom. Photo: Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Rep is forging a different path. Susie Medak, the Rep’s Managing Director, said the Rep looks forward to “… making theater again. That’s the long game. But there is so much virtual content online that we don’t have to be at the forefront of pushing out content. The kindest thing we can do for our audience is not add to the cacophony.”

Instead, this summer the Rep will be conducting over 20 virtual theater classes via Zoom with subjects such as the art of storytelling, voice for stage and daily life, high school film making and acting intensives, as well as several courses on improvisation.

“One of the delightful surprises is that our theatre school has been very well-positioned for this moment,” said Medak. “A lot of adults, in particular, as well as children, have been enrolling in our classes. Some classes are completely filled up.”

The Rep is also making available for free, on its website, the nationwide theater project Play At Home which grants micro-commissions to playwrights. These short “joyful” plays can be downloaded and enjoyed at home, by acting them out or by reading them.

“What’s in a Play?” is Berkeley Rep’s free discussion group led by members of the Berkeley Rep staff. It discusses one play each week, via Zoom. Participants need to buy a copy of the play at a local bookstore to read each play before the session begins. Invitations to “What’s in a Play?” were sent to over 20,000 people on the Rep’s mailing list. Interested participants who did not receive an invitation can join the Rep’s mailing list.

Shotgun Players: Has launched a podcast

Catch Shotgun Players’ 2019 production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia through June 26. Above: Max Forman-Mullin, Septimus Hodge, Amanda Ramos and Thomasina Coverly. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

Shotgun Players launched a podcast, Shotgun Players: The Podcast. Episodes take listeners behind the scenes, chatting with sound experts about their experience of designing radio plays in quarantine, actors and scene designers. Other episodes offer scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry V, while still others offer full-length plays, including Adam Brock, A Small Fire, and the new production of the 75-minute, three-person U.K. drama, The Claim by Tim Cowbury, the story of an African asylum claimant struggling through an immigration interview.

As a special treat, now through June 26, Shotgun has made available video of its 2019 hit production of  Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Two-thirds of proceeds will be evenly split among the original cast and designers. It’s not to be missed.

Liz Lisle, Shotgun’s managing director, said the company is “exploring the feasibility of producing new plays on the Ashby Stage for live streaming when health considerations permit safe rehearsals.” A new and timely one-person show by Josh Kornbluth, Citizen Brain, is an early choice. Tickets would be sold for a short series of live performances to watch when performed or when convenient.

One of the moments I miss most about the theater is that frisson of excitement during the first few minutes of a play when the lights are dimmed, and the action begins — when we don’t know what we will experience, and we can’t wait to discover it. Sadly, we will have to wait patiently until we can return to seeing live theater again. In the meantime, we can savor what these three impressive companies are offering and give financial support to their efforts and the arts community if we can.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...