Johanna Pfaelzer, Berkeley Rep Artistic Director. Photo: Pete Rosos

If the theater is “a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster,” as playwright Tom Stoppard has said, what is theatre to do when COVID-19 life itself becomes a series of catastrophes catapulting over a cliff?

For Berkeley Rep, the forced closure of the physical theatre has led to a number of new initiatives, including one called Place/Settings: Berkeley that launches on Tuesday, Jan. 12. While not strictly theatrical in nature, Place/Settings: Berkeley offers 10 recorded, site-specific audio stories that each take place in Berkeley.

Written by journalists, composers, playwrights, novelists and others, the stories are a combination of fact and fiction, and will be released on a weekly basis for the next 10 weeks. The audio stories are free to 2021 Berkeley Rep 7-Play subscribers, and $10 for others. There is also a $50 ticket level, which includes extra support for the theatre and a few other perks.

“As the pandemic was settling in and we recognized it would be quite a while before we were back in our buildings, we were trying to come up with programs that we could deliver virtually,” said Johanna Pfaelzer, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director. “As we were thinking about how streaming theatre is satisfying and where it isn’t, we realized that sound can create an entire world. There are ways that audio clues can place you in the center of a composed world.”

Due to social distancing requirements, the initial conversation among Berkeley Rep staff took place in the garden of Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s resident dramaturg. Since gardens are magical places, the conversation eventually turned to the meaning of place.

“We started thinking of places as repositories of multiple people’s stories,” Pfaelzer said. “Stories that are held on a park bench, or the steps of the North Berkeley BART. And we were also thinking of theaters as repositories of memories, of experiences, and of ghosts. Theatres are notorious keepers of ghosts.”

And so an idea was born. Pfaelzer and Oldham began reaching out to writers with ties to Berkeley: some were born in Berkeley, some live here now, and others have deep connections to the city. The final list of storytellers includes Eisa Davis, Philip Kan Gotanda, Daniel Handler, Aya de León, Adam Mansbach, Richard Montoya, Itamar Moses, Kamala Parks, Sarah Ruhl, and Sean San José. New Yorker cartoonist Tom Toro created a map that shows all 10 of the story locations. The map will be mailed to people who sign up for the audio series.

Each writer selected the location they wanted to feature, and as it turns out, none of the locations overlap. Telegraph Avenue, Tilden Park, Leopold’s Records, The Musical Offering Cafe, Berkeley Rep and the slide at Codornices Park are some of the iconic places featured in the audio pieces, which take place between the 1960s and the present.

“We approached these works in the same way as any script,” Pfaelzer said. “We had conversations with each writer about the story, the sound design” and other details. Some writers wanted to record their own work, and others preferred to have actors do the reading. All the work was done remotely, and both playwrights and actors were paid. “One of the reasons for all our virtual programming has been to continue supporting artists,” Pfaelzer said.

West Indian in West Berkeley

When Aya de León was asked to contribute a piece to this series, her first reaction was that she didn’t have time. “But the idea was so compelling, I said ‘let me think about it’,” she said. “There were these different pieces I had been working on, about growing up in Berkeley and living in Berkeley.” de León is a novelist and spoken word artist, and directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley.

Aya de Leon. Photo: Pete Rosos

“I decided to work on a piece that was about being West Indian in West Berkeley,” she said. “There is a nostalgia for the Berkeley I grew up in, and sadness for the parts that have changed, but also appreciation for the institutions that have stayed strong. When I grew up there were a lot more people of color, but the conception of what that meant and who we could be was narrower.”

In the audio piece, which she narrates herself, de León says: “Back then, West Berkeley was colored and poor, full of liquor stores and adult video shops. Sex workers strolled up and down San Pablo Avenue from Oakland through Berkeley toward Richmond.” She added that “in Berkeley in the seventies, you were either Black, Mexican, Chinese or white. If you were some other Latinx or Asian, too bad. You would be forever called Mexican or Chinese.”

While those stereotypes have changed, Berkeley also has “this radical hippie nostalgic past that is very much not its present,” de León said. “People think of Berkeley as‘The University! The home of the Free Speech Movement!’ But the University is super corporate, and while Berkeley has a few communal houses, now it’s a mostly middle class, white picket fence existence.”

While this “nostalgia for a radical past is not based in reality and is certainly not the present, I really appreciate living in a part of the world that’s at least going for that,” de León said. “Even if the Free Speech Movement hasn’t been fully realized, Berkeley attracts people who hold that vision and are trying to fight for that vision.”

Baby blues

Adam Mansbach’s piece, 20 Weeks, is as personal as de Léon’s is political. It takes place at Alta Bates Hospital and focuses on the terrifying time when Mansbach and his partner discovered that their unborn baby would be born with a club foot. “This happened very early in our relationship,” Mansbach said. “We hadn’t known each other very long. And the question we faced was: how are we going to grapple with this difficult shit? What does it look like to go through this together?”

Adam Mansbach with his daughter, Zanthe. Photo: Pete Rosos

The story had a happy ending: the couple is still together, and that baby is now a happy and healthy four-year-old. “We went through this crucible together, and we learned about ourselves and each other,” Mansbach said. They have since had a second child, he added.

Mansbach is the author of the New York Times bestseller Go the Fuck to Sleep, and more than a dozen other books and novels. He is also a screenwriter.  and the artistic director of Colehouse Walker Political Outcomes.

20 Weeks is an expanded version of a story that will appear in his upcoming book, I Had a Brother Once, which is about the suicide of his brother. “I tell this story to contrast it with suicide,” Mansbach said. “The gist of it is that although we felt very isolated in the process of dealing with this club foot thing, it did not cast a shadow under the sun,” the way suicide discussions do. “It turns out this was a lot easier to talk about.”

Rock and a hard place

Kamala Parks’ piece, The Third Sphere, is a fictionalized version of her teen experiences shuttling between the homes of her divorced parents. “It hues closely to my experiences, but it knits them together in a way that didn’t necessarily happen,” she said.

Kamala Parks. Photo: Pete Rosos

Parks has been active in the East Bay punk scene for many years and works as a senior station planner for BART. She has always loved transportation and movement, so it felt natural for her to pick the North Berkeley BART station as one of the settings of her piece. “I lived near the BART station when I was growing up,” she said, “and it allowed me to go to magical places like San Francisco, or anywhere I wanted, independently. It’s very liberating to have something like that at your fingertips.”

Parks is of Lebanese descent, and Kamala means “complete, or perfect” in Arabic. “It gives me something to live up to,” she said. Her piece chronicles her explorations of Berkeley, where she moved to live with her father.

In her piece, written in the third person, Park muses about Berkeley street names as only a newcomer or a teenager would. “Curtis Street,” she wrote. “The irony that Curt is the name of the boy she has liked since third grade is not lost on her … Walking past West Street, Yasmine ruminates on the fixed position of its name, ignoring that it is east of something … Acton Street. What an unusual and easy name!”

Virtual opening

A virtual opening night for Place/Settings: Berkeley is planned for Jan. 12 at 5:30 pm. Pfaelzer will host the event live from Peet’s Theatre., and she will be in a conversation, remotely, with story contributors Itamar Moses, Eisa Davis, Sean San José along with dramaturg Madeleine Oldham. “This will be the first time that I will have walked into that stage in months and months,” Pfaelzer said. “This is the closest I will be to inviting the community into the theater in the short term.”

Listeners and readers are encouraged to write their own stories of no more than 100 words about a special Berkeley place or a meaningful Berkeley memory. Share the stories through this form. These stories will be shared as part of Berkeley Rep’s Small Plates series and hosted on the Berkeleyside website. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of this project.

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...