Berkeley Rep hangs the banners as it re-opens both for classes and performances. Credit: Berkeley Rep

This story is brought to you by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The sword fighters are back at Berkeley Rep. “Stage Combat: Level 1 Broadsword” is once again meeting in person at the School of Theatre every Monday night, and it remains one of Berkeley Rep’s most popular classes. School staff say it’s a thrill to be practicing in person after the long pandemic shut-down. In September, the school began offering limited-capacity classes in several subjects.

Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime  directed by Les Waters opens Nov. 12. In January see comedian Mike Birbiglia, social commentator Fran Lebowitz, and world premiere musical Swept Away.

“As we emerge with increasing frequency from the isolation of our pandemic shelters, the meaningfulness of being together in shared spaces brings a heightened delight,” said Managing Director Susie Medak. 

Classes such as stage combat were impossible to host during the pandemic because, well, it’s hard to swing a sword or throw a punch at a scene partner over the internet.  Nevertheless, while classrooms may have stood empty, Berkeley Rep’s School of Theatre provided a vital tether to theater-makers in the Bay Area and beyond. 

Before the pandemic, the School of Theatre served 20,000 people per year with both entry level and advanced classes to connect audiences with Berkeley Rep’s shows and challenge artists to develop their most dynamic work. Though the loss of human connection was mourned, the School still managed the incredibly ambitious feat of serving the same number of people, via virtual classes, as it had before the pandemic.  

Students rehearse in the Stage Combat class at BerkeleyRep. Credit: Berkeley Rep

Living on the axis between education and art, Berkeley Rep’s School of Theatre faced a challenge: how do we continue to serve students and inspire artists to cultivate their most creative work at a time when the transformative crucible of in-person, live theatre is on hold? How do we reimagine our programs within this new digital landscape and continue to create meaningful art in isolation?

For Anthony Jackson, the school’s director, the key was to pave the way for new projects. “The shutdown opened up new opportunities to engage with students, which resulted in some exciting creative experiments,” he explained. “While our Teen Council was not able to hold our annual Teen One Act Festival in person, we explored podcasting. We also launched a new Teen Short Film Festival, which encouraged teens across California to develop their unique narratives through film. We plan to expand our use of these creative mediums for teens as we return to in-person learning.” 

The shuttered theaters at Berkeley Rep also remained busy throughout the last year. They shared recordings of past shows, and created a brand-new video project with The Waves in Quarantine. They also collaborated with local playwrights and Berkeleyside to create Place Settings: Berkeley and Small Plates, a podcast series and community project about how memories can link you to a specific physical location. 

Next week, Berkeley Repertory Theatre reopens after 18 months, on Nov. 12, with Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime  directed by Les Waters, followed in January by comedian Mike Birbiglia, social commentator Fran Lebowitz, and world premiere musical Swept Away

“Theatre isn’t fully realized until it is in the presence of an audience. And that dynamic, that partnership that includes artists and audience alike, creating something ephemeral together, in real time, is unlike anything else,” said Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer.

This story was written and paid for by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, whose mission is to create ambitious theatre that entertains and challenges its audiences, provokes civic engagement, and inspires people to experience the world in new and surprising ways.