On a typical evening when a show is in town at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, actors, directors and staff spend hours rehearsing into the night, busing back and forth between apartments rented by the theater scattered around the city.
The costs for this housing have skyrocketed in tandem with Berkeley rents over the last decade. A budget of around $300,000 has jumped to nearly $2 million and, in dire situations, the theater has had to cough up monthly rent as much as $6,800 for corporate-owned apartments.
But the theater’s decades-long vision to house artists on its own property is finally coming to fruition with the debut of the Medak Center this fall. The 45-unit artist housing complex is nearly ready to open in the Downtown Berkeley performing arts hub of Addison Street, adjacent to the good company of Aurora Theatre, Freight and Salvage, the California Jazz Conservatory and the UC Theatre.
It’s named after Susie Medak, the theater’s departing managing director, who led the team for 32 years until August. It also contains new classrooms, a more convenient loading bank for sets, a gallery and studio space, offices, storage, outdoor courtyards and socializing space.
“Berkeley’s identity is tied up in our political activism, as well as being a city that values culture and art,” Medak said Wednesday afternoon, standing inside one of the bright new studio apartments in the building. “If we lose the next generation of artists, then what kind of city will we be 10 years from now?”
Most people staying at the Rep’s housing will be visitors. However, Medak said 30% of the theater’s permanent staff is sourced from its annual fellowship program, which will soon have access to suite-style apartments in the housing complex adjacent to studio units for artists in shows.
The Rep is also in the early stages of deciding whether it can rent out rooms to neighboring arts organizations who need housing or other nonprofits. Medak said the requests have already started rolling in, and the Berkeley Rep hopes to offer highly discounted rent if their artist schedules leave open rooms during the year.
It’s industry standard for theaters to rent housing to their hired artists for free, and while some theaters around the country own their properties for housing, it’s still uncommon for this housing to be on-site and fully integrated into the property.
In years past, Medak said Berkeley Rep housed artists all over the city; they stayed at a building in North Berkeley on Delaware Street (not so affectionately called “smell-o-wares”), squeezed into units on Regent Street and apartments on Addison Street that Medak said were “simply awful.” In a university town, it was also difficult for staff to find a home where artists could rest quietly after long days and nights of rehearsal.
“I walked every single empty building in Berkeley for years looking for appropriate housing,” said Medak, who never envisioned herself in the “building” industry. But she did oversee the construction of the 600-seat Roda Theatre in 2001, the renovation of the 400-seat Peet’s Theatre in 2016 and the creation of the School of Theatre in 2001 during her tenure.
The Medak housing is her last project before leaving Berkeley Rep, and it’s expected to welcome its first set of fellows this fall and visiting artists with the cast of Wuthering Heights showing in November.
Pam MacKinnon, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theatre across the bay in San Francisco, directed a show at the Berkeley Rep in her former freelance career. Having traveled throughout the country for shows, she said a huge part of a theater’s work is creating a supportive environment for artists.
“It can be weeks and weeks of being away from home, it’s inherently stressful,” MacKinnon described. “If this housing allows for Berkeley Rep to have more flexibility in what they’re putting on their stages and makes artists feel taken care of, I think that serves the community.”
A studio unit inside the new Medack Center next to the Berkeley Rep. Credit: Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight
The COVID-19 pandemic nearly squashed the housing project
Like every arts institution in Berkeley, the Berkeley Rep shuttered its doors and halted programming when news of the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020.
In a dramatic board meeting the following month, Medak and others weighed the present chaos with the future of the theater.
“It was a culmination of 20 years of planning,” Medak said. “We came so close to pulling the plug, but I realized — if we don’t build it now, we’ll never, ever build it.”
Berkeley Rep decided to forge ahead with funding from New York-based Signature Bank, which agreed to finance the entire project. The bank loaned Berkeley Rep $38 million for the $26 million build, according to Medak, who said it was the “right project at the right time” for the bank as it expanded into the West Coast. The bank has also backed Broadway-related projects in New York and small theaters in San Francisco.
The mixed-use building is a unique project built by Cahill Construction, dreamed up by the Berkeley Rep team and San Francisco-based De Quesada Architects. It’s designed to specifically serve artists with quiet rooms and direct pathways to rehearsal spaces with safety and privacy in mind.
When celebrities are in town for certain productions (the likes of Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian Mckellan, the late Carrie Fisher and others have performed at Berkeley Rep), there are covert hallways for them to travel in and out of the space.
Having on-site housing will also greatly reduce the workload for staff members who spend most of their time coordinating apartment rentals, transportation and logistics, said Mark Morrisette, facilities director for the Berkeley Rep.
“It gives us control over our space and proximity to the downtown arts district, it reduces transportation and our carbon footprint, as well as significant staff time savings,” Morrisette said.
Arts organizations in Berkeley were largely able to stay afloat because of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans during the pandemic. According to federal data, Berkeley Rep received between $1 million and $2 million in PPP loans from Signature Bank in April 2020.
Berkeley Rep sees the housing project as another way to stabilize its presence for the next several decades and allow artists to continue performing and bolstering the city’s cultural stamp. On site housing is also important because the theater can’t keep raising its ticket prices to offset housing costs, Medak said, in an effort to keep its shows open to a broad audience.
“Artists are not high earners, and the city has been losing artists for years because our rents are so high,” Medak said. “It’s in the community’s best interest to ensure that cultural organizations can thrive. If artists help us see ourselves, what does it mean when we don’t have artists to do that?”
Berkeley Rep has initially planned live-work spaces at its Harrison Street outpost, where staff build sets and do other fabrication work. The arts community in the Bay Area is still healing from the wounds of the Ghostship Warehouse Fire in Oakland, where 36 people — including a Berkeley Rep student — died in a blaze in an unpermitted artists’ residence. The new Medak housing, as well as upcoming projects, have an emphasis on fire safety and abiding by building codes.
Eventually, the theater hopes the Medak Center will evolve into a hub for interdisciplinary artists with collaborations between various arts organizations in the city.
Students, low-income residents, and homeless people struggle to get by in a regional housing crisis that touches every population. Medak said building any additional forms of housing benefits the larger Berkeley ecosystem, and showing that artists are one priority in the crisis can also pave the way for new, creative forms of housing that serve residents.
“The city bent over backwards to try to help us figure out how to do this,” Medak said. “I think every time one of us works with the city on a project that breaks the mold, to rethink what housing can look like, it benefits the next project.”