Amber Iman, center with braids, and Phillip Johnson Richardson, pointing, played the leading roles in the Rep's "Goddess" last fall, and joined an enthusiastic teen audience for photos after the performance. Credit: Berkeley Rep

When Berkeley Rep’s School of Theatre asked local teens last fall if they were ready to return to live theater, the answer was an unequivocal “yes!” 

The Rep’s popular teen programs — including student matinees, which went Bay Area-wide in 1986, and the Teen Nights, started in 2003 — were put on hold during the pandemic.  But last September, Berkeley Rep offered a student matinee to the hit musical Goddess. Unsure how many students would show up, the Rep decided the performance would be a “mixed matinee” with both students and adult audience members. 

The result was electrifying. More than 275 middle and high school students from as close as Oakland and as far as Sacramento attended the matinee. Their energy was infectious, for both the other audience members and the actors, who loved having the teens in the house. Actor Destinee Rea said it was the best audience ever, adding, “Shoutout to our high schoolers, we love you!” 

After the show, the young audience members gathered in the courtyard and applauded the actors as they left the theater. The students’ excitement and the actors’ enthusiasm for signing autographs felt like a red-carpet event, and the simple connection of a selfie or signed ticket stub sparked indescribable joy.

Destinee Rea and Phillip Johnson Richardson in Berkeley Rep’s Goddess last fall. Credit: Berkeley Rep

Anthony Jackson, director of the School of Theatre, said he’s thrilled to welcome teens back to Berkeley Rep.

“By sharing this experience with young people, we are investing in the next generation of artists, change-makers and citizens,” Jackson said.

The turnout for December’s student-only matinee was even bigger.  Wuthering Heights sold out, with more than 500 teens attending from Oakland, Hayward, Woodside and further.  One student said that Wuthering Heights made them realize what theater is all about — to “hear stories together” and “heal our hearts.”

Following the success of these matinees, the School of Theatre is planning to foster deeper relationships with the school communities. In addition to welcoming schools to the Berkeley Rep campus and providing a student resource guide for each show, the School of Theatre will now offer each school attending a matinee a complimentary in-class workshop in advance of the show. 

Another Rep program for young people, Teen Night, also made a popular comeback.  Run by members of Berkeley Rep’s Core Council (13 students from around the Bay Area), Teen Night includes a ticket to the show, a locally catered dinner, a teen-conducted interview with an artist from the show and other fun community-building activities, all for $10. More than 60 young people attended the Teen Night for Wuthering Heights in November.

Before the pandemic, nearly every show at Berkeley Rep attracted a large number of teens. But with stages dark for two years, many young people never had the opportunity to see a live performance until they came to Wuthering Heights. One teen exclaimed that it was their “first time ever” seeing a play, and that they were “definitely coming back.”  

Definitely back, too, are Berkeley Rep’s School of Theatre and the Teen Council, with in-person classes, workshops, new podcasts and new programs, continuing through the summer of 2023. 

Upcoming student matinees at Berkeley Rep include Clyde’s, Feb. 2 & 23 at 1 p.m.; Cambodian Rock Band, March 9 & 30 at 1 p.m.; and English, April 13 and May 4 at 1 p.m. More info.

The next Teen Night is for Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated comic-drama, Clyde’s, on Jan. 20. More info.