The Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Credit: Cal Shakes

California Shakespeare Theater announced last week that it will not present any of its own theatrical productions in 2023 as it seeks to shore up its finances and return for a partial season in 2024. 

It’s a challenging time for the nonprofit company, which has staged outdoor Shakespearean and other contemporary plays, many at the scenic Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda, for nearly five decades.

The pandemic wiped out its 2020 season, and in the summers of 2021 and 2022, Cal Shakes produced fewer plays than its usual four. As its audience grays, the theater says it’s facing a landscape of decreased revenue from ticket sales and donations.  

The theater’s new leader, Clive Worsley — a Bay Area theater veteran who has taken on the roles of artistic director Eric Ting and managing director Sarah Williams after they both left Cal Shakes in 2022 — is now trying to find a new way forward for the business.  

“The subscription model is dying, and there are no state and federal art subsidies to fill the void,” he told Berkeleyside.

For 2023, Cal Shakes will employ the Bruns Amphitheater, which it’s leasing from the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, as a multi-disciplinary performing arts venue and community resource in an attempt to “maximize income from the Bruns while staying true to Cal Shakes’ values and supporting the Bay Area theater ecosystem to the best of our ability,” according to a statement from Cal Shakes’ staff posted on its website

That means renting the stage out for live music, dance, family programming, civic and cultural events, educational activities and weddings will be key to the theater’s viability in 2024 and beyond, Worsley said, similar to how Cal Shakes weathered the beginning of the pandemic by leasing to other entities.

Going forward, Cal Shakes doesn’t foresee being able to put on more than one or two large productions per year at the Bruns. 

The theater had net assets of $4.8 million as of the beginning of 2021, according to tax filings, which show its overall revenue dropped to $4.4 million in 2019, after staying in the 4.7 million to 5.7 million range from 2012 to 2018. Total revenue was $2.5 million in 2020, and Cal Shakes leaders declined to share more recent figures.

“Our past business model, like that of most non-profit theaters, simply does not meet the needs we currently face,” the statement on the Cal Shakes website reads. “In the best of times earned revenue from tickets and subscriptions paid for close to 60% of the cost of putting on a show. But now, because of increased costs as much as smaller post-COVID audiences, that percentage is more like 45%.” 

The cost per show compared with earned revenue per show. Credit: Cal Shakes

The theater said institutional and individual donations and grants, which Cal Shakes once modeled as contributing approximately 50% of its revenue, are on the downswing as donors “are aging out faster than they are being replaced.”

Putting on theater at the Bruns is expensive. The season is limited to a five-month producing year. All water used there must be trucked in and then trucked out again. Weather sometimes interrupts productions. And even when you cut down the number of plays performed in a summer, there are still fixed costs related to things like hanging the lights, preparing the stage and employing seasonal workers. The lease with EBMUD, up for renewal in 2027, “is not the most expensive bill in my inbox,” Worsley said.

At the close of the 2022 season, pre-audit revenue appeared to show some recovery, but Worsley said federal COVID funding artificially buoyed those figures. “We are not going to come close to covering even half the average of the $500,000 production cost for each show,” he said.

In its nearly 50-year history, beginning with free performances in Emeryville, to many summers in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park, and then under the artistic director of Jonathan Moscone at the Bruns, followed by Ting’s recent seven-year tenure, Cal Shakes has been a mainstay for theater lovers in the East Bay. Actors including Mahershala Ali, Annette Bening, and Zendaya have enhanced their careers by performing at Cal Shakes. In 2024, for its 50th anniversary, the company hopes to stage Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

When Worsley took over the artistic and managing director positions, there were hints that Cal Shakes would need to step back from its own productions again, as it did during the pandemic.

Before deciding on this change of focus, the organization sought ideas, in person and via questionnaire, from its board of directors, theater professionals and season ticket holders about how it should function in the post-pandemic environment. 

The survey concluded that the setting of Orinda’s Bruns Amphitheatre was rated more highly than the plays Cal Shakes was producing. 

Although “the decline in classical theater is a sad situation,” Worsley said, “Cal Shakes sees this as an opportunity to come out of the shadow of only being a Shakespeare theater and broaden our reach to all those who drive by our freeway exit but never attend any events.”

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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...