Costumed children pose for a photo at the Bay Area Children's Theatre, which shut down this week.
A March 2022 performance of “The Imaginaries” at the Bay Area Children’s Theatre. Credit: Bay Area Children’s Theatre

Berkeley-based Bay Area Children’s Theatre, which fostered Bay Area children’s love for performing arts for nearly two decades, announced Wednesday that it was shutting down effective immediately.

The theater announced that all forthcoming shows, classes, and camps have been canceled. Information about refunds for tickets and summer camps will be shared later. People with “unresolved camps and classes, projects, or invoices” can contact the theater via a request form.

The company cited financial troubles as the reason for the abrupt closure. Just weeks before, BACT had announced the suspension of its season and launched a fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $750,000 by July 1. 

It wasn’t that the audiences weren’t coming back (unlike Cal Shakes, which has paused production in 2023 due to declining ticket sales). The SF Chronicle reported that in the last six months of 2022, BACT’s ticket sales were up 9% over 2019.

“Like many arts organizations, BACT was challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and while government funding provided temporary relief, operating expenses continued to rise, leaving the organization with unsustainable debt,” a statement on the theater’s website reads. 

One component of the financial strain was the passage of AB5, which raised actors’ wages to $20 an hour, according to the Chronicle. Before the gig-worker law, targeted at wealthy tech companies like Uber and Lyft, took effect at the start of 2020, actors at the theater were paid a stipend. 

The BACT was founded in 2004 by Nina Meehan. It staged original productions and adaptations of children’s books, including a Very Hungry Caterpillar Christmas and Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, and offered discounted tickets for school groups. It also taught theater classes, which culminated in productions of Aladdin Jr. and The Little Mermaid. Notably, the BACT also hosted wildly popular “baby raves” — dance parties for toddlers — in Oakland. 

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“Live theater has a unique ability to spark children’s imagination and creativity, and we are heartbroken that BACT cannot continue to carry out its vital mission,” said Christina Clark Bloodgood, president of BACT’s board, in a statement on the theater’s website

Berkeley resident Ellen Rose said her family used to regularly attend BACT shows between 2009 and 2016, when her 16-year-old son Oliver was younger and had a deep interest in Greek mythology. The company was constantly experimenting in ways that would appeal to kids, and she said the theater nurtured a love for creative storytelling in Oliver. 

“I’m sad to hear that they’re going, because what they were trying to do was something quite different,” said Rose, who first came across a BACT show — A Year with Frog and Toad — at Freight & Salvage. “They weren’t doing family-friendly musicals for the whole family — this was really for kids.” 

Rose, a violist, said the closure means one fewer place for people to take kids to experience live theater and have a fun, enriching Saturday morning with friends. She noted that the BACT was a springboard for local actors, playwrights and set designers. 

“It worries me that it could be the end of an era, a closing of an ecosystem,” Rose said, lamenting how the pandemic has altered the Berkeley performing arts scene. “It’s sad that it can’t be re-nurtured.”

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...