An ensemble of actors screaming on stage
The cast of TheatreFirst’s The Farm during a 2017 performance. Credit: Cheshire Isaacs

Update, July 5 After declaring on Friday that TheatreFirst would be closing after 30 years, the company’s leaders said this week that a final decision has not been made.

Co-directors Victoria Erville and Stephanie Prentice wrote in a statement Friday that the city’s decision to raise rent for the space it leases in TheatreFirst in Live Oak Park was the last straw for the theater. But after the statement was issued, the city said there was a misunderstanding and denied that lease negotiations had yet begun. 

A statement posted on the theater’s website this week says that the city apologized over the weekend for a “miscommunication.” TheatreFirst will negotiate the lease with the parks department soon, the statement says. 

TheatreFirst is now asking for donations. 

“This is a step in the right direction, but like other theatres in our community who face a host of financial difficulties, we still need your support,” the new statement reads. “We are not out of the woods yet.”

Berkeleyside has been unable to interview TheatreFirst’s leaders or parks director Scott Ferris.

TheatreFirst currently pays $542 per month for rent plus utilities, according to the city. The company was awarded a $10,000 Civic Arts grant in the budget approved last week by the City Council

Additional information about TheatreFirst’s rent was added after publication.

Original story, June 30 TheatreFirst, a local theater company with a three-decade-long history that’s been devoted in recent years to spotlighting new works by underrepresented communities, plans to cease operations in August, the company announced on its website.

The company has operated out of a theater space in the middle of Live Oak Park since 2012

TheatreFirst’s leaders said in a statement on the group’s website that the reason for the closure was financial hardship, including the pandemic, and a steep rent hike from the city of Berkeley for their lease of the Live Oak Theater.

“This unconscionable new financial demand has made it impossible for our company to continue,” reads the statement written by artistic co-directors Victoria Erville and Stephanie Prentice.

Scott Ferris, the city’s parks director, told Berkeleyside early Friday evening in a statement after the initial version of this story was published that “there appears to be a misunderstanding.”

“As far as I’m aware no formal negotiations for this lease have started and Theater First has been a good tenant that we would like to keep as a partner,” he wrote in an email.

TheatreFirst’s leaders have not responded to requests for comment sent Friday afternoon. The company had $197,000 in revenue and $163,000 in expenses in 2019, according to its nonprofit filing; more recent financial information was not immediately available.  

The company’s final show will be this August: a series of staged readings of WMB by Marisela Treviño Orta, which explore themes of health care inequality and environmental degradation. 

After each performance there will be “a talkback” and “a reception to celebrate all of the artists, technicians and supporters that have graced our stage and audience over the years,” Erville and Prentice wrote. The company is asking for donations to help fund the final production. 

TheatreFirst was founded in Oakland in 1993 by actor Clive Chafer, a former Cal Shakes mainstay, with the intention of bringing more international theater to the Bay Area. After Chafer’s retirement in 2008, actor-director Michael Storm took over, shifting the company’s focus from international works to a combination of popular plays like Oleanna and Anton in Show Business and new works including Harmon Hilfinger’s Hanging Georgia and Lauren Gunderson’s Fire Work

The nomadic company had difficulties finding a permanent home, and performed in venues across Berkeley and Oakland — from the Julia Morgan theater in the Berkeley City Club to the Oakland YWCA to Mills College to a few storefronts in downtown Oakland to Oakland School of the Arts in the Fox Theater building — until it took over management of the Live Oak Theater in 2012.

The company announced in 2016 that it would change its focus to producing new work and highlighting the work of underrepresented communities, including a commitment that all of the company — from the board to creative teams — would be composed of at least half women, two-thirds people of color, and one-third people who identify as LGBTQIA2+. In 2020, artistic facilitator Jon Tracy stepped down to become the company’s manager in a desire to create a pipeline for rising leaders of color

Erville and Prentice, who say they are “the first BIPOC women” to lead TheatreFirst in their statement announcing the company’s closure, have been artistic co-directors for just four months. They said they focused their efforts on maintaining community partnerships. 

According to the joint statement, half the proceeds from the August reading will go to its “Community Spotlight” partners. 

“Our path is coming to a close, but we believe it has had a positive effect on both the local and artistic communities and hope that new stories will grace the Live Oak Theater in the coming months,” the statement reads.

This story was updated after publication with a response from the city of Berkeley.

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...