“What would you do if I handed you forty thousand dollars?” asks Angela (Sierra Marcks) at an Empowerment Session in "The Dignity Circle," by Lauren Smerkanich. The Central Works Theater production is now playing at the Berkeley City Club. Credit: Robbie Sweeny

Berkeley’s Central Works Theater has a daring business model — it produces only new plays. Few choices are riskier for a theater than producing a new play, let alone producing only new plays. And yet Central Works is still here — at the historic Berkeley City Club — after 33 years. It has just opened its 71st world premiere, The Dignity Circle by Lauren Smerkanich, about a Ponzi scheme that preys on women.

“The Dignity Circle,” Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Thurs.-Sun. extended through July 30. For tickets visit Central Works Theater online or call 510-558-1381. Thursday shows are pay-what-you-can.

A “world premiere” is the industry term for a play that’s never been performed in front of a public audience before, the official unveiling of a new work. Among theater practitioners (actors and directors, in particular), new plays are a different sort of animal from “published plays” or “classic plays.” A published play, like those found on the shelf of a bookstore, has been through a long process of development and production. A classic play, like those of Shakespeare, is the most reliable draw for a theater because, simply, everybody’s heard of it.

The challenge for Central Works is that audiences are much less likely to attend a play they’ve never heard of, by a playwright they’ve never heard of, than one that’s been anointed in the ultimate showcase of American theater — the Broadway marketplace in New York City. From there, new plays generally disseminate around the country to local and regional theaters, eager to re-produce the success of a proven script. And why not? It’s a perfectly good system. But Central Works travels a different path.

Katie Smalls (Chelsea Bearce), joined forces with her London landladies to solve the mystery of the Battersea Butcher in Patricia Milton’s “The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective,” from the Writers Workshop in 2019 at Central Works Theater. Credit: Jim Norrena

The plays that premiere at Central Works take one of several routes to the stage. One is through the Central Works Writers Workshop, led by the company’s development director, Gary Graves. There are two 12-week sessions of the workshop every year, one in the spring and one in the fall. In each session, eight playwrights are invited in to develop new works in a process of weekly readings and discussions, in which the writers read aloud, react to, and analyze one another’s developing scripts. At the end of the three-month sessions, the plays are given an informal read-through. From there some of the projects are selected for further development into full-fledged productions. The company has produced 18 world premieres through this path, including its latest, The Dignity Circle, which runs through July 23.

Other new plays come to the company already fully developed, “over the transom,” so to speak.  If the company is interested, they may offer to produce it.   

But the most audacious path new plays take to production is something they call the “Central Works Method.” Method Plays, as they call them, begin with only an idea from a playwright. If the idea appeals to the co-artistic directors, Jan Zvaifler and Gary Graves — if it has a good story in it — they put it through the Method. The first thing they do is set an opening date for the project — before a single word of the script is written! 

“Nothing motivates a production team like an opening date,” said Graves. The playwright and the director determine how many actors the project requires, and then they bring the actors on board — again, before the play is even written, 

Then, through a series of 10 three-hour workshops, over the course of about six months, the playwright develops the script with the cast, the director and the company’s resident sound designer, Greg Scharpen (who has been involved in all 71 of the company’s world premieres). At the end of the workshop process, the script goes into a five-week rehearsal schedule, and opens in a world premiere.  

Mailman, “Edward King” (John Patrick Moore) is on his daily route in a 2016 Central Works Method Play by Gary Graves, about finding one’s roots. Credit: Jim Norrena

These Method Plays are the riskiest ventures at Central Works, but they make for an extraordinarily collaborative developmental process.  And at Central Works, the spirit of collaboration is a guiding principle.  The company’s motto is holus bolus, Latin for “all at once, together.”

One could be forgiven for wondering why Central Works would commit to such a risky business plan, producing only new plays, and in some cases committing to produce plays before they’re even written — are they insane? Perhaps. But something has kept audiences coming back to see the company’s new plays since it was established back in 1990. Maybe it’s because audiences are hungry for something new.

“What I love about Central Works is that it only produces world premieres. It presents fresh new works by outstanding playwrights. Every show is a surprise — original and first seen here in Berkeley, not a re-run that played in New York several years ago,” wrote theater critic Emily S. Mendel in Berkeleyside last month. 

New plays are exciting. Exciting to make, and exciting to see. Maybe it’s the newness of their plays that keeps audiences coming back. Maybe it’s the unique setting of the gorgeous Berkeley City Club, and the way Central Works adapts its productions to the beautiful architecture of the landmark structure. Or maybe it’s because the audiences just trust Central Works.  They know that whatever the New Play Theater serves up, it’s sure to be worth the risk.