It’s been a tangled denouement and there’s always room for a third-act surprise, but TheatreFirst — a local theater company with a three-decade history that’s been devoted in recent years to spotlighting new works by underrepresented communities — really does appear to be closing.
The company’s leaders, Victoria Erville and Stephanie Prentice, first declared in late June that it would be shutting down at the end of the summer. Then, a few days later, they said there was a misunderstanding with the city, which rents space to the theater in Live Oak Park, and it was possible the show could go on if enough supporters stepped up their donations and a favorable lease could be negotiated with Berkeley’s parks department.
But on Friday, the company announced for the second time that the curtains would be closing for TheatreFirst. Operations are scheduled to cease at the end of September, and the city is looking for a new tenant for the Live Oak Theatre space.
“Unfortunately, in the current theatre climate where even large companies with multi-million annual budgets are asking for money to keep their doors open, we are unable to find a sustainable financial future for our small company,” Erville and Prentice, TheatreFirst’s co-artistic directors, wrote on the theater’s website.
A letter sent in June from the city’s parks department suggesting TheatreFirst’s $562 rent could be tripled was initially cited by the theater’s leaders as an impetus for the closure.
But the city said there was a “misunderstanding” and the number was not an actual rent hike but a ballpark estimate.
City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said that TheatreFirst’s lease was month-to-month and “there was no deadline or expectation to complete a new lease by the fall.” He said formal negotiations for a new lease typically take between 12 and 18 months and that they never started with TheatreFirst.
Chakko said that Berkeley “has worked very hard to support arts organizations.” TheatreFirst received $24,000 in May 2020 and $26,000 in February 2022 from the city in pandemic emergency funds, and it was awarded a $10,000 Civic Arts grant in the 2023-24 city budget.
“There’s many factors at play that are beyond this,” Chakko said.
It’s been a challenging few years for small theater companies. In May, Berkeley’s beloved Bay Area Children’s Theatre shuttered, citing financial strains and the COVID-19 pandemic. Oakland’s PianoFight and San Francisco’s Exit Theatre have also closed.
“On one hand we pay a working wage to all actors and technicians,” Erville wrote in a June 23 email forwarded to the SF Chronicle. “On the other hand we have audience members that keep asking for $5 tickets. … Stephanie and I inherited a company that was struggling, and in truth I’m getting tired of fighting to make it work each month with almost no support.”
Prentice and Erville declined an interview with Berkeleyside for this story.
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 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 were appointed artistic co-directors in March.
TheatreFirst’s final show is a staged reading of Marisela Treviño Orta’s WMB, which explores themes of health care inequality and environmental degradation. It’s set in a world where a virus threatens healthy pregnancies and only those who can afford a residency in a special clinic are safe. Performances will take place Aug. 25-27.