Central Works Theater performs in the Berkeley City Club, designed by architect Julia Morgan who also designed Hearst Castle. Credit: Gary Graves

Central Works Theater company turns 33 this year. And while the “New Play Theater” now comfortably resides on the first floor of the palatial Berkeley City Club on Durant, the early years for the company were a long, frantic search for a space to call home.  

The group started making plays in the fall of 1990 when two young actors, Jan Zvaifler and Søren Oliver, founded Central Works as an “actor-driven ensemble.” It is a theater company managed and directed by actors, with the interests of actors at its heart. 

Central Works’ The Engine of Our Disruption is a comedy in which artificial intelligence meets authentic misconduct. It runs through Nov. 19, Thursdays-Sundays. Details online. Or call 510-558-1381.

In the early 1990s, with the establishment of the Berkeley Rep as a nationally recognized regional theater, a wave of new, smaller theater companies sprang up in a climate akin to a theatrical “gold rush.”

Central Works opened its first production in the tiny basement of La Val’s pizza parlor on Euclid Avenue on the north side of campus. La Val’s Subterranean Theatre has a special place in the history of Berkeley’s theater scene — it’s been the incubator space for a long list of new theater companies for more than 30 years now. 

Beneath the noisy hubbub of a busy pizza parlor, one descends a cramped stairway to a dimly lit expanse with a ceiling barely high enough to avoid knocking one’s head on the stage lights. And there it is, a tiny playing space surrounded by theater seats.  

The company’s first production, The Widow’s Blind Date by Israel Horowitz, was billed as the “Northern California premiere of a provocative revenge drama.” Robert Hurwitt, then the dean of Bay Area theater critics, wrote, “Central Works, a new company, gets off to a very promising start” in the East Bay Express.

It didn’t take long for the fledgling company to grow tired of the overhead din of a busy pizza parlor, the rumbling of beer kegs across the barroom floor and the cramped converted basement. But the options for a new theater company in the pricey real estate market of Berkeley in the 1990s were precious few. Thus began the “nomadic years” — a decadelong search for a new place to call its own.

Central Works did a few shows in another basement at Saint John’s Church on College Avenue till the church realized — understandably — how inconvenient it is to have a theater company in one’s basement. A couple of shows used San Francisco venues, but that wasn’t workable for the Berkeley-based ensemble. Then came an offer to use the new space at the Berkeley City Club.

The Berkeley City Club, built in 1929, includes Gothic and Moorish architectural elements and is a California Historic Landmark. Credit: Gary Graves

In 1992, well-known local actress Barbara Oliver launched the Aurora Theater in an elegant room of the City Club, an austere old landmark on Durant Avenue. From the outside, the imposing structure looks like a forbidding monastery, flanked by several churches on the same block. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Berkeley, and inside, the vaulted Gothic architecture takes one’s breath away.  

On the first floor of the magnificent Julia Morgan-designed “Little Castle” (as it’s known in relation to Morgan’s bigger Hearst Castle), there is a beautiful room with a lofty 16-foot ceiling. Leaded windows look out on an enchanting courtyard bursting with flowering camellias. Cherub faces carved in stone gaze down from the walls, and a massive stone fireplace dominates the warm interior beneath elegant chandeliers.  

It was here, in this intimate room, a mere 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, that Oliver realized you could surround a central space with about 60 seats and perform plays.

Lucky for Central Works, the company’s first artistic director was Søren Oliver, Barbara’s son. (The Olivers are a theatrical family). While Aurora took the summer off, they graciously let Central Works do shows there.  

The Central Works performance space at the Berkeley City Club includes a fireplace, beamed ceiling and chandeliers. Credit: Gary Graves

It was there, in 1997, that the company produced its first “collaboratively developed” new play, Roux, written by Samantha King. It was that production that inspired the company to formalize its signature process of collaborative development as the “Central Works Method.” From then on, they committed to producing only new plays or world premieres, as they say in the theater. The company’s current offering, The Engine of Our Disruption, is world premiere number 72.  

But it took seven more years of nomadic wandering until Central Works finally settled in. In 2000, Aurora Theater moved downtown to the beautiful theater they built on Addison Street, next door to the Rep.  And in 2002, the old Aurora space at the City Club needed a new tenant. Central Works couldn’t have been happier to return to the magical room in the Little Castle, and they’ve been there ever since.

Architectural detail at the Berkeley City Club. Credit: Gary Graves

“We’ve done a lot of plays set in palaces,” says Gary Graves, one of two co-directors at Central Works, along with Zvaifler. “The Gothic architecture of the place lends itself to courtiers and throne rooms.” The company likes to put the audience in between the actors and the set — the walls, the windows, the grand fireplace, and the beamed ceiling — as if they’re actually in the room with the characters in the play.  

“It’s a very special experience, a very special place to see a play,” says Graves. “Our audience loves it.”  

It took just over a decade of wandering, searching, hoping and praying, but Central Works finally found a home at the Berkeley City Club, and after 21 years in the enchanting old place, they thank their lucky stars they’re there.

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