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Council lends aid to smaller theater

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Friday March 23, 2001



The City Council gave a boost to a struggling theater group by waiving the permit application fee for the transformation of a former clothing store into a temporary performance space. 

The waiver will allow the Central Works Theater Ensemble to save as much as $2,500 in application fees normally due to the Planning and Development Department. The nonprofit theater group is applying for a use permit to remodel the 5,200-square-foot store at the intersection of Sacramento Street and Dwight Way into a 49-seat theater.  

“$2,500 is a lot of money for a nonprofit theater group.” said Co-director Gary Graves. “If we had to pay that with no guarantee of the outcome, we may not have even tried.” 

The council approved the recommendation by Councilmember Kriss Worthington by a vote of 8-1, with Councilmember Betty Olds voting in opposition. Olds said on Thursday the only reason she voted against the item was because there was so little information available to the council before the vote.  

Olds said she has since discovered the Civic Arts Commission voted unanimously to approve the waiver on Feb. 28, and that had she known on Tuesday, she may have voted differently. 

Worthington said the city should provide a series of small theater and arts groups the same kind of financial support it did for the new Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Addison Street. The city donated $4 million towards the development of the new $20 million, 600-seat proscenium theatre, which celebrated its gala opening on March 13. 

“I’d invite as many arts organizations as possible to contact the City Council and ask for their fair share,” Worthington said. “If the city is going to commit to the arts then it should commit to as many modes of expression as possible.” 

Mayor Shirley Dean said the council regularly waives city permit and application fees for temporary theater groups as well as nearly all events that take place in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park. “We might be able to save everybody a lot of time if we just don’t charge these fees,” she said. 

Dean said she wasn’t sure about Worthington’s idea to match $4 million in funding for small arts organizations. “That’s fine that he wants to do that, but did he say where the money was going to come from?” she said. 

If the Central Works Theater Ensemble receives a permit to transform the building into a theater, it will perform at the location for up to two years. The property was recently purchased by Affordable Housing Associates and the director, Ali Kashani, has offered the space to the theater group for what he described as a nominal fee. 

Ultimately the building will be razed and replaced with affordable housing. 

The Central Work Theater Ensemble was formed in 1990 and primarily presents new works by Bay Area playwrights and actors, according to Graves. He said the ensemble is different from the Berkeley Repertory in that “We’re interested in producing something more intimate, affordable and homegrown.” 

Founding member and Co-director Jan Zvaifler said the group chose the name Central Works because the name is akin to Public Works, which every city needs. 

Graves said performance space in Berkeley is in short supply. “It’s a desperate struggle to find space to perform in,” he said. “We’ve performed in St. John’s on College, the Berkeley City Club, the Santa Fe Bar And Grill and our last show was in the basement theater at La Val’s Subterranean.” 

Zvaifler said the theater group was encouraged by the fee waiver. “We still have a long row to hoe but it’s been nice to discover how much support there is out there,” she said.