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Larger performance spaces urged for Oxford Street plan

By Ben Lumpkin
Tuesday July 31, 2001

When the City Council approved the broad outline for an ambitious mixed-used development on the site of the Oxford Street parking lot last week, one of the questions that remained unanswered was just what mix of uses the development should serve.  

Performance arts groups around the Bay Area are hoping the council will approve plans, in the end, that would allow the building to serve as a regional center for performance arts.  

Mickey Tenenbaum, chairman of the Berkeley Performing Arts Center, a group that has lobbied off and on for the creation of a major performing arts center in Berkeley since 1975, argues that to do this the Oxford Street development would need at least three theaters: a small “black box” theater, a 100-seat theater, and a 420-seat theater that could become the permanent home for local institutions like the San Francisco-based George Coates Performance Work theater group and the Berkeley Opera. 

But, so far at least, city officials have set much more modest goals for the arts component of the Oxford Street development. A plan approved by the Planning Commission last month called for a maximum of 10,000 square feet of arts space, whereas Tenenbaum says that, to do three theaters and visual arts space, the building would need around 30,000 square feet dedicated to the arts. 

At the behest of Councilmember Linda Maio, the council will at least study the possibility of a larger arts space in the months ahead. And Tenenbaum and others have sworn to continue their fight for more performance arts space. 

George Coates, artistic director of George Coates Performance Works and a Berkeley resident, said a performance arts venue needs at least 300 seats to have any hope of being financially self-sufficient, particularly in the era of dot-com-driven real estate prices. 

As Coates put it, “You can’t sing for your dinner unless you have more than 300 seats.” 

Coates said a 400-seat theater operating in tandem with a 100-seat theater is the ideal arrangement, because the two together would produce enough revenue to cover operating costs. Furthermore, said Coates, working out of the same building, theater groups could share mailing lists and otherwise collaborate to promote their productions, helping to keep the seats full. As the center’s reputation for strong performance arts grew, all the groups associated would benefit, Coates said.  

For models, he points to the Walnut Creek Regional Arts Center, or the development of the Jack London Square area with its growing array of Jazz music venues. The more choices, the bigger the crowds, he said. 

Any night of the week, said Coates, “you can go to Jack London Square and there will be something for you to listen to.” 

If nothing else, by being associated with such a successful regional arts center, small theater groups would have much better luck generating significant grant support, Coates added.  

Tenenbaum said his group has heard from 35 Bay Area theater groups that have voiced support for the idea of an Berkeley Performance Arts theater 

“There are just dozens of top notch theater groups in the Bay Area that are struggling, partly because that’s the nature of theater, but partly because they just don’t have venues to perform in,” Tenenbaum said. 

Berkeley has its share of such “nomadic” theater groups – groups that move from performance space to performance space, dangling a dogged group of loyal followers along with them if they’re lucky. 

The Central Works Theater Ensemble is one such group. Last week Central Works Co-director Jan Zvaifler publicly voiced the group’s support for the idea of a two theater or more performance arts space at the Oxford lot site. 

Since its founding 11 years ago, the Central Works Theater Ensemble seems to have spent nearly as much time looking for space as it has workshopping and performing original plays – plays that have earned it a loyal following of 1,400 people, by Zvaifler’s estimate. 

The group begins with an idea, like “Women who kill,” and then brings in actors, writers and directors to research and generally brainstorm around the theme for several weeks until a play takes shape. The “women who kill” theme lead to “Roux,” a play that dealt with domestic violence, incest and dark sides to family life. 

At first, Central Works, like many Berkeley Theater groups, performed in the basement of La Val’s Pizza parlor on Durant Avenue.  

“That space is booked non-stop, because that’s what we’ve got,” Zvaifler said. 

After contending with conditions such as a doorless dressing room and the sounds of kegs being pounded into place overhead during their performances, Central Works tried several other places, ranging from a storefront in Oakland to UC Berkeley’s Durham Studio Theater. But each place had its own drawbacks. Durham theater was a beautiful venue, Zvaifler said, but the group’s regular audience seemed more than a little put out by having to find parking and the navigate the huge university campus to get to the theater. 

The group ended up back at La Val’s a couple of years ago – until an opportunity came up to move into a former women’s clothing store on Sacramento Street, near Dwight Way. Affordable Housing Associates, the developer that owns the building, is willing to rent it out at very reasonable rates until the end of next year, when they plan to demolish the building to make way for a housing project. 

After months of wading through the city bureaucracy to get a zoning permit to change the building’s use, Central Works finally got final approval from the Zoning Adjustments Board last week. With some pro bono assistance from Ratcliff Architects, the group is trying to come up with an affordable plan to open a 40-seat theater in the old Outback store by October. Anything larger would require seismic upgrades and other alterations the group can’t afford. 

Still, Zvaifler is excited about the possibility of one of the most productive seasons in the group’s history. Plans call for squeezing six full shows into a little more than one year. 

“Typically we don’t have a season,” Zvaifler said. “Typically, we’re desperately looking for space. The search for space sort of drives everything you do.” 

“You grow your audience. It’s not like there’s an audience out there or there isn’t one.”