After 12 years of playing the theatrical equivalent of musical chairs, Managing Director Patrick Dooley and his acclaimed Shotgun Players solved their performance space needs the old-fashioned way—the purchase of the Transparent Theater by a generous patron, who turned around and leased it to the theater company.
“We’re thrilled,” Dooley announced Thursday. “It isn’t easy to find performance space in Berkeley. We know from experience.” He added that the building at 1901 Ashby Ave. was bought by a member of the company’s board of directors. Now renamed the Ashby Stage, the new theater will be the Shotgun Players’ permanent home, at least through the life of a 30-year lease.
The Ashby Stage’s premier performance will be Dog Act by Liz Duffy Adams, which opens in Berkeley on Sept. 23 after an initial run at the Thick House in San Francisco.
Financial troubles forced the closing of the three-year-old Transparent Theater troupe earlier this year.
The Shotgun Players, recipients of multiple awards from the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle, has bounced from one location to another since their initial 1992 performance in the basement of La Val’s Pizza on Euclid Avenue.
“It had cabaret seating for an audience of 60, with benches, chairs and tables,” Dooley said. “Then, at the end of the 1997 season, we got a call about the back of a print shop at 3280 Adeline St.”
After installing bathrooms and other improvements, Shotgun Players launched into an extensive schedule, staging shows at the print shop (called the Odyssey), as well as at city parks, the Julia Morgan Theater and also in San Francisco.
“We had eight productions that year, and one of them was three complete one-act plays,” the managing director said. “We had productions every weekend for 52 straight weeks, and at the end of the year the fire department drove by the print shop one evening about 10 o’clock and saw people from the audience gathered on the sidewalk during intermission. They came in and asked us what was going on, and when we told them, they shut us down.
“The California codes are particularly tricky when it comes to what the law calls ‘assembly space.’ Because of earthquakes, there are special requirements for bring people into a dark room where they’re all seated together.” Not only must the building be specially reinforced and protected by a sprinkler system, Dooley explained, but other requirements dictate a more extensive and specialized ventilation system. “So a building that would be suitable for a chiropractic office or a print shop wouldn’t qualify for performances,” he said.
From the print shop, the Shotgun shows moved three blocks to the South Berkeley Congregational Church at Fairview and Ellis streets. As part of the package, the players agreed to teach a Friday afternoon arts class for the church.
When Dooley realized their heavy equipment was not suited for the old building, they headed back to La Val’s for three more performances, followed by four years when every production opened at a different stage, and the actors had to build their sets and set up their risers immediately before each performance, taking them down immediately afterward.
“Casting decisions came down to, ‘Do you have back problems?’” Dooley said.
Love of art, not love of lucre, fueled the performances. “For six weeks of rehearsals and a six-week run of the show, the actors would get $400, the directors a hundred more,” Dooley said. “We went up a hundred dollars a year over the next couple of years.”
For a while, Dooley and his troupe thought they’d have a new home in the Gaia Building, after the Gaia Bookstore went belly up and developer Patrick Kennedy called the director.
“We both got very excited, but neither one of us had any idea what it would cost,” Dooley said.” We drew up several letters of agreement, and [Kennedy] hired an architect who designed a gorgeous theater. But when he learned it would cost $1 million, he said ‘Hell no!’
“I don’t blame him. It was the city that gave him the extra height for providing the space, but there was nothing in the law that said he had to actually provide it.”
With the Gaia plan in limbo, the troupe rented space from Berkeley Rep, and then the city allowed them to stage Medea at the vacant UC Movie Theater. “We put $7,000 into improvements, but the owner didn’t charge us any rent,” the director explained. “The play was a huge success for us.”
When Kennedy finally squelched the Gaia/Shotgun deal, Dooley booked some of the old faithful space. “Now we’ve go this new theater, thanks in large part to the efforts of real estate broken Michael Korman and owner Tom Clyde. It’s a great space, a former church with great acoustics and great sight-lines, access to BART and nearby free parking.”
For the Shotgun Players, it’s been pure drama—and with a happy ending to boot.
SEPARATE THE BELOW BY A LINE OR A BOX...
The Shotgun Players’ acclaimed production of Moliere’s The Miser will continue through May 2 at the Julia Morgan Theater, which is also the venue for the company’s June 5 through July 3 run of playwright Doug Wright’s Quills.
Bertholt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle will play as planned July 11 through Aug. 29 in John Hinkel Park.