One of the Bay Area’s most unique theatrical companies has claimed a bridgehead in Berkeley, and they’re marking the event with a four-hour celebration Sunday afternoon.
The Marsh, which has been delighting audiences and introducing hundreds of young people to the full range of theatrical arts, crafts and business savvy for the last 16 years in San Francisco, is the newest commercial tenant in the Gaia Building in downtown Berkeley.
Though Marsh Berkeley has been offering performances of Executive Order 9066, a play examining the internment of West Coast Japanese-Americans during World War II, since Sept. 22, Sunday’s fest marks its official arrival.
The company is the creation of Stephanie Weisman, a native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who arrived in Berkeley in 1985, moving into an apartment above Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue.
She came with a master’s in creative writing from the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York, where she had been a student and protégé of poet Robert Creeley, edited the Black Mountain II Review and developed and taught a class on small press publishing.
Four years later, she said, “I started The Marsh to make it easy to get my work out.”
The name comes from an interlude when Weisman lived on the edge of a marsh while she wrote, discovering that the environment teeming with life served as a metaphor for her own creative processes.
The company’s first home was a one-night-a-week slot in the performance space of the Hotel Utah at Fourth Street and Bryant in San Francisco that opened in July 1989, she recalled, “and we went from one night to seven nights a week in a month’s time.”
The 1990 season opened in the former Café Beano at 19th and Valencia streets with Haiku Tunnel, a piece by Josh Kornbluth—one of the performers who’ll be on stage Sunday—which, 11 years later, Weisman helped produce as a feature film.
Two moves more moves brought the crew to the not-so-Modern Times Building on Valencia with an opening performance from Merle “Ian Shoales” Kessler, another performer at Sunday’s gala. The final move came in 1992, when the ever-growing The Marsh moved into the jazz club Bajones at 1062 Valencia St., a building they bought four years later.
“When we bought, we only has the 2,500-square-foot theater space. It’s turned into 12,000 on two floors, including a 3,000-square-foot dance studio upstairs,” Weisman said. “We blossomed with each change of venue, and the space has really driven us. I really love that space.”
As the San Francisco space grew, so did the programs to fill it. Monday nights are usually reserved for Monday Night Marsh, offering works-in-progress by a variety of artists, and the Mock Café every Saturday night, featuring stand-up comedy two doors down for at 1074 Valencia St.
But public performances are just the surface. A variety of classes and workshops offer opportunities to hone a variety of theatrical chops, and Weisman’s especially delighted with the youth programs they’ve created.
The Marsh Youth Theater in San Francisco under the direction of Berkeley resident and composer Emily Klion brings together public school youth, from lower-income families, with students from the San Francisco Day School in a program that provides instruction in drama, music, both voice and instrumental, staging, costumes and other theatrical skills that climaxes in a once-a-year major show.
Other, shorter classes offer such things as “Dangling, Swinging, Flying” (trapeze work), Hip Hop dance, and, for the very young, the Itty-Bitty Theater Workshop.
Weisman launched her newest youth program last month, with the aid of grant from the Irvine Foundation.
“We’ve chosen five young artists who, over a nine-month period will be developing performances in workshops,” she said. “The program is on two tracks, the development of a show and the development of the knowledge and technology of producing a show, culminating in a festival with full length shows.”
Some of those shows will come to the Gaia Cultural Center.
The second track features a series of month-long workshops where the young artists delve into fund-raising, marketing, production, promotion, business planning and the computerized end of the business.
“At the end, they’ll know the basics of the business from beginning to end,” Weisman said, adding, “the most successful students we have are the ones who pay a great deal of attention to the business end.”
One faculty member is writer/performer/director/gifted mimic Charlie Varon—another performer at Sunday’s gala—whose works include the nationally acclaimed Rush Limbaugh in Night School.
Weisman says she’ll bring the first children’s program to Berkeley in January. As the programs grow, so do the performances.
“We’ve done an enormous amount on a small budget,” she said. “We did 500 performances last year on slightly more than $500,000. This year, we’ll probably have done 600, and that’s a lot on a budget of a half-million dollars.”
The Marsh landed at the Gaia Building after Weisman told Berkeley composer Ellen Hoffman, who’s collaborating with her on an opera, about her wish to grow.
“She’s friends with Anna DeLeon,” the proprietor of Anna’s Jazz Island, the first performance venue to open in the Gaia Building, which was allowed to exceed downtown height standards in part because developer promised to set aside a floor for cultural uses to qualify for a city “cultural arts space” bonus.
“Ellen said there was space in the Gaia Building,” Weisman recalled, “and I said, ‘Why don’t we make it The Marsh?’”
And because Berkeley’s closer to her Oakland home than The Marsh’s San Francisco facility, it’s a shorter commute to Weisman.
“I’m thrilled to have an East Bay space,” she said.
Sunday’s Gaia Gala, 2-6 p.m., in the Gaia Cultural Center on the first floor of the Gaia Building, 2120 Allston Way, features an hors d’oeuvres and wine reception and performances by Joshua Brody, Brian Copeland, Josh Kornbluth, Jeff Greenwald, Lunatique Fanstastique, Merle “Ian Shoales” Kessler, Rebecca Fisher and Charlie Varon. Tickets are $25 and are available by phone at (800) 838-3006 or through the website: