Arts Listings

TheatreFIRST Struggles to Survive in Oakland Arts District

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 01, 2007

TheatreFIRST, Oakland’s only resident theater company, will perform the West Coast premiere of John Arden’s 1959 antiwar masterpiece, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, opening this Friday at 8 p.m., and running through May 27 at the Old Oakland Theatre, 481 Ninth St., just north of Broadway. 

Meanwhile, TheatreFIRST has also been waging a war of its own, one of survival, with what is perhaps its most challenging season artistically being matched by the greatest financial and logistical challenges in its 13-year history. 

Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance is “a very colorful, theatrical play,” according to Clive Chafer, director and founder of the company. “It’s about four soldiers on a recruiting mission during a war fought far from their home country, but it’s a recruiting mission with a different purpose: to shock the people of a town that’s in the grip of a miners’ strike into understanding the true nature of war.” 

There will be music and dancing, and the entire cast of 13 appears onstage during one scene in the storefront theater, “not the quiet psychological drama you’d expect in an intimate theater space! The actors directly address the audience, invite them to take sides, become passionately involved. It’s sometimes very funny, always appalling, and it slowly sucks you in—a fully engaged and engaging experience.” 

Chafer continued: “What I love about the play is its language—gritty, loamy, earthy, but never crude. British critic Michael Billingsley called it ‘language that seems hewn out of granite.’ I love to hear it spoken. And it’s the opposite of an academic discussion or a didactic tract. No single voice, not even the pacificists’, prove unflawed. Arden was a fan of Brecht, suspicious of plays with a mouthpiece. His characters are strongly written. It’s a parable, but one of complexity.” 

TheatreFIRST, which recently finished an acclaimed production of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, historically the first play of intercultural and religious tolerance, with its tale of the web of relationships between Christians, Muslims and Jews, is a company that chooses unusual plays with a social dimension, staging them with proficiency and élan. But a combination of events has challenged their resourcefulness—not artistically, but in terms of finance and their tenure in the declared Arts District in downtown Oakland, from 3rd to 21st streets along the Broadway corridor. 

“We want to stay, to be a part of the neighborhood,” said Chafer. “It’s close to BART, well-lit, with a parking lot and six restaurants of a full range in price and cuisine. We committed seven years ago to being a full-time Oakland company. And we’ve been lucky so far and gratified by the support of both individuals and the city.” 

But an obstacle has arisen, “more a bureaucratic problem than anything else. The City of Oakland won’t be able to fund us for the next year—one program ends, and we don’t qualify for the next for a year. It’s been our biggest source of funding for quite a while. And we’re told they want us to stay, to fund us again. This comes at a time when we’re playing in the only unleased space in Old Oakland. Our landlords have been kind enough to let us occupy a storefront for less than the commercial rate, but the increased retail development in the area has made it hard. We need an influx of funds and a lease before we can announce a full season, with more shows than before. We need increased support, from the NEA down to local business.” 

But Chafer’s upbeat, noting progress: “Nathan the Wise was our best-attended play in 11 years, since we did Anything To Declare, a French farce at the Julia Morgan Center—and that had 400 seats, compared with the 75 we have in Old Oakland. We sold out more than half the performances! And people have stepped forward to help. It’s entirely individuals who have contributed to our next season, starting next fall. We know we’re on the right track, doing what people want to see.”  




Presented by TheatreFIRST at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through May 27. $18-$25. Old Oakland Theatre, 481 Ninth St., just north of Broadway.436-5085 or