Arts Listings

The Noodle Factory: A Place for Artists in West Oakland

By Ken Bullock, Special to The Planet
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 10:19:00 AM

Oakland, which saw its only remaining resident theater company, TheatreFirst, compelled to leave its Old Town storefront stage a year ago, last week witnessed introductory tours led by the Northern California Land Trust for a dual-purpose project, live-work studios and performing arts venue.  

Designed to address the problem of rapidly shrinking and unaffordable working, rehearsal and performing space for independent artists and artesans in the East Bay, the Oakland Noodle Factory, at 26th Street and Union, on the fringe of the West Oakland industrial district, opened its doorways—or the plastic curtains covering them—to prospective buyers and renters of rehearsal and performing space. 

“We’re trying to create opportunities for artists already living in West Oakland,” said Ingrid Jacobson, the Land Trust’s Housing and Solar project manager, “as well as to enrich an existing neighborhood, rather than just ‘developing’ it. 

“With assistance from the City of Oakland and different layers of financing,” Jacobson continued, “depending on the units, an artist making $27,000 with $10,000 down can afford to buy. And there’s low-priced rehearsal and performance space onsite. Affordable housing is one thing—this opportunity for home ownership for low-income people takes it one step further.” 

“Many of us on the staff and board of the Land Trust are working artists,” said Executive Director Ian Winters, himself a visual and performance artist and cofounder of Oakland’s Milk Bar. “And everybody’s lost lofts at least once, and performance spaces, and known many others who have lost both during a time when an astoundingly high percentage of the Bay Area’s cultural space has gone. We all have a list of friends who have said, ‘It’s almost cheaper to live in New York.’” 

The previous owner of the Noodle Factory, after a number of local property management firms, “was an organizer of the Black Rock Arts Foundation of Burning Man fame, who found the Noodle Factory about 10 years ago,” Winters said. 

He said it was “occupied in a quasi-legal fashion, like many other such properties have been—somebody paying somebody else rent—by someone who had the idea of turning it into a combination of a performance venue and live-work spaces. But she was in a funny position, realizing the technical complexity of upgrading the property, bringing it up to code compliance, retrofit ...  

“Rather than putting it on the open market and having it end up as market-rate lofts, she decided to find an organization willing to take it on as a project.” 

At the time, the Land Trust was working on the acquisition of an old church for a similar project, on the corner of Shattuck and Woolsey, “on the Berkeley-Oakland line, with entitlements to both; there was no way to resolve the parking issues,” Winters said. 

The Land Trust negotiated whether to take on the Noodle Factory, while lining up redevelopment funding. It acquired the property in late 2005, with exploratory demolition in June 2006 and construction beginning in December that year. 

“It was a huge fund-raising process for legalizing the space,” said Winters. “We recycled or reclaimed all the timber and demolition materials. We would have been better advised to tear the building down. Instead, we took it down to bare framing in order to reuse a significant amount. And it’s powered 75 percent P.V. [solar electric].” 

There are 11 live-work units, nine below market rate. Total square footage of the building is 19,600 square feet. 

In the effort to make the Noodle Factory “work for a wide array of artists, and be socially as well as environmentally sustainable,” the Land Trust engaged two directors of Oakland-based theater groups to direct the performing arts venue: Maya Gurantz of Temescal Labs (nee Ten Red Hen) and Norman Gee of Oakland Public Theater. 

Gurantz, executive director of the Noodle Factory Performing Arts Center, spoke of creating programs that encouraged “small companies to do bigger work ... the nomadic theater and dance troupes are where the hot stuff is ... I know what a difference it makes when you build your set—and can leave it where you perform.”  

Gee, the Performing Arts Center’s programming director, said, “We want to take advantage of the flexibilty given to us by the Land Trust, keep costs of rental down and encourage as many small performing arts groups as possible. With the mandate they’ve given us, we’re reaching out to the neighborhood. We’ve linked up with two high schools, are talking about what type of curriculum we can work together on. And through the schools, the young people, to reach their parents and neighbors. I’m planning to stage a piece for the holidays I’ve done before in the schools, a multicultural Wind in the Willows. And when neighborhood people come as our guests, we can also invite them to something they’ve never seen before. Like a butoh show—say, ‘check it out!’” 

The theater is 1,700 square feet, now adorned with Magritte-like signs for the tours: “This stairway won’t be here!” There’s 1,000 square feet of rehearsal space, and an arts cafe as well. 

“The Land Trust is our current fiscal sponsor,” said Gurantz. “We’re working on our own nonprofit status as an autonomous entity. The Trust’s board is trying to create an independent cultural resource, not control it.” 

“The Land Trust owns the land under the building in perpetuity,” Winters commented, “which ground lease ensures the space will always be used by working artists and artesans. If a group falls on hard times, we have the legal standing to step in temporarily, see it’s not lost to foreclosure.” 

As working artists as well as project directors, Gurantz will be directing this fall for Shotgun at Ashby Stage, and Winters and Gee both are working on events: Oakland Public Theater’s Richard Wright Project (his centennial is Sept. 4) and the Milk Bar’s Film Festival, with commissioned works and international experimental films (Sept. 12-14)—both slated for the Noodle Factory.