TheatreFIRST is celebrating their 15th anniversary with a fete for supporters, 7 p.m. Saturday at Chapel of the Chimes on Piedmont Avenue with a staged reading and Paul Bregman’s piano music, special guests including performers Dana Kelly, Wanda McCaddon, Sandra Schlechter and Simon Vance, with co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus Clive Chafer and TheatreFIRST’s new artistic and producing team, Dylan Russell and Allison Studdiford.
The company had announced at the end of August that Chafer would be stepping down while negotiations were still in progress for a home performing base for TheatreFIRST near the Paramount Theatre, an effort that now seems exhausted. The company is continuing the search for a permanent theater in Oakland, where in recent years they were the only resident troupe with a season program.
Dylan Russell, longtime Bay Area freelance director, staged World Music for TheatreFIRST two years ago, and this year’s successful Future Me, by British playwright Stephen Brown, last spring at the Berkeley City Club. Allison Studdiford, a founding member of the company, has been a Bay Area actor for over 25 years, Future Me being her most recent TheatreFIRST show.
Clive Chafer recalled the history of the company and his involvement. Chafer, who came from the London area to UC Berkeley for the MBA program, “then found it was not my calling,” trained as an actor with the Drama School of London in Berkeley, “having thought I was going back to England and could transfer my credits.” But he stayed on, thinking “why go back and be one among so many others,” working as an actor locally (Berkeley Shakespeare Festival and Cal Shakes) as well as regionally (American Players in Wisconsin, Utah Shakespeare Festival) for a decade.
“I came back to the Bay Area at one point,” Chafer said, “and realized I didn’t see in this very cosmopolitan area of an insular country the kind of international theater I was used to as an audience member in Britain. The population here at all levels was highly diverse, many being people like myself who had come for an education and stayed, or for work opportunities. There was a need to address multiculturalism, but in a more outward-looking sense, not just the cultures as represented in the Bay Area.”
Inviting 12 theater artists to cofound a collective, the company began to produce in 1994. It grew to 18 members, “from the start insisting on high artistic standards within a restricted budget, staging plays having political or social interest with an international perspective.” During the first six years, four of them at the Julia Morgan Center, the company worked play to play, without a season program.
They began their local “peregrinations,” never resident for more than two years at a time, at one point going dark for two years, then invited to Mills College in 2005 for a year residency, during which they found that, though their subscriptions increased, their ticket sales dropped. “We had been victims of the dotcom years,” Chafer said, “when any space right for a company like us was also suitable for a start-up, at a time of 1 percent commercial vacancy in the Bay Area.” After that peaked, they produced in storefronts in Old Oakland. “But as new tenants came in, we found theater didn’t fit in with development plans.”
The troupe has always been based in Oakland, where Chafer has lived over 20 years. Chafer commenting that he was “passing on the reins at this time ... after wearing every hat in the closet. The company has been almost completely identified with my artistic vision—not a healthy basis for a theater that wants to become a permanent part of the community.” He remains on the board, an enthusiastic advocate.
TheatreFIRST and fete info: 436-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org.