Arts & Events

Julia Morgan Center, Berkeley Playhouse Merge

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:40:00 AM

The Julia Morgan Center on College Avenue and the Berkeley Playhouse have announced their merger as the Julia Morgan Young People’s Performing Arts Center.  

Current residents Berkeley Ballet Theater and Heart’s Leap Preschool are expected to continue at the center, and shows by performing troupes such as Youth Musical Theatre Company and Active Arts for Young Audiences, as well as other companies not specializing in children’s, youth and family theater, are also being encouraged to continue producing onstage there, according to Jerry Foust, formerly general director for Berkeley Playhouse, now managing director for the new joint entity.  

Foust said a new board of directors for the combined organizations will be announced soon. 

Meanwhile, Berkeley Playhouse is set to open its summer production of Peter Pan at the Ashby Stage this weekend, with some performances already sold out. On Tuesday, a remarkable 1,300 tickets had been sold in advance.  

Foust said 18 young acting interns would be included in the ensemble, along with the professional adult cast, and the show would restore the importance of the animal characters of Neverland from the original J. M. Barrie play, obscured in the Broadway musical version. Trapeze artists from Studio 12 in West Berkeley have served as consultants and trainers for both youth and adult actors, emphasizing aerial dance, “not the traditional flying associated with Cathy Rigby or Mary Martin in the role.” 

Youth Musical Theater Company is set to stage Les Miserables July 25–Aug. 2 at the center, and Stage Door Conservatory/Teens On Stage come in with Grease Aug. 7–9. 

“When the Choate family moved here 10 years ago,” Foust said, “the Julia Morgan Center was in financial trouble. They fulfilled a dream, got the center back into financial shape and started educational programs. For the past couple of years, Berkeley Playhouse has shared office space and resources. The advisors for the board we recruited for the Playhouse felt we needed to give the building an identity, as a place where young people can come. We’d like to add to our residents and renters—more music, for instance, like a children’s choir or a youth orchestra. And we’ve been working together with our regular renters during the transition. It’s been very open, very positive.” 

The new directorship will have a budget of nearly $1 million, Foust said—and plans are being laid for improvements to the century-old building, originally built by its famous namesake architect for St. John’s Presbyterian Church on a budget of $2 per square foot. New sound and lighting equipment are high on the list. 

Berkeley Playhouse, founded in 2007 by current artistic director Elizabeth McKoy, formerly on the faculty at Seattle Children’s Theatre and educational director for the Julia Morgan Center, “started out performing in a living room,” said Foust. Tickets for the Playhouse Summer Youth Company shows of Adventures in Terraleavferia (an original “environmental musical fantasy” by Playhouse musical director Phil Gorman and Lila Tschappat), the junior show on Aug. 7–8, and the teen show of Urinetown, the Musical are now on sale. 

“It’s been great to see parents walking with their family from the neighborhood to see the shows,” Foust said. “We hope to offer parking arrangements for season subscribers soon.” 

The Julia Morgan Center with the Berkeley Playhouse plans three mainstage shows and five youth shows for next season. “The Wizard of Oz will be in late fall, Singin’ in the Rain late winter, and next spring, Oliver! The Youth Company performances will include Godspell and Aladdin, one weekend each in winter, and our summer performance camps will feature Barnum and Pippin a year from now.” 

The Playhouse boasts four programs: a professional company, a youth company, an outreach program (“professional artists going into the schools, bringing the kids to the theater”) and a conservatory. “We have kids in all the shows, even in the professional company’s shows, as acting interns,” Foust noted. “They’re a crucial part of the ensemble, learning and acting alongside the professional actors. Elizabeth’s philosophy is that education is at the heart of everything.” 

“Now we have to figure out how to brand this!” Foust also said the Julia Morgan Center is planning to celebrate the building’s centennial next year. 

“Together, this is a great opportunity to expand our reach, to serve more families, children and schools in the East Bay,” said Julia Morgan Board President Tim Choate. “And this core of programs will give the Julia Morgan a true identity and niche in the community.”