The downtown arts district on Berkeley’s Addison Street, with anchors Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Aurora Theatre, utterly reflects Berkeley’s enjoyment of the arts. And though Berkeley Rep’s productions have received national attention for their high caliber, the company isn’t just a home for some of the best theatre artists around. It’s also a home to active Bay Area teens interested in theatre. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Teen Council deserves applause. This month you can see them at their rehearsed best, presenting the second annual Teen Council One-Acts Festival, March 20 and 21 on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage.
The Teen Council meets year-round at The Nevo Education Center on Addison Street, just next door to Berkeley Rep’s two-theatre complex. The center opened in 2000 as home to the then–newly founded Berkeley Rep School of Theatre. Berkeley Rep set out to create a school that mirrors the mission of its theatre company, where students will stretch their imaginations, discover their creative potential and understand the commitment necessary for artistic excellence. To truly accomplish its mission, the school must be meaningful to both the community and the theatre itself. The only way do that was to fling the doors wide open and invite everyone inside to play. The Berkeley Rep Teen Council, a youth theatre group organized by teens for teens, began almost immediately.
Now in its second year, the Teen Council continues to accomplish its remarkable goal: to foster the theatre audiences and professionals of tomorrow by opening channels of communication between teens, theatre professionals and the community at large. The Council (free of charge) is open to teens from throughout the Bay Area, and participants are involved in every aspect of making theatre through an affiliation with Berkeley Rep. The School of Theatre’s director, Rachel Fink, is an ideal creator and facilitator for the Teen Council. Still in her late 20s, Fink’s energy and vision keep perfect time with these teens.
Rachel Lee, a founding member of the Teen Council and producer of the One-Acts Festival, realizes that her working relationship with the Berkeley Rep staff has had a profound impact on her life and will influence her future. If you’ve got role models, thought Lee, why wait? Emulate. Lessons learned from Berkeley Rep staff members are never far from Lee’s mind with regards to her artistic and administrative responsibilities as producer of the One-Acts Festival—or when taking on other positions of leadership. Lee, a senior at College Preparatory School in Oakland, inspired by the Teen Council and the connections she’d made with other students, engineered a joint senior project this year, a coproduction between her school and Head-Royce High School.
“The One-Acts Festival is the most ambitious project we do all year,” Lee says. It begins by offering all Bay Area teens an opportunity to enter an original one-act script in the Teen Council Playwriting Contest. The theme for this year’s festival is “A Family Affair,” though the contest guidelines encouraged playwrights to use this phrase as a catalyst for writing, rather than a limitation. Out of the 15 plays entered, four playwrights’ scripts were selected as finalists by the Teen Council to go on to the workshop phase of the contest: “The Living Room” by Gabe Crane of Berkeley,”How I Learned to Make Things Disappear” by Micki Baron of San Francisco, “The Living Degas” by Jesse Brownstein of San Rafael and “The Life and Trials of Lucifer” by Salvador Ramos of Oakland. After the workshop, say the contest guidelines, two of these plays will be selected for production in the One-Acts Festival.
Each of these plays illustrates the individuality and self-expression of its author and takes pains to convey a form and style, color and tone that is specific, honest, thoughtful and mature without worrying too much about being “grown up.”
After selecting the plays for the workshop, the contest committee interviewed teens eager to pitch themselves as directors. Actors for the workshop were assigned their roles. All of the playwriting finalists, the directors and casts attended two daylong workshops on consecutive weekends in December led by noted professional director Kent Nicholson.
The afternoon of the first workshop, Nicholson effortlessly guided the group’s discussion toward nailing down a list of the essential elements of a great play. Purposefully bypassing every opportunity to give advice or make a value judgment, Nicholson wrote each element a teenager suggested on a dry-erase board. Once it was filled with more than 30 possibilities, Nicholson said, “Now let’s cut it down to six elements that are essential.” Tone, pace, thought, emotions and action were among the suggested elements that didn’t make the cut. The ideas behind those suggestions, however, were all represented in the final list: plot, conflict, character, dialogue, themes and setting.
Next, the discussion encompassed the play’s development process and how a workshop can best lead a play toward a finished script and successful first production. The group began to crackle with contributions and rebuttals. “It’s a playwright-centered process.” “Yes, but the director is in charge.” “No, the producer is in charge. That is the person who brought it all together in the first place.” Nicholson brought about consensus with an admittedly oversimplified, “It’s about the director’s vision and the writer’s voice.”
The group was charged with a collective sense that “We all know this process, we love it and we’re here to do it together.” They were primed to hear a few of the touchstones that Nicholson uses during his own process of developing a new play:
“It is dangerous for either the director or the playwright to say, ‘I know this play better than you do.’”
“Look at a workshop on a play as being text-based work.”
“A play isn’t a play until it has gone through the process of being mounted in production.”
“Never kick a playwright out of the room.”
“A director should never give up on a moment until the playwright does.”
“The difference between a good writer and a great writer is a great writer always has ‘one last thing’ they want to change.”
There was also plenty of time to workshop the plays with readings, discussions and rewrites. Ultimately, the Teen Council decided to mount three of the plays for the Festival, rather than two as they’d initially intended. “Although we liked all four plays,” says Lee, “no two plays worked well as a double bill. It’s making it more complicated to produce, but the One-Act Festival will be a more satisfying blend of comedy and drama with these three plays.”
The selected plays are Baron’s “How I Learned to Make Things Disappear,” directed by Shoshana Resnikoff of Berkeley High School; Crane’s “The Living Room,” directed by Sean Barry of Berkeley High School; and Ramos’s “The Life and Trials of Lucifer,” directed by Boomer Hurwitz of Berkeley High School.
For many of these young playwrights and directors, this is their first time at bat. “It sounds clichéd,” says Hurwitz, “but I always thought I’d make a good director.”
A founding member of the Teen Council, Hurwitz hopes this will be the first in a long list of directing credits. A junior at Berkeley High School with a shock of bleached blond hair and a house key around his neck, Boomer already has his eye on his next directing gig. He hopes that directing for the Teen Council now will help prepare him for a directing slot “reserved for seniors” in the Independent Theatre Projects (ITP) One-Acts Festival next year.
The Teen Council, though driven by teen participants, is undeniably still a program run by Berkeley Rep. The ITP, however, has been run solely by Berkeley High School students for the past nine years but is utterly independent from the high school financially and programmatically. ITP participants who join the Teen Council, therefore, bring with them a fierce sense of ownership with regards to the theatre they make, and that is truly an asset to the member-driven Teen Council.
Hurwitz is not the only one grateful to those two programs, but so is playwright Ramos. “I already knew Boomer from the Teen Council, but having seen him act in both of the group’s One-Act Festivals last year, I’m more comfortable trusting him now for our first time out as director and playwright.”
When Ramos first submitted his script, a project from a playwriting course at Head-Royce High School, he knew that his play was still unfinished and would benefit from the development process the Teen Council had to offer. “The discussions have helped me to not only ‘fill in the blanks,’ but to write some substantial additions to the script,” says Ramos. “And the readings helped me hear my own timing and taught me ways to convey timing through the script to the director and the cast. Also, the fact that I can put God and Jesus on the Berkeley Rep stage is just amazing.”
Being active in the Teen Council also has its rewards, not the least of which is learning the lessons of the One-Acts Festival. Playwright Crane, of the Teen Council’s flagship project, says, “The One-Acts are open to all teenagers. That’s exciting to me, because it brings people who love theatre together from schools all over. It’s cross-pollinating between the Bay Area’s high schools.”
Rachel Lee directed one of the plays for last year’s festival and was mentored by director Mein-Ann Teo, artistic intern to Tony Taccone. “It gave me lots of ideas about the relationship with the playwright and what it really takes to get the plays onstage,” says Lee. “That experience as a director is very important to me now as the producer.”
When the program began two years ago, there was some initial trepidation among the Berkeley Rep staff about bringing the Teen Council into the fold so completely. The teens themselves may have wondered, What on earth are we supposed to be doing here at Berkeley Rep? But now, Fink says, “Everyone is just so eager to get involved.” Continuing to attract these teens will certainly help ensure the next generation of theatre lovers and theatre artists.
The Teen Council One-Act Festival
March 20, 8 p.m. & March 21, 2 p.m.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley.
Tickets are $5 students, $10 adults.
Call (510) 647-2971, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.