Every month, we explore the histories (and mysteries) of the Bay Area’s theatre buildings. This month, playwright and poet Arisa White tells us about the Ashby Stage, and how a former church is still providing religious experiences.
The Ashby Stage
by Arisa White
If you ever walked out of a theatre after experiencing a show that aroused strong emotion, made you feel connected and uplifted, purposeful even, refreshed—you’ve been taken to church! And if you’ve gone to The Ashby Stage, located in the Ashby Arts District in South Berkeley, you have literally walked into sacred space. 1901 Ashby Avenue has been the site for churches for close to 100 years.
Laying of a cornerstone of a Lutheran church, at Mason Street (now Ashby Avenue)
and Grove Street (Now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way). November 17, 1901.
Photo: Courtesy of Bob Stein, Berkeley Historical Society
According to the Polk’s Oakland City Directory, dated 1927, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church was led by Reverend Water Baumhoefener, and serviced the predominantly German and Scandinavian immigrants who lived in the South Berkeley neighborhood, then called the Lorin Streetcar District. “A majority of the German and Scandinavian people who lived in Lorin were craftsmen and most likely built the churches in which they worshipped,” says a volunteer docent at the Berkeley Historical Society.
In the mid-1950s the property was taken over by the Church of Christ to serve the South Berkeley community. In 2000 the South Berkeley and San Pablo Avenue congregations merged, leaving the 1901 Ashby Avenue available for purchase.
South Berkeley Church of Christ.
Photo: Courtesy of Louis Stein, Berkeley Historical Society
Enter Tom Clyde and Coley Lally, founders of Transparent Theater, for what sounds like the quintessential beginning to a spiritual journey: Clyde and Lally, beneath a plum tree in Lally’s backyard, have a clincher conversation that makes their longtime fantasy of opening a theatre a reality. And so it is.
With a significant chunk of Clyde’s savings, in December 2000, the 5,000 square foot, two-story building was converted from religious use to a theatre. “It even had a murky baptismal pool off at what is now stage left—I still remember the pair of rubber wading boots next to it,” Clyde says, recalling the church before it was reconfigured.
Designed and remodeled by local architect Donn Logan, who also did Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre and the Freight and Salvage, some pews were removed to make room for the stage, others raised for rows of 150 seats. No structural changes were made to the minister’s office that became a dressing room; the second floor stayed in its current configuration and became theatre offices and a rehearsal area. Skylights were installed that provided more ventilation; the dramatic arches maintained. “So many people played a part. And every one of those first productions presented an opportunity to discover new possibilities for staging plays in that space,” says Clyde.
Transparent Theater exterior, 2004.
Entering into the experiences of others creates the ground for appreciating the moral quality of all people, is the third principle of Transparent Theater. The company’s 2001-02 inaugural season opened with August Strindberg’s play “Swanwhite,” directed by Tom Clyde, followed by “Brave Brood,” “The Golden State,” “What Cats Know” and for the next three years, offered audiences an opportunity to enter “into the distinct and irreducible experiences of others.”
In the fall of 2004, the nomadic troupe of thespians, the Shotgun Players, directed by Patrick Dooley, found their new home in the former Transparent Theater, which they renamed The Ashby Stage. With the generous support of Dooley’s mom, Kitty, who mortgaged her farmhouse to purchase the property for $1.5 million, they signed a 30-year, triple net lease. They updated the theatre with air conditioning, cushions for the pews, and a fancy marquee for the front.
The Ashby Stage, 2012.
Photo: Courtesy of Shotgun Players
As a theatre, 1901 Ashby Avenue is still a place of worship, of what amuses, inspires us—art that allows us to assemble, sort out what is happening around us, and maybe be moved to say, “Oh my God.”
Arisa White is a playwright and award-winning poet living in Oakland. Visit arisawhite.com.
The set for the 2008 Shotgun Players/Banana Bag & Bodice coproduction of “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage” at the Ashby Stage.
Photo: Courtesy of Shotgun Players