Company Spotlight: TheatreFirst
Friday, August 12, 2016
By Sam Hurwitt
Rarely has one little email had so much impact. On April 21, the longtime East Bay company TheatreFirst sent out a press release to announce its 23rd season. In the process, the company also announced its new artistic director, the provocatively innovative up-and-coming director Jon Tracy. It also announced a completely new mission: TheatreFirst would switch to a developmental residency model, producing only new work.
|From L to R, beginning in top row: Lauren Gunderson, Chinaka Hodge, Evren Odcikin, Adrienne Walters, Jeffrey Lo, Oona Hatton, Taylor Korobrow, Cleavon Smith, Stephanie Prentice, Reggie D. White, Maryam Obaidullah Baig, Rob Dario, Kim Tran and Bridgette Loriaux. Photo: Courtesy of TheatreFirst
The new season is refreshingly diverse, with an emphasis on multicultural voices. Kicking it off in October is Bagyó, a Southeast Asian riff on The Tempest, written by Rob Dario and directed by Bridgette Loriaux, with dramaturgy by Kim Tran. November brings VS., a Revolutionary War folk operetta about Colonel Tye, a black man who escaped slavery and enlisted to fight the British against the colonists who had enslaved him. Playwright Cleavon Smith teams up with composers Stephanie Prentice and Reggie White, dramaturg Maryam Obaidullah Baig and director Rotimi Agbabiaka for that one.
In February is Beneath the Tall Tree, a drama about a Japanese American Palo Alto family sent to a World War II internment camp written by Adrienne Walters and Jeffrey Lo, with dramaturgy by Oona Hatton and direction by Taylor Korobow. The season wraps up in May with HeLa, a play by Lauren Gunderson about Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman who unknowingly provided the first immortal cells in medical research. Evren Odcikin directs, with Chinaka Hodge as dramaturg.
The shortage of the white male plays that make up the majority of most theatre seasons was certainly no accident. One thing not mentioned in the press release was the company’s new commitment to ensuring that all aspects of the company, from the board to the creative teams, would comprise at least 50 percent women and two-thirds people of color.
“We’ve got to get past ‘diversity,’ because the phrase still centralizes the white male. ‘People of color’ still centralizes the white male,” says Tracy. “One thing we saw was that yeah, there are more persons of color on stages, but if you really start breaking that down, you’re seeing more persons of color supporting white stories. Now, don’t get me wrong; I think there’s a really great conversation about how classics can be looked at from many different lenses. But when I look at some contemporary work, and I go, ‘Hey, there are nine people in that show: five are people of color, and the four are starring in it—it’s their driven arc and the other five are supporting that,’ I’m not sure that is actually creating more diversity. That question led to the next question: how do you centralize those voices? That’s why we became an all-development company.”
This move in itself was electrifying to a lot of artists who felt numbed by having the same discussion about diversifying theatre over and over again. “We’re going to be doing what everyone says they want to do, but won’t,” Odcikin says. “That’s why there’s such goodwill, and all these artists are jumping and saying ‘yes.’ This company is actually doing the thing. It’s not talking about doing the thing, it’s not having meetings about doing the thing, it’s not hiring a consultant to tell them how to do the thing—it’s just doing the damn thing. And people are showing up.”
“And not every company has to do it,” adds actor and educator Michael Torres, a new TheatreFirst board member. “I don’t think anybody’s condemning anyone who doesn’t want to do it.”
“Yeah!” agrees Odcikin. “That’s fine too. Just say it, though. ‘I am not interested in this.’”
In addition to people excited by the shift, Tracy has received a surprising amount of hate mail and nasty comments from people who “don’t want to see ethnic plays” or believe that bringing more women and nonwhite voices somehow equates to blacklisting white men.
“Just because Hamilton won a bunch of Tonys doesn’t mean Sam Gold isn’t working any more,” Odcikin observes. “This idea of creating spaces for people of color, artists of color, transgender people, people who have been pushed to the sidelines for whatever reason—whenever you try to create space for them or allow them to take the center roles, there’s a sort of fear around that from people have never been not welcome in the room. But those of us here have been not in rooms a great deal. This is something we get trained for as artists of color, audiences of color, women, or just human beings in the world, and it’s time for some other people to get trained in that.”
For Tracy, decentralizing the white male also means decentralizing himself as artistic director. Even discussing the company is something he prefers to do as part of a group discussion rather than speaking for it himself, and he says one thing he looks for in collaborators and new board members is people who are going to argue with him.
“When I started thinking about what TheatreFirst might look like, I had these weird phrases stuck in my head,” Tracy says. “‘I want to have a space where we give people voice.’ Well, that’s bullshit—people have a voice already. ‘Well, I’m going to carve out a space for that voice.’ Well, people can carve out their own damn space. Sooner or later, I got to this idea that seems so simple, but it took all of that learning to go, my job is to get out of the way!”
TheatreFirst’s mission has changed a few times over the years. The company founded by British actor Clive Chafer (a former Cal Shakes mainstay) in 1994 with a focus on bringing more international theatre to the Bay Area—plays from abroad (many from the UK) that had never been produced before in the Bay Area.
Although HeLa will be Odcikin’s first time directing a TheatreFirst show, he worked with the company back in the original Chafer era. “If you don’t count light board operating for Impact Theatre as a replacement light board op two days after I landed in San Francisco, it was my first gig. I assisted Clive Chafer on Map of the World. TheatreFirst gave me my first few gigs—assisting, directing readings, workshops. I was interested in them at that time because they were interested in international work. That was part of their mission. I’m an immigrant, so I was surprised and happy to find a space for that.”
After Chafer decided to retire from the company in 2008, there was a tumultuous period in 2008 that involved a new space falling through, a new artistic director and managing director being appointed and stepping down within a few months, and Chafer taking up the helm again on an interim basis.
In 2009, longtime local actor and director Michael Storm took over as artistic director. From the very first show of Storm’s tenure, a production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times in the space that’s now the Marsh Berkeley, the company’s fare shifted away from new-to-the-Bay international works to popular plays (Oleanna, Anton in Show Business, Glengarry Glen Ross) with a smattering of new work (Sharmon J. Hilfinger’s Hanging Georgia, Lauren Gunderson’s Fire Work).
Tracy first worked with TheatreFirst during the Storm era, directing The Grapes of Wrath in 2011 and Much Ado About Nothing last year. Torres first worked with the company as an actor last year Storm’s staging of Glengarry, but he remembers when Chafer was first coming up with the idea for the company. “When I got out of graduate school, it was ’92 and both he and I were in the Cal Shakes company, and he was throwing around names and talking about forming this,” Torres recalls.
After its early shows at the Berkeley City Club, the nomadic company was long characterized by a seemingly endless quest for new permanent digs, which seemed all the longer because of the this-time-for-sure announcements of home after home after home. At the time, TheatreFirst branded itself as Oakland’s theatre company, as it moved from the Julia Morgan Theater to the Oakland YWCA to Mills College to a few storefronts in downtown Oakland to Oakland School of the Arts in the Fox Theater building.
In 2012, TheatreFirst took over management of the Live Oak Theatre, which had been operated by the community theatre Actors Ensemble of Berkeley for more than 30 years. The theatre continues to host Actors Ensemble at Live Oak, in addition to other groups such as Just Theater and independent productions.
The new TheatreFirst is also examining how best to make use of the venue. “We have this space and we’re trying to create what initiatives can happen in there,” Tracy says. “We already have Blank Space, which is our initiative to open up the space to artists for nonmonetized development work for free; our TAP program, the TheatreFirst Accelerator Project, which is our development space; T1 Presents, which is looking at shifting from being a rental spot to curated programming. We’re not only excited about sticking with the theatre companies that use this space, but we’ve been talking with African-American Shakes, we’ve been talking with SF Playhouse about things of theirs that want to move over here next after they end their runs. I see us as not so much a theatre company as hopefully a hub between them.”
One thing Tracy really doesn’t want is for TheatreFirst’s new mission to be something that sets the company apart from the rest of the theatre community. They’re freely borrowing ideas about best practices from other companies and hope others will just as freely borrow theirs.
“Some have been feeling that what we’re doing is somehow a condemnation of their practices,” Tracy says. “But it’s really an invitation. We have a malleability that you may not even see that you may have, because you’ve got this infrastructure around it. So support us. We can be a model that we can all extract data from. We can all look at this together. We don’t want to be insular. We’re a blank canvas and we’re going through drafts right now.”
Sam Hurwitt is the author of The Idiolect, a blog about theatre, movies, comics, media and the decline and fall of Western civilization.