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TBA Online: News & Features: January 2016

A Sense of Place: Berkeley Rep's Peet's Theatre

Friday, January 8, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Brueckner
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By Laura Brueckner

Berkeley Rep's newly renovated Peet's Theatre. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs


A little after 10 o’clock yesterday morning, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s courtyard started to fill up with theatre folk—well-known actors, artistic directors, board members, donors, and other well-wishers—all gathering for the ribbon-cutting of the newly christened Peet’s Theatre. Despite prognostications of wet weather, miraculously blue skies allowed attendees to roam around and chat, many if not most clutching cups of complimentary Peet’s coffee from the Rep’s bar. At 10:30 a.m., the house doors were opened, and visitors got to take their first look at what they were really there to see: the results of nine months’ worth of architectural, technological, and aesthetic improvements to Berkeley Rep’s signature space, the Thrust Stage.

Visitors take in the new lobby. Photo: Laura Brueckner
What they saw was, to be honest, not very different than before, in terms of obvious alterations to the building. During his address to the audience that filled nearly all of the theatre’s 400 seats, artistic director Tony Taccone joked that, in some ways, hosting this “grand opening” was like “inviting people over to your house after doing some work on the foundations.” The renovations, which had left the original contours of the Thrust Stage and house largely unaltered, had focused instead on the less visible work needed to “bring the theatre into the 21st Century,” as Taccone said—improving the experience that it affords to both audiences and the theatre-makers who come to the Rep to develop and share their artistry.

To that end, the Rep’s Peet's Theatre now boasts a new box office, as well as improvements to the building’s heating and ventilation systems, energy-efficient lighting and plumbing, refurbished audience seating and lobby, and new ADA-accessible and gender-neutral restrooms—not to mention a full electrical upgrade and control booth, complete with new lighting dimmer racks.

Peet's Theatre interior. Photo: Laura Brueckner


The jewel in the crown was clearly the brand-new, deliberately unobtrusive, top-of-the-line Constellation sound system installed by Meyer Sound—an upgrade that will benefit the Rep’s sound designers and technicians every bit as much as the audiences who enjoy their work. With 85 speakers and 24 onstage microphones, the Constellation is able to not only play recorded sound and amplify live sound, but capture live sound, process or distort it, and play it back in realtime, allowing the sound gurus in the booth new levels (no pun intended) of creative flexibility.

Another capability of the system was described by Meyer Sound executive vice president Helen Meyer as “invisible architecture.” Demonstrating what this means, she and Berkeley Rep managing director Susie Medak performed a brief skit; walking across the virtually bare stage, they pretended to travel to different Bay Area locations. At Medak’s prompting, they began at “the Peet’s Coffee on Vine Street,” then decided to “take BART” to Grace Cathedral. As they progressed, the Constellation allowed the Rep’s sound techs to shift the “room tone,” live, to reproduce each of these vastly different sonic environments in turn. The effect was startling, with the sound creating a clear impression of not only the size and type of each space, but even a sense of its shape and building materials. Invisible architecture, for sure.

Helen Meyer and Susie Medak shield themselves from an invisible downpour of very convincing-sounding "rain," courtesy of the new Meyer Constellation sound system. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs 


Medak’s line about heading to “the Peet’s Coffee on Vine Street” raised a chuckle from those in the audience steeped in Berkeley culture. But the idea of “place”—the understanding that people bond deeply to spaces that are important to them—resonated throughout the event in a number of ways. Helen Meyer, for instance, has served on Berkeley Rep’s board for 18 years; Peet’s Coffee, according to CEO Dave Burwick, ran its very first print ad in a Berkeley Rep show program in 1969. The coffee being served to patrons at that show? Peet’s. And Mayor Tom Bates jokingly referred to “dark days” in the past when it looked like the Rep would relocate elsewhere, perhaps even to...Oakland (gasp!). Ribbing aside, his point was that Berkeley Rep was an important place, and where it was located mattered to him.

This sense of place was most concretely evident, of course, in the Peet’s Theatre stage itself. Its original architect, the late Gene Angell—who also designed sets for the fledgling company—took the unique lines of the Rep’s very first commercial venue at 2980 College Avenue, circa 1968, and incorporated them into the design of the Thrust Stage on Addison Street in 1980. This was great, Taccone joked, because it meant that audiences following the company to its new downtown home were “only slightly freaked out” by what they found there. And when it came time to renovate the 35-year-old building housing the Thrust—which by that time, according to Medak, resembled “a lady who’s been well loved and ridden hard”—the company's leadership decided to preserve its odd, difficult, fascinating lines because, as Medak said, they realized that Angell had “designed something we really loved.”

So, while the box office is vastly different, and the seats in the house much softer, the Peet’s Theatre retains its strange and intimate thrust stage, as those who attend the public grand opening tomorrow will discover. Those who get to catch the demonstration of the new Constellation sound system, however, may find themselves slightly freaked out, in a very good way.

The grand opening of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre will be held Saturday, Jan. 9 from noon to 3 p.m. Details at