When asked about their first encounter with Oakland Theater Project (OTP), early adopters are likely to recall its former name, Ubuntu Theater Project. They might describe seeing ambitious, site-specific summer festival productions held throughout Oakland—at auto-repair shops, city utility lots, abandoned churches—and the company’s radical but inclusive approach that dared to present professional and non-professional actors together on one stage in large-form ensemble works.
Founded in 2012 by Michael Moran, Ubuntu came from a Zulu proverb referencing “I am because we are,” and therefore, “my humanity is tied to yours.” Although the renaming, Moran says in an interview, was the hardest decision made in the last few years, the company never changed its progressive focus as it moved through and achieved increasingly significant milestones.
In 2016, the first year-round professional mainstage theatrical season presented six works, by playwrights Marcus Gardley, Lisa Ramirez, Shakespeare (Othello), Frank Galati (after John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath), Malta Ortiz and Katori Hall.
As the repertoire of original or reimagined works expanded and thrilled Oakland and Bay Area audiences, the company in 2019 established the Oakland Theater, a 99-seat theater at FLAX Art & Design in downtown Oakland. The performance space houses not only OTP productions, but artist training programs and new play workshops, and serves as a vital space available to other artists and theater companies in the East Bay.
Carrying the mantles of executive director and a co-artistic directorship shared with William Hodgson, Moran says priorities for 2023 are basic. “It’s execute well, fill the houses, put on quality shows, make sure our personnel are supported, do more big cast productions,” he says. “Large casts create a unique sense of community, a ‘we’ with electrical voltage that carries through onstage.”
Cast size also creates equity by presenting a larger whole, a broader demographic. Equitable representation as a goal isn’t a snap to figure out and can even be unsettling or uncomfortable in ways similar to the name change.
“Strategically, we did it because our community of artists needed to be paid more, and changing our name would get more funds,” says Moran. “Hearing Ubuntu Theatre Project, people would say, ‘What’s that?’ Now, people recognize it quicker. There was also discomfort with a white man directing a company named Ubuntu. While that is still the value here, and we have the same people, it was congruent to change the name.”
During the pandemic, Director’s Lens and Playwright Lens classes were popular and will continue, even with the return to live theater productions. In contrast, the Zoom-delivered plays in 2020 and 2021 were a necessary compromise and a huge stressor Moran will not miss.
“It felt like an approximation that worked at the time, but it lacked creative satisfaction,” he says. “There was always the technological stress of a whole different medium that was difficult to manage. I was proud of the parking lot drive-in theater we did, but I won’t miss everything riding on whether or not Zoom calls worked.”
Free to unleash the pent-up energy of roughly two years without live shows, OTP’s 2023 is composed of five works based on the theme, “History versus Hope.” Among new plays and re-mounted classics is Cabaret, the company’s first-ever musical. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff, Hodgson performs in duplicate as Clifford and the Emcee, and Moran assumes the director’s role.
“I pick plays that feel right for the moment and provide opportunities for the OTP values to find a unique take on it,” says Moran. “I was drawn to Cabaret because I’m fascinated by manifesting the latent cycles of classic plays that make us want to come back to them again and again. With the election coming up, we might be in our own cabaret. The world might indict us; who knows?
Also enticing is the practical challenge of producing a Broadway-size musical in FLAX’s very small space. “I’m excited by limitations because they offer unexpected solutions,” Moran says. “I’ll resist taking the Broadway version and reducing it. I’ll find a solution that feels immersive, edgy—and will translate as a cultural memory play. We’re at risk of forgetting history, and this play is visceral and will reveal and showcase how we might fall into dangerous ideologies and social patterns we don’t want to repeat.”
Moran also directs Edward Albee’s Tony Award-winning drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
“I had resisted producing Albee in the past in part because the premise of this play is upper-middle class,” says Moran. “At OTP, I typically prefer to start from a more blue-collar premise, but the theme around history and hope and the motif of the longed-for child made me revisit it. It centers the middle-class illusion of the child within a marriage that has been destroyed. It’s similar to the disillusionment we all feel right now. I’ll cast it in a way that looks beyond the original white middle class.”
Recognizing seismic, cultural shifts occurred after the shared trauma of the pandemic, Moran wonders if the aesthetics of theater might change and thereby cause the industry to rediscover itself.
“When we couldn’t congregate, there might have come a different sense of theater’s value and the idea that sitting together is necessary for a healthy society,” he says. “But I don’t know… we might be back to thinking of theater as luxury. If we are in new terrain, what is theater, what does it look like? If it’s a ‘business comes first’ view, then the DEI efforts everyone’s making are enough. If it’s a whole world view, with theater as a way to reflect the whole, then DEI is implicit and doesn’t even exist.”
Moran’s big dream would have theater at the center of society. OTP would have its own permanent building, a year-round season, and be “a vehicle that connects communities, a secular meeting point that recognizes our collective interdependency.” In two hours’ time, a live performance would allow people to sit side-by-side, suspend class or other status, and touch their shared humanity without pretense.
The in-person proximity of the experience is undervalued, according to Moran, but it’s the kernel of compassion from which a person—and a theater company like OTP—can do anything.