.Second Responders

How Berkeley Rep is helping to rebuild culture and provide community healing

The Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre is revving back into action in 2023 with a full season of live performances. After the pandemic shutdown halted theater activity across the country for nearly two years, managing director Tom Parrish says cultural workers are the nation’s second responders.

“Doctors, nurses, paramedics, grocery and restaurant workers; they were first responders,” says Parrish. “Now, it’s our role to re-knit the community, to remind people to get out of their homes and rebuild the community fabric.”

Is theater uniquely positioned to provide the healing and connection so desperately needed? At this company founded in 1968 that is most often referred to simply as Berkeley Rep, the answer is emphatically “yes.” 

In 2023, the artist-sourced “medicine” comes through deeply theatrical storytelling that is representative and respectful of this country’s increasingly diverse population. That means the scale and scope of the stories offer, on the most fundamental levels, masterful playwriting, direction, acting, lighting, sound, scenery and other production and artistic elements. On a higher plane, deep theatricality projects intimacy, spectacle, relevancy, challenge, affirmation, humanity and the sheer joy that comes from experiencing theater as a group.

Parrish in late January 2023 highlights two upcoming productions as examples of directions and priorities for Berkeley Rep. “There are two works that can only be fully experienced live: Cambodian Rock Band and Let the Right One In,” he says. 

Cambodian Rock Band was developed in the company’s Ground Floor new-play development program and tells the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor returning to Cambodia after a 30-year absence—during the exact moment his daughter is about to prosecute one of Cambodia’s infamous war criminals. Let the Right One In is a supernatural thriller-chiller billed as “part brutal vampire myth and part coming-of-age romance.” 

Parrish says, “Collectively, they have humor, music and movement. The work we’ve been producing like these expands the boundaries beyond a simple play. They fire on so many cylinders. One thing we learned during the pandemic is the place theater satisfies: It’s the live experience, people in 3-D, high production levels, music, dance, and creating memorable experiences people will share and carry with them.”

During the pandemic, most theaters launched alternative initiatives such as online live streaming or video-on-demand, and special add-on features including backstage interviews or script-in-hand podcast readings. With the return to live theater, Berkeley Rep, like most companies, plans to hold on to some pandemic-related programs—and is relieved to see others drop away. 

“We’re continuing to experiment with delivering educational content digitally,” says Parrish. “We’re introducing young folks in schools with full or partial access to performances. Secondly, there were Zoom discussions and ways of getting people together to discuss theater—for staff, artists and audiences—and these are things we will continue.”

As their theater doors reopen, Berkeley Rep is seeing a noticeable decline in people accessing digital opportunities to view shows. “I’m pleased we’re back in the theater again and having it confirmed that live theater is essential. We believed all along that digital streaming was not where the future is, so that was good learning that came out of COVID,” he says.

Another big push during the last three years was addressing the industry’s longtime equity, diversity, inclusion and access (DEIA) issues. Many theater organizations developed antiracist statements, established DEIA departments, and when located or performing on Indigenous land, issued land use acknowledgments. It was and remains a trend. But how do Berkeley Rep audiences know it is genuine?

“We know younger generations are the most racially diverse we’ve had to date,” Parrish says. “They care about equity, community and the world, so we make sure we create an environment that welcomes and includes all audiences.

“What’s hard in this work is to try to create cultural change in a way that some folks don’t feel excluded or that they are losing something. A lot of our work has focused on whose stories are being told, by whom, for whom?” says Parrish. “There’s also awareness of scarcity in support for the arts. That has created uneven playing fields as people scrap for survival. 

“During the pandemic, pay equity was examined carefully. How can we pay living wages, and is pay equitable across all of the people working here? How are various departments staffed in terms of racial profile, gender and age? We make sure we’re recruiting as diverse a group of prospective candidates as possible,” he says.

Berkeley Rep is by no means finished questioning itself, and most nonprofit theaters occupy especially challenging times. Parrish says audience numbers have not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels and that the season subscriber ticket base is about 70% of what it was before COVID-19. 

Expenses related to inflation, such as labor costs and sourcing artistic talent, have escalated. The changes enacted to rectify inequity have raised the payroll. While the return of Broadway and more touring productions is improving, the runway in 2023 is still too short for what might be called “take off and fly” in the industry.

Fortunately, honoring practicality doesn’t prevent a managing director from dreaming. “When you go into the theater, you experience something mind-altering. I dream of theater that helps people see the world in a new way and is so inclusive that everyone can see themselves in it,” says Parrish. “Culture is the most powerful force in the world. The stories we tell define reality, shape how groups of people think, act and feel. The stories and people we have in our pipeline have potential to build the American theater canon and to create a better world in which people are more generous and empathetic.”

Lou Fancher
Lou Fancher has been published in the Diablo Magazine, the Oakland Tribune, InDance, San Francisco Classical Voice, SF Weekly, WIRED.com and elsewhere.

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