22 Jul Bay Guardian

TheatreFIRST’s illustrious past provides us a solid base from which to spring board into the next phase of productions in downtown Oakland. Having received the following Kudos can only mean a bright future ahead…

Bay Guardian’s Goldie Award For Theatre
Best of The Bay awarded by East Bay Express

TheatreFIRST wins the SF Bay Guardian’s 2004 Goldie award for Theatre

In November 2004, TheatreFIRST was awarded the prestigious GOLDIE (Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery) Award for Theatre. Here’s what Robert Avila wrote in support of this award:

FOR MORE THAN a decade, TheatreFIRST has introduced Bay Area audiences to timely plays and leading playwrights from the larger English-speaking world and beyond. “We like to use theatre to tell a good story” says Clive Chafer, TheatreFirst’s English-born founder and artistic director. “It’s remarkably good at doing that.” The Oakland-based company proves as much on a regular basis. Since its debut production 11 years ago of Manuel Puig’s Under a Mantle of Stars, the company has emphasized the intercultural nature and possibilities of drama. “One of the things very important for me in deciding to start my own company,” Chafer explains, “was the realization that for me, theatre had always been wedded to the idea of transnational culture”

It’s more than his British accent and cheerful demeanor that make Chafer the most conspicuous member of a company that, for its first six years (1993 to 1999), ran as a collective. Chafer not only selects plays and oversees casting, but he also directs most productions, handles publicity, presides at fundraisers, leads the company’s monthly reading series, and can frequently be seen manning the ticket table.

TheatreFIRST’s culturally eclectic approach to programming seems ideally suited to the Bay Area – in fact, its 2003 U.S. premiere of Sue Townsend’s The Great Celestial Cow (a comedy about an Indian family of immigrants in the English Midlands) was partly inspired by the region’s growing, and theatre-savvy, South Asian population. Eclecticism is a quality Chafer has always associated with theatre’s power and potential. “Because I was a linguist, much of what I studied in dramatic literature initially was actually not in the English language,” he says. “So I had always experienced it as this extraordinary window into another culture.”

As Chafer saw it, such a conception of drama was largely missing from the American landscape. “I was disappointed,” he recalls, “when I looked at the very small number of plays being done professionally here that addressed another set of national values, a worldview that was distinctively different from the worldview here.” He even systematically surveyed the available material, based on all plays in publication (minus the classics), and found the proportion of plays from other countries totaled less than 2 percent.

TheatreFIRST has since staged many Bay Area and U.S. premieres, including last year’s overdue debuts of two works by David Hare, Via Dolorosa and A Map of the World, each a powerful if also entertaining exploration of racism and political strife in Europe’s ongoing colonial legacy. From the larger English-speaking world, the company has introduced playwrights like Paul Slabolepszy, whose two-hander about postapartheid Johannesburg, Mooi Street Moves, had a terrific run at the 67-seat Berkeley City Club in February. Chafer is also eager to produce something from Eastern Europe.

Remarkably, the quality of TheatreFIRST productions has remained high despite a somewhat erratic production history, brought on by the loss of various Berkeley and Oakland venues. (Today TheatreFIRST is the new theatre company in residence at Mills College.) Chafer’s rigorous attention to casting has a lot to do with this excellence. TheatreFIRST has always used Equity actors,”even though we’ve barely been able to pay them, up until this year,” Chafer confesses. Even so, some of the best actors in the Bay Area clearly enjoy being part of the company’s intimate, well-crafted productions. And as a director, Chafer always puts a premium on getting the cultural context right.

Robert Avila, SF Bay Guardian

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