Excerpts from TBA’s Company Spotlight by Sam Hurwitt
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.
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).
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.
In 2016, 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 facilitator, 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, (and committing) 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 and one-third LGBTQIA2.