27 Aug Theatre First History

TheatreFIRST is Oakland’s Resident Professional Theatre Company and we are committed to bringing downtown Oakland the finest theatre that the Bay Area has to offer. Since 1993 TheatreFIRST has been one of the most interesting and dynamic theatre companies around and our following has been very strong. Patrons see our shows and they keep coming back. And now it is even easier to find us as we have secured permanent residence at the 19th Street Theatre operated by the Oakland School for the Arts, in the newly renovated Fox Theatre.
Great scripts, great actors, great theatre!
We remain committed to one overall guiding principle and that is “Great theatre can’t help but shape our community”. Come join us and be a part of TheatreFIRST as we bring professional theatre back to downtown Oakland.
History and accomplishments:
TheatreFIRST was established in 1993 as a nonprofit professional theatre company, dedicated to bringing the finest works of international drama to East Bay audiences. Since our first production in 1994, we have focused our efforts on bringing to our audience drama that throws light on diverse cultures. Our plays have come from places as far apart as Argentina, France and Australia, and have looked at events as diverse as the Israel-Palestine conflict, perestroika in Russia, aid to the developing world, and post-Pinochet political life in Chile.
Despite our restricted budgets, our professionalism and programming continue to attract some of the best theatrical talent in the Bay Area. Critics have consistently called attention to the high standard of acting on the TheatreFIRST stage. We respect the contribution of artists who have worked with us as we have grown, and we continue to offer them opportunities as we grow and are able to compensate them more adequately for their wonderful efforts. We take care of our own and we maintain this community of talented artist because they have helped us establish a rich history of producing some of the most exciting theatre the Bay Area has seen.
On March 4, 1994, having raised more than $10,000 from individuals thanks to the 1,500 hours of volunteer service by TheatreFIRST’s founding artists, TheatreFIRST opened its inaugural production, the U.S. premiere of Under a Mantle of Stars by Manuel Puig, acclaimed Argentinean author of Kiss of The Spider Woman. The six-week run at the Maggie Crum Theatre in Walnut Creek was favorably reviewed in the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times, and generated more than $2,500 in revenue above production costs to be applied to a subsequent production. In July 1994, TheatreFIRST initiated a series of readings of plays under consideration. The readings served as a sounding board for the company to elicit public response and choose plays that reflect the interests of our community. We continued this series of readings for the next five years at Holy Names College, and more recently at Borders Books in Emeryville.
Through this process, the company identified its second production, The Golden Age by Louis Nowra of Australia, an intensely moving drama concerning the fate of a group of primitives discovered in the Tasmanian outback in the 1940s. Judith Green in the San Jose Mercury News described the show as “unforgettable”. Production of The Golden Age began a fruitful relationship with the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley, owners of the historic Julia Morgan Theatre. This organization was so impressed with our work it offered to make TheatreFIRST its resident theatre company and we produced there continuously until 1999.
The Golden Age was followed by Anything to Declare?, an early twentieth century French farce by Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Véber in its U.S. premiere. This highly successful four-week run at the Julia Morgan Theatre in spring 1996 was completely funded by box-office receipts. Moving again to matters of more serious consequence, our next show was David Hare’s deeply moving drama Racing Demon, about church ministers trying to do good works in the poorest neighborhoods of London. Christopher Hawthorne in the East Bay Express called it “a beautiful, soaring edifice of a play”, and “an ambitious undertaking, justified by its results”. Again this was a Bay Area premiere of an important new play, which Steve Winn of the Chronicle selected as one of his top picks of the fall season.
From there it was back to France. The Ladies of the Camellias is an American play (by Lillian Garrett-Groag) about the two great women of the world stage at the turn of the century, Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. Wonderfully played by local actresses Wanda McCaddon and Elizabeth Benedict, the play was received with great appreciation by our audiences. Our production of The Ladies of the Camelias was followed up by Death and the Maiden; Ariel Dorfman’s tense hostage drama recalling the horrendous human rights abuses of General Pinochet’s régime in Chile. The SF Bay Guardian called it a “startlingly raw production”, while Christopher Hawthorne praised the “strong performances” and its “pressurized energy”.
Then, in January 1999, TheatreFIRST staged the Bay Area premiere of Dennis Potter’s powerful play about childhood during wartime, Blue Remembered Hills. Described by Kerry Reid in the Express as a “highly admirable production”, she praised the cast’s “stellar performances” and gave it her Critic’s Choice award. Robert Hurwitt in the SF Examiner lauded its “mesmerizing intensity” and called the production “direct and vital”.
After a brief stint at the Thousand Oaks Baptist Church, where the company produced Nagle Jackson’s The Quick-Change Room to rave reviews and audience response, we were unable to continue producing at this location, and for the next two years the company was forced into hiatus, while a new, affordable performance space was located.
In 2001, a new home was found at the Oakland YWCA, and TheatreFirs took the bold step of announcing its first subscription season. Love & Understanding, by Joe Penhall was our highly successful inaugural production: it played for 15 performances in November and December 2001, and garnered regional awards for both acting and direction. Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the “beautifully detailed performances”, while Jack Tucker in the West County Weekly (Contra Costa Times) called it “a gem…tight, funny, piercing and moving”. Chad Jones in the Oakland Tribune said the show “marks the welcome return of a crackling good company”.
Our next play was The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson, winner of the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, and focusing on three daughters coming together on the eve of their mother’s funeral. This was another Bay Area premiere, running during February and March of 2002. As a measure of our success, our audiences increased by 40% over the previous production. The season ended with The Colour of Justice, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor, a powerful exploration of the sources and attitudes that lead to institutional and endemic racism. With a cast of 30, the U.S. premiere of this epic piece ran during the month of May, 2002 to considerable acclaim and widespread media interest. Again, audiences increased by another 40% over the previous production. TheatreFIRST had rebounded stronger than ever and was gaining momentum.
TheatreFIRST then presented three outstanding premieres for its 2003 season, with the theme of “the collision of cultures”. First up in January was Via Dolorosa by David Hare. This monologue, performed to great acclaim by the author himself when it originally premiered in London and New York, reveals, in extraordinarily perceptive detail, some of the less well documented dimensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and illuminates it in a way that only a writer of his caliber can. This very timely and vital piece of theatre was toured to the Oakland Islamic Cultural Center, the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center, and A Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco, making it one of the most traveled theatre productions the Bay Area has ever offered. It was a major success, attracting the largest audiences yet to any single TheatreFIRST production. Leslie Katz in The Examiner called it “an exhilarating, enlightening, one-of-a-kind theatrical experience”, and exhorted readers: “Don’t miss it.”
Sue Townsend’s The Great Celestial Cow, a funny and moving portrayal of an Indian family moving to England in the seventies was produced in March and April. It provided a clear-eyed recounting of the immigrant experience, exploring it from the perspectives of different generations and genders. The show was a success with both critics and audiences, and was well attended by the South Asian community. This was the play’s national premiere, and was hailed by Chad Jones in the Oakland Tribune as “an udder delight”. Finally, we returned to David Hare, and his 1985 play A Map of the World. Set at a U.N. conference on aid to the developing world, the play pits a brilliant but cynical Indian comic novelist against an idealistic young left-wing journalist. But far from being simply a debate about the virtues of Western aid to the Third World, the play also explores the gap between public politics and private principle, and the way events are distorted when retold by novelists and film-makers. It attracted some of the best press yet for TheatreFIRST’s work, including the Chronicle’s Robert Hurwitt, who found it “riveting”. Once again, our audiences were highly appreciative, and this was reflected in yet another 40% increase in numbers over the previous season.
In 2004, we were restricted to a single production, as our relationship with the Oakland YWCA came to an end, and we were forced to seek another venue on short notice. In April and May, we produced Mooi Street Moves, Paul Slabolepszy’s award-winning comic drama set in Johannesburg in 1993, just as apartheid was being dismantled. The venue was the Berkeley City Club. Responses to the show were overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, Lisa Drostova in the East Bay Express began her review by writing: “Somebody needs to give TheatreFIRST a big pile of money and a dedicated space of their own”. She went on to praise both the play and the acting, and finished by saying: “Once again, Chafer has brought us a play from another country that shows us something important about our own – yet another reason it’s so important audiences continue to support TheatreFIRST…” Robert Avila in the SF Bay Guardian likewise praised the writing and the acting, as well as the technical production, saying “it all serves wonderfully to focus an already intimate stage on two magnetic performances”. Due to this overwhelming response, the show was extended for an extra weekend, bringing the total number of performances to 20.
In September 2004, we opened our season at Mills College with Peter Nichols’ modern classic Joe Egg, an intensely moving black comedy about parents dealing with bringing up their severely handicapped child, Josephine, who has Cerebral Paulsy. The play featured six of the finest Bay Area actors, and was warmly greeted by press and public. This was followed by the U.S. premiere of Fronteras Americanas, a hilarious and touching solo show about the greater Latino-American identity. TheatreFIRST attracted a very diverse audience for the piece by successfully reaching out to the local Latino community in Oakland, once again broadening horizons and expanding its cultural impact. The result was a great success for the company, and a new audience base on which to draw for future shows. In May 2005, TheatreFIRST closed its 2004-5 season with the Bay Area premiere of Making Noise Quietly, a trilogy of short plays about the long range effects of war by Robert Holman, which Robert Avila in the SF Bay Guardian called “subtle and artful”, while Chad Jones in the Oakland Tribune praised the acting: “Butler and Carey are fantastic”.
Our 2005-6 season opened in October with The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, by Robin Soans, a play created from conversations with residents of Israel and the West Bank, giving an on-the-ground view of life in an undeclared war zone. The production was loudly applauded, not least by Robert Hurwitt in the Chronicle who said: “[This] is the kind of thing [the] company does best: the local premiere of an English drama exploring weighty issues…it is exceptionally well performed.” In February 2006, we opened Loveplay, which was greeted very warmly by both press and public. Chad Jones wrote that it was “performed by a fantastic cast”, while Lisa Drostova in the East Bay Express called it “terribly smart and funny…a delight!”. Finally, the season concluded with Steve Waters’ World Music, which also received warm praise. Rob Hurwitt in the Chronicle praised the “riveting performances”, while Frank Wortham in the SF Weekly wrote, “Peter Callender’s virtuosic blend of technique and raw emotion reminds us why we go to the theatre in the first place”. L. Peter Callender subsequently received the 2006 Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Principal Performance (Male) for his performance in World Music.
Our 2006-7 season consisted of three terrifically challenging plays: Criminal Genius by George F. Walker ran October 26 – November 19, 2006, and was directed by Erin Gilley. This was a disturbingly funny trip to the underworld of petty crime and murderous revenge. Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing, translated by Edward Kemp and directed by Søren Oliver, ran February 8 – March 4, 2007, and was set in Jerusalem in 1192, where an uneasy stalemate exists between the Muslim forces of Saladin and the western Crusaders. Caught in the middle are the Jews. Nathan the Wise was extended for an additional 4 performances, and became the best-attended show TheatreFIRST had performed since 1999. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance by John Arden, directed by Artistic Director Clive Chafer, ran May 3 – May 27, 2007, was the story of four deserters bringing the body of a dead comrade-in-arms back to his home town. Musgrave, their leader, is determined to bring home to the townspeople the realities of warfare – by any means necessary. It’s a vivid, muscular, suspenseful anti-war drama blending earthy poetry with raw theatrical power. And once again, all three plays were received with both critical and audience acclaim making TheatreFIRST one of the most consistently excellent theatre companies in the Bay Area.
Unfortunately, consistency and excellence do not always guarantee rental harmony and TheatreFIRST once again lost its performance space. While trying to locate an alternative venue, the company staged one show at the Berkeley City Club in 2008. The show, Future Me by Stephen Brown, directed by Dylan Russell, addressed the thorniest of taboos, pedophilia. Surprisingly perhaps, given the nature of the subject matter, the production was very well attended, and received strong reviews. It played to almost 1,000 audience members over 5 weekends between April 3 and May 3 2008, and was followed by several very interesting and impassioned post-show discussions. The company also raised a significant amount of money for Generation 5, a charity designed to eliminate child sex offences within five generations. Once again reaffirming TheatreFIRST’s commitment to its community.
Still without a permanent home in Oakland, but always very capable of maintaining its reputation as one of the more daring theatre companies in the Bay Area, TheatreFIRST presented Old Times by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, at the Gaia Arts Center in downtown Berkeley from April 2 to April 25, 2009. This seminal piece of modern drama, featured L. Peter Callender in the role of Deeley, and was presented to celebrate the life and work of one of the most prominent dramatists of our time, who died on December 24, 2008. This was one of our most successful shows, artistically, critically, and commercially, and was so well received a Saturday matinee was added and then a one week extension. It also ushered in the appointment of Michael Storm as TheatreFIRST’s new artistic director, providing the company with the upward velocity required to bring theatre back to downtown Oakland.
The Future is now
TheatreFIRST is at an extremely exciting point in its development as we move back downtown. Our new home, the 19th Street Theatre, as well as our collaborative relationship with the Oakland School for the Arts and its students, cannot help but provide us with the opportunity to thrive in Uptown Oakland. We can do great things from within the Fox Theatre, working with OSA students to further their understanding of what it means to be an artist and helping them to begin a career as a professional artist, while continuing to produce the type of theatre that has made TheatreFIRST a well respected mainstay of Bay Area theatre. We here at TheatreFIRST are renewing our commitment to maintaining our role as Oakland’s only season-producing professional theatre company, with the understanding that only through our efforts can Oakland become the next major Bay Area theatre market. And then, we are not alone. When other theatre companies begin to thrive in Oakland and we have helped to establish a true community of theatres, we can all take pride in the fact that we helped Oakland reach its natural and required theatrical potential.

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