Oakland: A Theatre Desert
May 3, 2010
While researching my weekly Bay Area arts column for last Sunday's New York Times last week about Oakland's burgeoning arts scene, it came to my attention that while Oakland is flourishing in most areas of the arts and especially in the visual arts and music, its theatrical offerings are pitifully slim. Besides TheatreFIRST (which has after long travails found a home for itself at the Fox Theatre) and Woman's Will (which maintains both a San Francisco and Oakland address), there are, to my knowledge, no other professional theatre companies in the city.
Compare this to neighboring Berkeley. That city supports a plethora of large, medium-sized and small companies, including Berkeley Rep, Aurora, The Berkeley Playhouse, Shotgun Players, Impact and Central Works among many others.
I did't have time or space to explore the reasons for this in my column, though it's a subject that I'd be interested in revisiting in the coming weeks or months. But from the little I can deduce, it seems that it's difficult to find a satisfactory explanation for why theatre isn't happening as much in Oakland as it is in other parts of the Bay.
This seems especially strange given how many theatre artists live in the city. Brad Erickson, head of Theatre Bay Area, says that his organization's largest quotient of individual memberships come from Alameda County. This trend has been going on for several years now, he reports. Theatre people live in Oakland, but they clearly don't practice their art there.
I wonder if unfriendly real-estate companies might provide part of the answer? I seem to remember TheatreFIRST being chased out of one of its previous homes - a lovely, cozy and in many ways ideal space in the Old Oakland neighborhood downtown. If my memory isn't deceiving me, this might have been the result of the landlord wanting a higher paying tenant in the building. A high-end sport shoe retailer opened a short while after the theatre company moved out. Real estate companies might be more into the idea of unoccupied storefronts being used to display temporary art exhibitions. Visual art brightens up streets and has the potential to attract would-be tenants or buyers while making the real estate company look generous and community-minded. But theatre companies pose more issues such as insurance, permits to serve alcohol and disabled toilets.