A Space Odyssey

Berkeley's Gaia Building finds love in the Marsh.

Whither Gaia? For years the Gaia Building saga has been a complex one. In order to build Berkeley’s first new high-rise since 1971, developer Patrick Kennedy outsmarted the city’s zoning codes. Dedicating part of the building to cultural use won him an extra two floors and the ire of opponents who didn’t want to see a seven-story building downtown. What exactly that cultural use would be has been in the air for years, tangled up in money and controversy. Remember when the Gaia Bookstore was going to occupy the ground floor of Kennedy’s mixed-use building? Or CentralWorks and the Shotgun Players? The bookstore never materialized, the Shotgunners are over in the Ashby Playhouse, and CentralWorks is still nomadic. It was starting to look as though the bottom two floors of the Mediterranean-styled building would stand empty for a long time.

But caterer and event planner Gloria Atherstone couldn’t stand to see such a promising space standing dark, and now Gaia Arts Management, a subsidiary of her company Glass Onion, holds a ten-year lease on the bi-level space, which boasts a 140-seat theater. She’s been quietly busy, hosting parties and writing salons and working with the Addison Street Windows project. Once Anna’s Jazz Island next door has found a firm footing, she would like to start doing live music events. And adding to the area’s embarrassment of theatrical riches, the Gaia Arts Center is now home to the Berkeley arm of San Francisco’s The Marsh, a space dedicated to the development and performance of new works. An intimate, flexible space, with a second level for concessions and events that overlooks the theater, the Center clicks another Lego into Berkeley’s arts scene. So now we have not only a Tony-winning large theater with the Rep, the cozy Aurora, and a black box up the hill at LaVal’s, but a place for would-be Spalding Grays and Marga Gomezes to learn and ply their trade.

Which means it’s high time for a party, and who better to throw it? This Sunday afternoon, Atherstone christens the space with a Gaia Gala benefiting the Marsh. A mere 25 clams get you wine, hors d’oeuvres, and performances from the Marsh’s innovative theater luminaries. Journalist Brian Copeland, who has his own official day in San Francisco for writing and performing the city’s longest-running solo show, Not a Genuine Black Man, will take time out from working up a television pilot of the wildly successful show to perform. Marsh alum Josh Kornbluth (Love and Taxes) will be there, as well as performer and teacher Charlie Varon (Rush Limbaugh Goes to Night School) and Liebe Wetzel’s thought-provoking “found-object” puppetry with Lunatique Fantastique. It’s not just a chance to see what San Francisco has been getting for ten years, but to meet the people who teach the performance and writing classes so popular that it attracts students from as far away as Santa Rosa and Livermore. Not to mention getting a taste of what the next ten years holds in store on Allston Way.

The Gaia Gala runs from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday at 2120 Allston Way. Tickets: 1-800-838-3006 or TheMarsh.org

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