A month ago, things were looking up for Clive Chafer’s Oakland-based repertory company, TheatreFIRST. Known both for being the city’s de facto theater institution, and for being peripatetic — albeit not by choice — the company had finally found what it thought was a suitable home: A defunct print shop underneath the Bench & Bar club, just a couple blocks east of Oakland’s Uptown district. To Chafer, these new digs seemed apropos. It made sense to be close to the Fox, Cafe Van Kleef, and the Paramount Theater, and right beneath a gay nightclub seemed a great place to put a theater company that hadn’t quite consolidated its audience. To top things off, the TheatreFIRST board of directors had just hired a new artistic team, consisting of artistic director Dylan Russell, who had already directed two plays for the company, and producer Allison Studdiford, who helped Chafer launch the company in 1993. On October 18 they held a 15th-anniversary gala celebration at Chapel of the Chimes. The next week, plans to open in the old print shop fell through. Three weeks later, the artistic team resigned. Now the Oakland company is back to square one.
Granted, Chafer is no stranger to the predicament of being a homeless theater company. He started TheatreFIRST as a collective, around the same time that Shotgun Players and the Aurora Theatre Company had their genesis. Though nominally the company’s founder, the British Chafer worked alongside several other actor-directors who wanted to bring “a more international perspective” to the East Bay theater scene. At that time, he said, Bay Area professional theater companies could be divided into three broad categories: larger entities like Berkeley Rep and A.C.T., which generally staged plays with a very broad appeal, since they had so many seats to fill; smaller ones such as Berkeley Jewish Theater, Aurora, and Berkeley Stage Company, which produced contemporary plays generally written by Americans and geared for a built-in “new plays” audience; and companies such as Lorraine Hansberry, which staged plays that honed in on the experience of one particular ethnic or cultural group. Chafer’s idea was to mount productions that sampled from a wider variety of national and ethnic backgrounds, even if they didn’t have a guaranteed local audience. “What we do is avowedly niche,” he said.
San Francisco already had a flourishing theater district by the time Chafer launched TheatreFIRST, but things were a lot shakier in the East Bay. At that time, Berkeley Rep was the only company with its own space. In subsequent years both Shotgun and Aurora would find more-or-less permanent digs in Berkeley — Aurora at a downtown venue close to the Berkeley Rep and Shotgun at the Ashby Stage. But TheatreFIRST remained nomadic. Chafer attributes his plight largely to the inhospitable economic climate in Oakland, a city that was so focused on fighting crime and jump-starting its development that it had no resources left for the arts. “Cities like Berkeley and San Francisco have taken up the cultural slack,” he said.
Indeed, TheatreFIRST found its first home — albeit more of a foster home — at Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Theater, where it staged productions from 1994-1999. No one ever thought of it as a permanent space because it was roughly four times too big: Julia Morgan seats four hundred, and TheatreFIRST is limited to an audience of one hundred, per its agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association. The collective dissolved in 1999 and Chafer went back to England to pursue a master’s degree. Upon returning in 2001 he restarted TheatreFIRST and assumed the role of artistic director, taking up residence in a spate of temporary venues, including the downtown Oakland YWCA (which booted the company out for financial reasons), Mills College (too far for an audience to travel), and a couple of storefronts in Old Oakland (whose owner displaced TheatreFIRST in favor of retail). When a board member found the storefront below Bench and Bar, everyone saw the potential for a space that TheatreFIRST could occupy and gradually customize — if only their acoustical engineers could muffle that loud bass reverberating through the ceiling. They finally acknowledged defeat.
Then there’s the matter of Chafer’s artistic team jumping ship. Touted in an August 30 press release as a duo that, in Chafer’s words, would “guide the company on the next stage of its journey,” Russell and Studdiford put most of their resources to bear in the company’s April staging of Future Me, which they de facto produced, Studdiford said. For the past year they had worked between fifteen and sixty hours each week, she added, mounting performances and developing a viable five-year plan for the company. But they left in a huff the first week in November. Russell sent out another press release, announcing her and Studdiford’s resignation “as a result of philosophical differences on management-related issues.” Chafer chalked the whole thing up to a managerial disagreement that was exacerbated by the new location falling through.
The problem that has always plagued Oakland companies such as TheatreFIRST is partly cultural. Whereas Berkeley has an entrenched history of small theater companies, Oakland doesn’t. In the past few years downtown has seen a revolving door of art galleries take up storefronts for a short period of time and then fold. The same cannot be said for stage theaters, which require a much bigger investment, and are much harder to take down.
In the new downtown Oakland, it may eventually be easier for theater companies to jockey for space with retail establishments. That might explain why Chafer, now thrust back into an unwanted directorship of TheatreFIRST, remains sanguine. He plans to stage a series of readings at Berkeley City Club in January, followed by a full production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, with Peter Callender in the lead role. Meanwhile, he’ll resume the search for a theater that’s commensurate with the company’s output, so that TheatreFIRST can be seen as Oakland’s professional theater company. “We were already, de facto,” said Chafer. “We just didn’t look like it to enough people.”