TOP of the Pops

The Oakland Playhouse comes to life at the Black Box

Jayne Entwistle wants to make you wet your pants this Saturday night. This English-born actress and psychotherapist has seen her eight-person Oakland Playhouse Improv Troupe send enough audience members into hysterics to be firmly convinced of its skill at making people laugh helplessly. Entwistle’s troupe has been at it every Thursday night for about a year at Oakland’s Black Box, and this Saturday will be a special performance full of strange props and audience participation (the performers will ask for suggestions, lines, and willing volunteers). Best of all, it is comedy that East Bay audiences won’t have to navigate a bridge or tunnel to enjoy; the Black Box is just one block from the 19th Street BART station in downtown Oakland.

Entwistle, whose small, delicate features and voice contrast with her chunky black boots, met her business partner, actor and playwright Justin Neal, in Bellingham, Washington. Both were there studying theater at Western Washington University. “We would joke that in a couple of years we would meet up in San Francisco and start a theater company,” she recalls, “and exactly two years later, we ran into each other in San Francisco.” The two had a clear idea of what they wanted to create — new, edgy theater with a local focus, and improv comedy of the “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” genre (although Entwistle is quick to note that her improv is not edited, unlike “Whose Line”). And so the Oakland Playhouse was born, making its debut at the Julia Morgan with a night that included live vocals, dances from Marijoh Danztheatre, Neal’s one-act Housing Crunch, and improv from Entwistle’s new troupe (including one member who thought she was auditioning for a dance performance, but stayed anyway).

Like many itinerant theater companies, TOP’s flexibility has gotten it into some interesting spots. It has performed on a bus with Popcorn Antitheater (audience members are picked up and driven around to different performance sites) and in Golden Gate Park at last year’s PAWS Doggone Fun Run (a San Francisco program that helps terminally ill people keep their pets). “Funnily enough, the dogs were into it, and we integrated them into the performance,” Entwistle says, noting that the pets’ owners were somewhat shier. “At one point we had a Vietnamese potbellied pig enter the performance. How many actors can say they’ve performed with a pig and on a bus?”

But what Entwistle and Neal really wanted was a nonmoving space where they could put on their shows, plays, and dance performances. Two years ago, finding such a space in Oakland seemed impossible, until Entwistle went to a community meeting to discuss the planned renovation of the Fox Theater. As she recalls, there were many people voicing their frustration with the prospect of renovating a large space that would sit empty versus putting money and effort into smaller theater venues. And then someone stood up and said that they had such a venue available for use. “I said, what, in Oakland? No!” Says Entwistle. Then she started pushing through the crowd. “We had a vision and a grand plan that suited their vision. It was like a miracle.”

The facility at 1928 Telegraph is a kind of miracle, a combination art gallery and performance space in an area starved for art. It is well-equipped with a 300-square-foot stage, an 860-square-foot polished hardwood dance floor, plans for a cafe, and the versatility to serve as a dance hall, a space for parties, a site for high-tech training seminars, and a multi-track audio production facility. It’s possible to rent part or all of the Black Box for conferences, receptions, yoga, and dance classes, or digital video editing.

The space, with which the founders seek to “support and promote the fierce creativity that is alive and thriving in Oakland and the Bay Area,” fields a diverse array of activities — regular dance parties (“Nightmooves” on Wednesdays) and poetry slams (“Where Words Sustain Us” takes the mike on Thursdays after the TOP Improv Troupe, and “Birth of Verse” hits the stage on Sundays). It’s also the logical space for the Oakland Playhouse, a lively group doing up-to-the-minute work that celebrates community — and helpless laughter.

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