Berkeley Rep’s The Ground Floor is Ground Breaking

For devotees of new works, something exciting is happening by the San Francisco Bay.

At its vibrant new campus in West Berkeley, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has created a center for innovation and an R&D facility for artists photo by Cheshire Isaacs

At its vibrant new campus in West Berkeley, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has created a center for innovation and an R&D facility for artists
Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs

The Ground Floor, Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work, will have its second summer residency lab this June and a slate of very impressive artists will be working on some  interesting and diverse projects.  This innovative program for the support and incubation of new theatre became possible last year partly due to Berkeley Rep’s new facilities in West Berkeley which allowed them to bring all their support functions together on one campus and have sufficient space for costume and scene shops, rehearsals halls, studio space, a kitchen and communal dining area, and eventually even visiting artist housing.

The program is very flexible, encourages interaction and collaboration and seeks to provide an environment and resources to artists to nurture the creation of new plays and musicals.   Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s resident dramaturg and the Director of The Ground Floor, has described the inaugural summer lab last year as “wildly successful.  With so many talented artists all working under one roof, it felt like the entire building was vibrating for four weeks.”

Madeleine Oldham

Madeleine Oldham

Oldham explained to me that participants are generally selected from an application pool, with additional projects that may be generated from outstanding Berkeley Rep commissions (if any are then at the appropriate workshop stage) or other existing or prior relationships with playwrights.    The artists receive travel expenses, a stipend, lodging, and dinner for residencies of one to four weeks, and  – most importantly — get whatever they ask for (“within reason, of course”) to support their work.

One unusual aspect to the residency application process is that no scripts are required – in fact, no scripts are accepted.  Artists are asked to describe their project and the support they seek.  A playwright can apply with just an idea.   (San Francisco Magazine recently named Berkeley Rep as one of the most “influential idea factories” in the Bay Area and said Oldham compares The Ground Floor to venture capitalism, “supporting small, unconventional projects while they’re still in the crazy-idea stage”. )

With no prerequisite stage of initial development or pre-determined end goal, the roster of accepted projects may end up covering the whole spectrum from playwrights who come to start writing a first draft to polished projects needing specific input and collaboration with other artists and professionals.  Projects are in various stages of maturity and have different needs. There might be a staged public reading before an audience, or an impromptu table read with some staff members, or maybe not.  Nothing is required or set in stone.   The goal is to support the theatre-makers — to provide the artists what they need, when they need it.

One of the many extraordinary facets of the summer lab is its sheer size.  There will be more than 20 theatre artists (mostly playwrights, with a few directors, composers and other co-creators attached) working on 17 projects.  (At the end of this post is a list of the artists, the name of their 2013 Ground Floor projects, and just a sampling of some of their previous works.)

In addition to the stunning size and scope of the summer residency lab, the quality of the group of participating theatre artists is truly remarkable.  Almost all have successful prior productions and many have won awards and prestigious honors and prior commissions and residencies.  To take Oldham’s venture capital analogy a bit further, if there is such a thing as a good investment in theatre, this group represents a pretty safe bet for a great return on investment.  But there are no strings attached to these residencies – on either side.  There are no commitments regarding production and no options or first refusal rights.  Of course, relationship building and good will is often the most significant currency of all.

An invited audience fills the main rehearsal hall at Berkeley Rep’s vibrant new campus in West Berkeley to meet artists from the Theatre’s inaugural summer lab Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs

An invited audience fills the main rehearsal hall in West Berkeley to meet artists from the Ground Floor’s inaugural summer lab
Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs

The flexible — almost customized — care and feeding of the artists is designed to foster the optimal creative environment and meet the specific needs of the particular projects being worked on.  This is, one would expect, quite expensive.   The Ground Floor is made possible by a $1 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation’s Artistic Innovation Fund with additional support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.

Karena Fiorena Ingersoll, The Ground Floor’s Managing Director, said they hope the program “will help diversify the landscape of new work development” and “have a palpable effect on our industry, both presently and in the years to come.”  These are lofty and inspiring goals, but seem achievable given the track record, credentials, infrastructure and history already in place and the caliber of the talent on board.

The Ground Floor is a tremendous addition to our national new theatre development and support network.   I would be tempted to call The Ground Floor summer residency lab an artistic playground, but I am certain significant work will be done there;   I also expect the artists will have a lot of fun doing it.


Here is an updated list of the projects that will get those walls vibrating in Berkeley this summer (the italicized titles are just examples of the many prior works of the named artists), but for a more complete and sometimes whimsically entertaining description of these projects you should go to the end of The Ground Floor’s webpage about the 2013 summer lab:

  • Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild): Carl the Raping Goat Saves Christmas
  •  Janet Allard (Vrooommm!) and Nikos Tsakalakos (Pool Boy): Alexander Supertramp
  •  César Alvarez (Futurity): The Universe is a Small Hat
  •  Jeff Augustin (Cry Old Kingdom): Krik? Krak! or The Last Tiger in Haiti
  •  Sarah Burgess (Earthseige): Camdenside
  •  The Debate Society – Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen, Oliver Butler (Blood Play): Untitled ski play
  • Jackie Sibblies Drury (We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…): The Theory of Rational Choice
  •  Larissa FastHorse (Cherokee Family Reunion): What Would Crazy Horse Do?
  •  Idris Goodwin (How We Got On) and Adam Mansbach (Go the Fuck to Sleep): Rage is Back
  •  Lauren Gunderson (Silent Sky): The Heath
  •  David Hanbury (Mrs. Smith Live at The Bowl) and Andrew Rasmussen (dir, When a Man Loves a Diva): Mrs. Smith & Carlyle: To Mars and Back Again)
  • Victor Lesniewski (Where Bison Run): Untitled play about the Syrian Civil War
  •  Mona Mansour (The Hour of Feeling) and Tala Manassah (The Letter): The Wife
  •  A. Rey Pamatmat (Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them): Untitled project about the abuse of power and magical narratives
  •  Nicholas C. Pappas (The Ballad of 423 and 424): Untitled Fatty Arbuckle project
  •  Lisa Peterson (An Illiad) and Todd Almond (Girlfriend): The Idea of Order
  • additional project TBA


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