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The Community Theater at Live Oak Theatre is about to be “outsourced” if the Berkeley City Council approves the recommendation from staff.  I use the word “outsourced” deliberately highlight this very “free market” approach to city governance.  This struggle over the fate of Live Oak Theatre spilled out into public view with an email to the Berkeley Council, dated 8/23/2012, by Susan Schwartz a long time neighbor to the Community Theater.  Beyond the fold I would like to share with the Daily Kos community a little deeper analysis of this drama unfolding in Berkeley.  (Disclosure:  I’m a member of the community theater on the chopping block and on its board of directors.)

The story starts a few years ago at a one of our community theaters board meetings where it was announced that the Berkeley Parks, Recreation & Waterfront Department (BPR&WD) determined that Live Oak Theatre needed about $50,000.00 of upgrades to improve access for those with disabilities.  All the suggested upgrades were reasonable and needed. And it was discussed at that meeting and subsequent meetings undertaking a major fundraising campaign to make improvements.  Some quotes from Susan Schwartz’s letter will assist in the narrative.

For more than thirty years, since Proposition 13 limited taxes, Actors Ensemble has taken care of the theater in the Live Oak Park Community Center, paying for maintenance and repairs from its limited budget and renting out the theater to others at low cost.

Email by Susan Schwartz

Proposition 13, now in retrospect, is being seen by many progressives as a deliberate shock to the California common wealth and part of the implementation of the “free market” reforms that the Republican political party has based its model of governance on.  Only, in this case the shock was adapted for the United States to be non-violent as distinguished from the violent examples given by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine.
As a neighbor of the park for some thirty years, I have seen firsthand the great variety of the company's entertaining and challenging productions -- tragedy to farce, Shakespeare to avant-garde.

Email by Susan Schwartz

This may be a story of the 99% versus the 1% and if allowed to proceed in Berkeley, one of the most progressive cities in the world, it will signal to the United States that all community and commonwealth programs will be targeted in a similar way for privatization or elimination. In Actors Ensemble of Berkeley’s (AE) history it as produced over 200 plays involving an average of 15 to 30 volunteers per play.  These volunteers are comprised of Actors, Directors, Technical Staff, Lobby Volunteers, and additional supporters in the form of board members and general members. Also, the hundreds of staged readings and other events that have been directly produced by AE should be factored in.  In addition it worth noting that, because of the sponsorship of the City of Berkeley, AE has been able to produce shows that are considered obscure, controversial, and not commercially practical.  I think it would be reasonable to say upwards of 10,000 individuals have benefited from involvement in Actors Ensemble of Berkeley over its history. Thus, providing the grounding for the metaphor of the 99%. Here is a quote from the AE archives dating back to the founding of AE regarding the philosophy of the organization:
We see the fields of acting, directing, design and technical work in the theater as honorable crafts, requiring training, dedication, hard work and respect for the theater and for one's fellows. We also recognize in the theater a source of recreation, delight, satisfaction and the possibility of real community. While we encourage professionalism and welcome the participation of professionals, ours is primarily a theater for non-professionals. All the actors volunteer their time and their talents to present Actors Ensemble's plays.  - AE Archives
AE’s original charter reflects its commitment to the 99% in its explicit reliance on a governing board comprised of non-professional actors. I learned this when researching Actors Ensemble’s history for a 50 year anniversary presentation.  I interviewed a good sampling of past community members that contributed to Actors Ensemble over the years. And the constant theme in the conversations was management by the actors or the 99% if you will.

Play selection is democratically determined by the members and not by financial considerations or whether this or that star will attract the right critic.  This is a key distinction that illustrates the “gift economy” model that drives the volunteer organization versus a one entrained in the media and financial systems ruled by metrics based on money, profits and favorable reviews.  From Susan’s letter:

Facing financial pressure, the city this summer issued a request for proposals for a new lease, seeking a tenant who would undertake extensive and expensive repairs and improvements to the building. Two groups submitted bids: Actors Ensemble and TheatreFIRST, which describes itself on the Internet as "Oakland’s Resident Professional Theatre Company" (although they recently began performing in Berkeley).

Email by Susan Schwartz

If one takes the time to compare the Actors Ensemble website with the TheatreFirst website a number of differences come into focus.  Consider play selection, number of persons involved in each play, and the percentage of Berkeley residents involved in the shows. One organization is professional using equity actors and the other only uses volunteers for actors and crew. It should be clear that most of Actors Ensemble’s plays are selected for their large casts and their need for an ensemble approach to the production.

Not all non-profits are the same.  Some are truly grassroots like Actors Ensemble and use every penny to promote shows that are driven by community engagement. And, some are well run businesses led by small management teams with the sole objective to collect donations from the 1% and promote financially successful programming with an eye to engagement with the professional theater community. Susan's letter again:

Decades of contribution to Berkeley do not "entitle" Actors Ensemble to a lease, and I understand the city's financial challenges and need to make the theater more accessible. There may be a win-win situation for all. Actors Ensemble's bid (still confidential) may be the more attractive one financially. However, Live Oak Community Center and its theater are not a for-profit venue. They were built by taxpayers to serve the community. The choice of a lessee should be based on much more than deep pockets.

Email by Susan Schwartz

The BPR&WD had a number of choices in addressing the issue of caring for Live Oak Theatre: 1) renew the old contract with Actors Ensemble, 2) negotiate a new contract with Actors Ensemble, 3) Continue on with the month to month contract with Actors Ensemble, 4) pay for repairs and upgrades out the BPR&WD budget and continue with Actors Ensemble, or 5) Assist AE in managing the theater and raising the needed funds to improve the theater.

The Berkeley Parks and Recreation department chose the “free market” option. They decided to open it up to a bidding process with a public request for proposals. This changed the priority for the Actors Ensemble Board from raising the monies for the improvements and getting the job done of doing the upgrades and improvements to writing a proposal. This process creating and submitting the proposal has taken a year to run its course. (a little more time that Susan suggests in her letter) During that time no action could be taken on making the improvements.

Actors Ensemble, in good faith, submitted a proposal for about $50,000.00 improvements worth of improvements and addressed the other requirements for the proposal based on the information we were given.  And as an AE board member I was led to believe that this was just a formality and that control of Live Oak Theatre would be returning to Actors Ensemble after this formality had run its course.  The proposal we submitted, based on the information we had, was “reality based,” modest and doable by our organization.  

As contrasted by the ten year plan submitted by TheatreFirst, with what I understand a bit vague on addressing the upgrades issue.  But, solid on the presentation of the potential to bring the excitement of the Downtown professional theatre district to Live Oak Park.  This major shift of audience source for the theater company that has the master lease may impact the residential neighborhood that the theater is located in.

The Arts and Theater District was showcased by the United States Conference of Mayors as an example of revitalization of a declining downtown area. It is estimated that over a 5 year period the city's original investment of $5.5 million on Arts District projects generated over $150 million in public and private spending in the downtown area.

Shirley Dean's accomplishments as Mayor

I find myself wondering why the City is not helping TheatreFIRST locate their business downtown.  Berkeley has a very successful professional Arts and Theater district downtown one mile away from Live Oak Theatre and within a few minutes walking distance from a major transportation hub.  At a minimum an environmental impact statement should be required to access whether the neighborhood can sustain a commercial theater that has to generate the revenue needed to sustain it.  From the PRC Agenda Packet – 10-22-12:
In addition, the proposed lease requires that TheatreFIRST work on the transition with the previous tenant and reasonable accommodate their requests to rent space. To that end, TheatreFIRST began meeting with AE on next year’s performance schedule in September of 2012, and has additional scheduled meetings with them to work on the transition and anticipated requests to rent space.
This initial meeting transpired, and the reports back are not good for Actors Ensemble. Specifically there is a mismatch between the management and budgeting projections of TheatreFirst & BPR&WD and the more “reality based” assessment of Actors Ensemble. The meeting although friendly are lacking in substance. Our agent at the meeting reported back, “I get the feeling that the City was never negotiating with us in good faith in any case.”  This is based on the errors and omissions in TheatreFIRST’s understanding of the issues as revealed in the meetings with them.

It is my assessment of the situation that both Actors Ensemble and TheatreFIRST are becoming entangled in a complex management task that may be doomed to failure because of under regulated outsourcing by the city of Berkeley.  This lack of oversight and regulation is destined to kill the community theater component of the programming at Live Oak Park and replace it with programming ever driven toward generating more money to support professional theater.

The Berkeley City Council should be a better referee and rule giver in this shotgun wedding between community theater and “outsourced” management to a professional company to avert the death of community theater in Berkeley. By the way, I might be persuaded to approve of this outcome if it had been better orchestrated by the BPR&WD. Combining the strengths of each organization would be a good outcome for the management of Live Oak Theatre.

I will save specific recommendations of actions the City Council should take for a  future diary and summarize in three quick points what I would like the Berkeley City Council consider.

1) In general, the City Council should revisit the language in the lease to clearly protect the previous community theater component. Also, the concepts of community theater and professional theater should be crystal clear in the deliberations and disentangled from the issues of technical and artistic abilities. In other words volunteers can be well educated and very experienced in theater.  There has been a confusion of these issues in the discussions. And understanding the nuances will lead to a better outcome for the general public.  

2) Metrics should be written into the contract defining exactly how much main stage time community theater is allowed to have and what defines successful community theater. Also, performance benchmarks for upgrading the building and enabling access should be defined.  I am worried that TheatreFIRST is getting 10 year contract with no oversight and no measurable performance goals specified. The current goals and specifications are two vague.

3) Actors Ensemble, defined as a community theater, might have one seat on TheatreFIRST’s board. And under such an arrangement both could in unison toward common community theater goals.  These being defined by City Council considerations and revisions to the BPR&WD plans after a suitable arrangement is worked out between all parties. A final snip from Susan's Letter:

There is value to stability. The organization that promises, or even carries out, costly renovations may not last. The city may be left poorer in what counts. As a more-than-full-time volunteer in other fields, I believe that it is important to nurture volunteer organizations that give citizens the opportunity to contribute to our cultural and civic lives. Actors Ensemble's quality and reputation, created and maintained by volunteers, are an all-too-rare success story and inspiring example.

Email by Susan Schwartz

With guaranteed space and a seat on the master lease holder board the shotgun wedding arranged by the city would be doable and less like a “lite” version of Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine.

Clearly, these are my personal views on the situation and do not represent the views of the Actors Ensemble Board.  However, it is a synthesis of the possible. And one possible outcome if the Berkeley City Counsel intervenes and changes the outcome recommended by BPR&WD.

The call to action here is to ask Tom Bates and Kriss Worthington what their position is on community theater? Do they want to kill it in Berkeley by improperly deregulating the outsourcing of it? Or will they delay action and allow time for safeguards for the commonwealth and the 99% to be built into the deal?


Jonathan Gordon
United Democrats
Southern Solano County

Originally posted to linkage on Mon Oct 29, 2012 at 07:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Pink Clubhouse, DKOMA, California politics, and Theatricals.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Cookie Jar .... (9+ / 0-)

    I would like to thank everyone that reads this diary for stopping by.

    I would like to use this comment to explain my involvement as a resident of Vallejo in a community theater in Berkeley. I first volunteered with Actors Ensemble in 1991 - 1992 when I video taped The Importance Of Being Earnest for the company:

    During that time I was very involved in the Berkeley Theater community as I worked full time managing the Subterranean Theater. I had the pleasure to work on some of the initial shows produced by Shotgun Players, Central Works, and Aurora Theatre Company.

    For the last 6 or 7 years I have been donating my time to Actors Ensemble as a volunteer webmaster and videographer and in return I had hoped someday to get their help in my dream of writing and producing a play. But the prospects of my dream coming true at Live Oak Theater is now uncertain.

    With a limited roll to play as a technical person on a board comprised of actors and directors I recused my self from much of the business of the board. Only serving as a consultant as needed. The Actors Ensemble has a board of ten members and upon occasion my being at at meeting insured a quorum. Mostly, attending the board meetings allowed me to better manage the website.

    It was my long term love of the Berkeley artistic and theater community that even when I moved to Vallejo I still commuted to volunteer my time to Actors Ensemble. And this at times has been a hardship for me.

    Due to my being involved in local politics in Vallejo as the President of our Democratic Club I was unable to actively help in addressing the events described above. I can only now try and help Actors Ensemble by shining a little light on the events by writing this diary for the Daily Kos community.

    Below is the latest video from Actors Ensemble that I  posted on YouTube:

    By the way Actors Ensemble is currently running a play and it may be the last play we produce. So if you are in Berkeley or the Bay Area come and see: Richard III - Directed By Sharon Robinson

    Thank You,


    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Mon Oct 29, 2012 at 01:35:00 AM PDT

  •  This is what happens when you create something (5+ / 0-)

    organic and successful.  Others come in and take it over and make it a for profit enterprise or an essentially for profit enterprise (paying themselves handsomely).

    You can see this in a variety of venues.  Look at what Burning Man has become.  Look at the successful conventions.  Over and over the minute it looks profitable, there are people who see a paycheck in the endeavor.

    "I watch Fox News for my comedy, and Comedy Central for my news." - Facebook Group

    by Sychotic1 on Mon Oct 29, 2012 at 08:04:09 AM PDT

  •  Great diary (5+ / 0-)

    Am saddened yet hopeful that it can survive and wishing you good luck.

  •  Thanks for the great reporting, Jon! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    linkage, arizonablue, navajo, NormAl1792

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Mon Oct 29, 2012 at 08:31:54 AM PDT

  •  Best of luck with the City Council. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arizonablue, linkage

    I am on the BoD of a community theatre, and actually starting rehearsals for A Christmas Carol tonight (I am directing).  Fortunately, our organization owns our building and currently has a strong balance sheet.  We are no longer receiving grants from the Illinois Arts Council due to state budget cuts, but we are keeping afloat.

    GOP Agenda: Repeal 20th Century.

    by NormAl1792 on Mon Oct 29, 2012 at 01:21:25 PM PDT

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