TheatreFIRST was established in 1993 as a nonprofit professional theatre company, dedicated to bringing the finest works of international drama to East Bay audiences. Since our first production in 1994, we have focused our efforts on bringing to our audience drama that throws light on diverse cultures. Our plays have come from places as far apart as Argentina, France and Australia, and have looked at events as diverse as the Israel-Palestine conflict, perestroika in Russia, aid to the developing world, and post-Pinochet political life in Chile.
Despite our restricted budgets, our professionalism and programming continue to attract some of the best theatrical talent in the Bay Area. Critics have consistently called attention to the high standard of acting on the TheatreFIRST stage. We respect the contribution of artists who have worked with us as we have grown, and we continue to offer them opportunities as we grow and are able to compensate them more adequately for their wonderful efforts. We take care of our own and we maintain this community of talented artist because they have helped us establish a rich history of producing some of the most exciting theatre the Bay Area has seen.
On March 4, 1994, having raised more than $10,000 from individuals thanks to the 1,500 hours of volunteer service by TheatreFIRST’s founding artists, TheatreFIRST opened its inaugural production, the U.S. premiere of Under a Mantle of Stars by Manuel Puig, acclaimed Argentinean author of Kiss of The Spider Woman. In July 1994, TheatreFIRST initiated a series of readings of plays under consideration. The readings served as a sounding board for the company to elicit public response and choose plays that reflect the interests of our community.
Through this process, the company identified its second production, The Golden Age by Louis Nowra of Australia, an intensely moving drama concerning the fate of a group of primitives discovered in the Tasmanian outback in the 1940s. Judith Green in the San Jose Mercury News described the show as “unforgettable”.
The Golden Age was followed by Anything to Declare?, an early twentieth century French farce by Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Véber in its U.S. premiere. This highly successful four-week run at the Julia Morgan Theatre in spring 1996 was completely funded by box-office receipts.
From there it was back to France. The Ladies of the Camellias is an American play (by Lillian Garrett-Groag) about the two great women of the world stage at the turn of the century, Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt.
Our production of The Ladies of the Camelias was followed up by Death and the Maiden; Ariel Dorfman’s tense hostage drama recalling the horrendous human rights abuses of General Pinochet’s régime in Chile. The SF Bay Guardian called it a “startlingly raw production”, while Christopher Hawthorne praised the “strong performances” and its “pressurized energy”.
Then, in January 1999, TheatreFIRST staged the Bay Area premiere of Dennis Potter’s powerful play about childhood during wartime, Blue Remembered Hills. Described by Kerry Reid in the Express as a “highly admirable production”, she praised the cast’s “stellar performances” and gave it her Critic’s Choice award. Robert Hurwitt in the SF Examiner lauded its “mesmerizing intensity” and called the production “direct and vital”.
After a brief stint at the Thousand Oaks Baptist Church, where the company produced Nagle Jackson’s The Quick-Change Room to rave reviews and audience response, we were unable to continue producing at this location, and for the next two years the company was forced into hiatus, while a new, affordable performance space was located.
In 2001, a new home was found at the Oakland YWCA, and TheatreFIRST took the bold step of announcing its first subscription season. Love & Understanding, by Joe Penhall was our highly successful inaugural production: it played for 15 performances in November and December 2001, and garnered regional awards for both acting and direction. Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the “beautifully detailed performances”, while Jack Tucker in the West County Weekly (Contra Costa Times) called it “a gem…tight, funny, piercing and moving”. Chad Jones in the Oakland Tribune said the show “marks the welcome return of a crackling good company”.
Our next play was The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson, winner of the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, and focusing on three daughters coming together on the eve of their mother’s funeral. As a measure of our success, our audiences increased by 40% over the previous production.
The season ended with The Colour of Justice, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor, a powerful exploration of the sources and attitudes that lead to institutional and endemic racism. Again, audiences increased by another 40% over the previous production.
TheatreFIRST then presented three outstanding premieres for its 2003 season, with the theme of “the collision of cultures”. First up in January was Via Dolorosa by David Hare. This monologue, performed to great acclaim by the author himself when it originally premiered in London and New York, reveals, in extraordinarily perceptive detail, some of the less well documented dimensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and illuminates it in a way that only a writer of his caliber can. It was a major success, attracting the largest audiences yet to any single TheatreFIRST production. Leslie Katz in The Examiner called it “an exhilarating, enlightening, one-of-a-kind theatrical experience”, and exhorted readers: “Don’t miss it.”
Sue Townsend’s The Great Celestial Cow, a funny and moving portrayal of an Indian family moving to England in the seventies was produced in March and April. The show was a success with both critics and audiences, and was well attended by the South Asian community. This was the play’s national premiere, and was hailed by Chad Jones in the Oakland Tribune as “an udder delight”.
Finally, we returned to David Hare, and his 1985 play A Map of the World. Set at a U.N. conference on aid to the developing world, the play pits a brilliant but cynical Indian comic novelist against an idealistic young left-wing journalist. It attracted some of the best press yet for TheatreFIRST’s work, including the Chronicle’s Robert Hurwitt, who found it “riveting”. Once again, our audiences were highly appreciative, and this was reflected in yet another 40% increase in numbers over the previous season.
In 2004, we were restricted to a single production, as our relationship with the Oakland YWCA came to an end, and we were forced to seek another venue on short notice. In April and May, we produced Mooi Street Moves, Paul Slabolepszy’s award-winning comic drama set in Johannesburg in 1993, just as apartheid was being dismantled. The venue was the Berkeley City Club. Responses to the show were overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, Lisa Drostova in the East Bay Express began her review by writing: “Somebody needs to give TheatreFIRST a big pile of money and a dedicated space of their own”. Robert Avila in the SF Bay Guardian likewise praised the writing and the acting, as well as the technical production, saying “it all serves wonderfully to focus an already intimate stage on two magnetic performances”.
In September 2004, we opened our season at Mills College with Peter Nichols’ modern classic Joe Egg, an intensely moving black comedy about parents dealing with bringing up their severely handicapped child, Josephine, who has Cerebral Paulsy. The play featured six of the finest Bay Area actors, and was warmly greeted by press and public. This was followed by the U.S. premiere of Fronteras Americanas, a hilarious and touching solo show about the greater Latino-American identity.
In May 2005, TheatreFIRST closed its 2004-5 season with the Bay Area premiere of Making Noise Quietly, a trilogy of short plays about the long range effects of war by Robert Holman, which Robert Avila in the SF Bay Guardian called “subtle and artful”, while Chad Jones in the Oakland Tribune praised the acting: “Butler and Carey are fantastic”.
Our 2005-6 season opened in October with The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, by Robin Soans, a play created from conversations with residents of Israel and the West Bank, giving an on-the-ground view of life in an undeclared war zone. The production was loudly applauded, not least by Robert Hurwitt in the Chronicle who said: “[This] is the kind of thing [the] company does best: the local premiere of an English drama exploring weighty issues…it is exceptionally well performed.”
In February 2006, we opened Loveplay, which was greeted very warmly by both press and public. Chad Jones wrote that it was “performed by a fantastic cast”, while Lisa Drostova in the East Bay Express called it “terribly smart and funny…a delight!”.
Finally, the season concluded with Steve Waters’ World Music, which also received warm praise. Rob Hurwitt in the Chronicle praised the “riveting performances”, while Frank Wortham in the SF Weekly wrote, “Peter Callender’s virtuosic blend of technique and raw emotion reminds us why we go to the theater in the first place”. L. Peter Callender subsequently received the 2006 Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Principal Performance (Male) for his performance in World Music.
Our 2006-7 season consisted of three terrifically challenging plays: Criminal Genius by George F. Walker ran October 26 – November 19, 2006, and was directed by Erin Gilley. This was a disturbingly funny trip to the underworld of petty crime and murderous revenge. Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing, translated by Edward Kemp and directed by Søren Oliver, ran February 8 – March 4, 2007, and was set in Jerusalem in 1192, where an uneasy stalemate exists between the Muslim forces of Saladin and the western Crusaders. Caught in the middle are the Jews. Nathan the Wise was extended for an additional 4 performances, and became the best-attended show TheatreFIRST had performed since 1999.
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance by John Arden, directed by Artistic Director Clive Chafer, ran May 3 – May 27, 2007, was the story of four deserters bringing the body of a dead comrade-in-arms back to his home town. And once again, all three plays were received with both critical and audience acclaim making TheatreFIRST one of the most consistently excellent theatre companies in the Bay Area.
Unfortunately, consistency and excellence do not always guarantee rental harmony and TheatreFIRST once again lost its performance space. While trying to locate an alternative venue, the company staged one show at the Berkeley City Club in 2008. The show, Future Me by Stephen Brown, directed by Dylan Russell, addressed the thorniest of taboos, pedophilia. Surprisingly perhaps, given the nature of the subject matter, the production was very well attended, and received strong reviews. It played to almost 1,000 audience members over 5 weekends between April 3 and May 3 2008, and was followed by several very interesting and impassioned post-show discussions.
The company also raised a significant amount of money for Generation 5, a charity designed to eliminate child sex offences within five generations. Once again reaffirming TheatreFIRST’s commitment to its community.
Still without a permanent home in Oakland, but always very capable of maintaining its reputation as one of the more daring theatre companies in the Bay Area, TheatreFIRST presented Old Times by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, at the Gaia Arts Center in downtown Berkeley from April 2 to April 25, 2009. This seminal piece of modern drama, featured L. Peter Callender in the role of Deeley, and was presented to celebrate the life and work of one of the most prominent dramatists of our time, who died on December 24, 2008. This was one of our most successful shows, artistically, critically, and commercially, and was so well received a Saturday matinee was added and then a one week extension. It also ushered in the appointment of Michael Storm as TheatreFIRST’s new artistic director, providing the company with the upward velocity required to bring theatre back to downtown Oakland.