Theater in the Bay Area: the Call of Berkeley

Theater Websites are one major window opening on the world of theater. Shotgun Players, Central Works, Aurora Theater Company, Berkeley Repertory are all located in Berkeley, Ca. The community targeted by these theaters is however defined by the whole San Francisco Bay Area and common intellectual values. Still, the theaters make an effort at attracting new audiences that match more closely the local population.

Thanks to special events, parnerships, a certain type of production (themes, treatment, setting…) and of course to the various types of ticket prices and discounts that often favor small budgets, theater websites show who they want to attract. And as Shotgun Players, Central Works, Aurora Theater Company, Berkeley Repertory are close to each other, they share an audience. By using data such as censuses, we can establish the specificities of the city population such as the median age and income, and thus get a better idea of who is the population that surrounds the theaters. Crossing both type of data however does not account for the reality of the audience.

Local Claims and Beyond

Shotgun Players, Central Works, Aurora Theater Company, Berkeley Repertory all claim a strong link to the San Francisco Bay Area. Though the word ‘local’ appears regularly in the different Mission Statements, it is however only vaguely defined. Difficult to say whether it hints at the neighborhood, Berkeley, the Alameda County or the Bay Area. Most of the time, the local level doesn’t seem to be limited to the city of Berkeley itself but to the Bay Area. Being located in Berkeley in fact offers a strategic position as it is easily accessible from San Francisco or other parts of the region.

Local rooting in Berkeley however appears more clearly for some theaters. It is blatant in terms of business partnerships: neighboring

The location of Berkeley in the Bay Area; via Google maps

 restaurants and bars are mentioned by all four theaters, and theaters such as Central Works claim to support local artists. Shotgun Players in particular show their close link to their ‘neighbors’.

While the theaters all claim their belonging to the Bay Area, two also show an impact beyond that area. Shotgun Players claims to be a part of the ‘arts community’ beyond the Bay Area, there is however no precision as to the scale of their impact. The Berkeley Repertory really shows its impact on the national (Broadway) and international (London) theatrical scene. While their local integration and identity is always important and promoted, it is thus not a limitation. It is practical, but not sufficient for them to achieve the goals of theatrical recognition.

Matching the Social Fabric 

While theater goers are generally older, wealthier people with a higher education than the average population, theaters need to attract a younger and less affluent population to build future audiences.  Considering the fact that, according to the 2010 census, almost half of the population of Berkeley is under 30 (as the median age is 31) and that the city is home to the University of California, Berkeley (UCB or Cal)  and 26% of its 37,581 people (about 9,000 students) live on-campus in Berkeley or at the immediate city border, it makes sense that theaters would want to attract the student population. Moreover, UCB is situated within walking distance of Downtown Berkeley and three of the theaters (Berkeley Repertory, Aurora Theater Company and Central Works), while Shotgun Players is situated in South Berkeley, a traditionaly poor neighborhood adjacent to Oakland. Three of these theaters thus privilege cheap pricing for their perfomances or offer student discounts which are even advertized in newspapers. Shotgun Players and Central Works are the most similar ones in terms of prices (regular tickets under $30 without any kind of discount). While the data about the percentage of the population considered in poverty is absent for 2010, the 2000 census shows that 20% of the city population is concerned. Practising very low prices through programs such as “Pay What You Can” tickets can enable people with low incomes to attend theater and thus be part of the theater community. Noticeably enough, Berkeley Rep is the only theater that does not offer cheap pricing for any of its activities.

Breeding Theater Lovers

The wish (or even necessity) of the companies to attract and gain the loyalty of a new type of audience implies that this new audience is educated to theater. Many of the theaters, especially Berkeley Repertory and the Aurora, give a lot of space to education, in however different manners : the school of theater of Berkeley Repertory addresses   a very broad population, while Aurora Theater insists a lot on the high school and college population. Berkeley Rep’s school of drama contains a lot of classes : for children, teens and adults, beginners, adavanced, but also writing classes … Many are taught by prestigious professors educated all over the world in Arts and Drama schools, prestigious colleges such as Harvard, many have also worked with famous actors and actresses. The discrepancy with Shotgun Players and Central Works is very wide: those two companies do not offer a school of drama or writing classes. However, it might mean that their strategy for educating new audience is just different. Indeed, their pricing is very cheap and their seasons’ programing is often aimed at developing thought.

The Ashby Stage, Shotgun Players’ HQ, via Google Street View

Nurturing Intellectual Proximity

In their content and form, theaters’ websites foster some « core values » which help them select their audiences using intellectual criteria. Aurora is remarkable for its particular stage configuration and the priority given to intimacy. Their community is made of their ‘loyal patrons who have kept coming back for years’, the main value of the theater is the close links between the audience and the performers on stage and the long-term relationships between the audience and the members of the theater that they have maintained. Though each one has its own identity, Shotgun Players and Central Works both describe their productions are “bold” and “provocative”. Their programs are closely linked to the social world, the real-life issues that the audience might identify to. In terms of user friendliness and interactivity, Shotgun Players in particular uses both a familiarity and elaborate design in order to create a sense of proximity and intellectual connection with their audience members. The tone used in the website can evoke the way bloggers might address their readers instead of what one would expect of a theater company. The very specific design chosen for the theater’s iconography creates a strong artistic identity. In comparison, Berkeley Repertory appears to be the most ‘conventional’ theater out of the four : the values of Berkeley Rep are, as stated in their website,  »imagination and excellence, as well as its educated and adventurous audience ».

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