The Berkeley theater company Shotgun Players started performing twenty years ago in the basement of a Berkeley pizzeria. Now it’s got its own building, but the company has stuck with its founding principles: taking on little-known or brand new plays and working hard to create theater for the community.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the company is presenting an entire season of world premieres: five brand new plays.
On a cool fall evening, playwright and director Mark Jackson works with the cast of “God’s Plot” at the Shotgun Players’ rehearsal space in Emeryville. It's Act 1, scene 9. Two Puritans, and a third character with a mysterious past are getting ready to put on a performance.
The actors work through the scene several times, perfecting movements and lines, getting the tone just right. It’s exacting work, and they’re clearly enjoying it, breaking out into laughter at the end of – and sometimes during – their run-throughs.
"People that are working here are here because they want to sweat," says the company’s founder and artistic director, Patrick Dooley. "They want it to be hard, they want to do the thing that’s just beyond their reach, and so I think that kind of like mindedness is something people also respond to in the work. There’s that primal 'aaaaaahhhh'."
Dooley didn’t set out to found a theater company, never mind inspire something primal. Twenty years ago, when he first visited the Bay Area, he thought he was just passing through.
"I had a friend, we were going to go to Seattle. Nirvana had just released their album Nevermind. 1991, 92, everyone was going there. Lots of coffee shops, whatever, rain," Dooley recounts.
But while he was in Berkeley, someone suggested he go check out a theater group practicing in the basement of a pizzeria. He acted in a play, on the condition he could direct the next one. And then he directed another, and another. Soon the group was getting reviews. People were coming to watch.
"We totally had our own grunge theater then. Bootstraps, and patching it together with duct tape. And I sold the tickets, I ran the light board. We made our lights out of coffee cans. I mean I literally would drive in the road and if I saw pieces of two by four in the road I’d take them and throw them in the back of my car," says Dooley.
Over the years, he says, the company never grew quickly. But it always grew. Each year offered more ambitious plays, with bigger casts. In 2004, the company moved into its own theater, the Ashby Stage, in south Berkeley. "I’ve had a lot of experiences sitting in the theater in the last couple years where I’ll look around and like how did we get here," he admits.
"I just wonder of the good sense of this endeavor," the actor playing the character Philip Howard muses.
"What you are referring to Philip Howard is called word of mouth, and it is a good thing," responds the character, Mr. Darby.
"But what of the ungodliness of it? And bear baiting is a heathenish sport," Howard replies onstage.
God’s Plot takes place before the Revolutionary war. It's based on real events – it’s about the first play performed in America – before the Revolutionary War.
"These three guys performed a play in a tavern in 1665, which is the colonial time," explains director Mark Jackson.
The play in question was called “Ye Bear and Ye Cub.” It was a satire about taxes. In it, a mother bear, representing England, demands honey from a cub, the colonies. The script for the original play doesn’t exist anymore so Jackson imagined what it might have been.
"Shotgun is one of the companies that I’m continuously excited about," divulges theater critic Robert Hurwitt. He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. "I find myself going to each new production really expectant, really hoping and expecting that I’m going to see something new."
Hurwitt says the Shotgun Players’ decision to do an entire season of new plays is bold "because it’s completely unknown, because the audience has no Glass Menagerie or Fiddler on the Roof or As You Like I." They know what those are. But, he says, it’s also smart. He recounts a quote from Robert Browning: “But a man's reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?"
The Shotgun Players also work to extend their reach beyond the stage, to people who might not usually go to the theater. The company gives tickets away to community organizations. And in the first week of every play, the tickets are pay as you can.
"You can get in for 25 cents and some people do that. There are folks that live in the neighborhood and they’ll come in, throw 50 cents on the counter and come see the play. And that’s really important for us that theater be something that everybody can experience," says Patrick Dooley.
One of the reasons Dooley’s excited about God’s Plot is that it’s about the first play performed in America and the impact it had on its community.
Back at the rehearsal, it’s nearly the end of the first act. A rambunctious female character named Tryal Pore bursts onto the scene. She creates chaos – a finely tuned, carefully practiced, raucous chaos. It's like a rock song, which is a good place to end up, especially for a theater company founded by a Nirvana fan in a pizzeria.
God’s Plot is playing at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley until January 15th.