Joe Spano as Jack and Doug Johnsion as Algy in The importance of Being Earnest.
Linda Lee Johnson as Cherie in Bus Stop.
The late Dale Elliott (left) with Paul Laramore in The Country Wife.
Paul Laramore in Seven Keys to Bald Pate.
Karen Ingenthron in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Joe Spano in The Iceman Cometh.
Holly Barron in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Anne Swift in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Ric Prindle in The Iceman Cometh.
There is also a sense, especially among long time members of the company, of the theatre’s destiny to succeed. During the particularly tight1972–73 season, a company actress cast the I-Ching for the theatre. The Book said the hard times would continue for some time, but that the company would ultimately be successful.
Michael Leibert, founder and producing director of the BRT, voices this trust in fate, saying, “The fact that we’ve been able to go through bad periods is important. We’ve found the resiliency to whether the difficult times. Some groups do well in the beginning, hit bad times and close. Groups that are going to fail, fail anyway, with or without competition.” Leibert and a small core of actors began what is now BRT in 1968, when over-whelming success with Woyzeck in the International House on the UC campus spurred them to continue their run in an off-campus space. It wasn’t so simple: Whereas they had filled houses of 400 at International House the move away from campus showed how difficult it was to fill 80 seats in a theatre of their own. From that shaky beginning, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has grown into a major resident repertory company. They now sell out the 155-seat theatre for six of seven performances weekly. The staff consists of two resident directors, 15 to 20 actors, costume and scenic designers, production stage manager and assistant technical director, and other technical staff. The administrative staff numbers five, including press representative, box office manager, and fundraising project director. In 1972, there were approximately 900 subscribers for the season last year there were 2000 and this season almost 3500. Last year’s operating budget was $145,000 this year it is $198,000. When I asked director Leibert to define theatre his reply was very personal-- another key to what makes the Berkeley rep work: “I define theatre as the expression of truth, because that’s what all art does. It reveals truth in life, the truths we perceive. And that is its ultimate glory and its ultimate goal.” “Of course there are levels and degrees,” he continued. “The only value to art is that you see something or hear it and you say, yes. If it’s not art you say no.” Leibert encourages actors to remain with the theatre for several plays, preferably a season or two. He feels that only after working together through two or three rehearsal periods can a director and the actors really reach for something beyond the usual. This gives the actors a sense of continuity. And there is a feeling around the theatre that everyone can work their way up through the ranks. Linda Lee Johnson is one of the company members who has done so. Her first role in 1972 was as a silly little slave girl in The Haunted House. Last season she played, among other parts, Pearl in The Iceman Cometh, and Mae in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This season she’s played Cherie in Bus Stop and is currently the fiancée in The Philanthropist. A blonde with a Vogue magazine face, Johnson says, “If I were in another company I’d never have played Pearl or Mae. What’s wonderful at the Berkeley Rep is the challenge of playing a variety of roles. The dressing room here is a great leveller,” she says. “It’s a smallish room where everyone, regardless of the size of the cast, has to dress and make up. It’s pandemonium before performance, but I love it. It’s a transition place, where you leave everything from your outside world and do warm-ups and get into character. There’s a family feeling here, a community. It’s more than a profession.” Berkeley Rep audiences have grown with the theatre. The intimacy of the theatre building itself brings the audience into the action each night. Long-time subscribers, in fact, have expressed concern that the new theatre, with groundbreaking scheduled next summer, will take away the sense of community that extends even to them. Leibert, however, has stressed from the very beginning of the theatre project that the spirit of the company remains the same. The purpose of the new building is to give both the actors and the audience more technical resources and comfort in their environment, without losing the intimacy which is central to their work. Every member of the Berkeley Rep company is keenly aware that their fanatically loyal audiences are responsible for their growth as a company. “One of the virtues of the theatre is that it has remained within its own limits,” says Leibert. “We haven’t tried to do things before were ready. People expect you to have a mission. Our mission is to do the plays, to bring up what ever truth we can.”
The Rise of Berkeley Rep
From the East Bay Review, February 17, 1977
Who can tell why one theatre group rises and another falls. How is it that one company makes it through incredibly hard times while another blossoms forth with creative energy only to die with his first unsuccessful show? In talking with company mem-bers of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT), I was most struck with each one’s sense of responsibility not only to the theatre but also to each other and to their group as a whole. This attitude of mutuality has allowed them to grow both individually and as a company.
This is an article I wrote when the first plan to build a bigger theatre was being publicized.