Room with a View 

"Running Under the Radar," though it may be, Transparent Theater could help make "Off- Addison" a real cultural destination.

A beginning theater company's most pressing needs boil down to money, space, and motivation. Everything else is a facet of one of these elements, and how successful the company will be stands in direct relationship to how it handles what it has, and how resourceful it is. Once a theater gains a regular audience and some momentum, the particulars may change, but the basic formula remains the same. The South Berkeley scene is no exception: the Black Rep has space, and has historically gotten financial support from the city, but appears to lack motivation. The Shotgun Players have motivation to spare, and have been very clever in their response to a lack of space, but money has been an issue -- one year, the season brochure joked that the organization's finances were handled directly out of the artistic director's underwear drawer. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a group with a space, money, and motivation -- "running under the radar" though it may be, Transparent Theater may have what it will take to make "off-Addison" a real cultural destination.

Transparent Theater is the brainchild of Berkeley native Tom Clyde, who, after collecting degrees in philosophy, history, and law, has teamed up with operatically trained and financially minded Coley Lally to take a stab at bringing small-scale, high-quality theater to South Berkeley. It's been a quiet process -- "We've been flying low, staying under the radar until we had something to show," explains Clyde as we stand in the gutted shell of what was once a Church of Christ at the intersection of Ashby and MLK, across the street from the Ashby BART parking lot and a liquor store. Clyde and Lally met at ACT, where Clyde was an assistant director to Carey Perloff and Lally worked in the development office. They would spend their lunch hours fantasizing about the kind of theater they would build, given a chance.

In the fall of '99, the "ridiculously discussed" dreams started to come together. "It's a corny story, I know," Clyde admits, "but we were sitting under a plum tree, looking at the sky, and we said 'Let's do it!' Everything seemed possible." So they started cruising around with Berkeley real estate agent Barbara Hendrickson, who showed them the church on Ashby. Clyde bought the building, and last December they inaugurated their company with an "under construction" series of staged readings of plays by local and national playwrights, and started throwing fund-raisers to support the renovation of the church into a theater space. They plan to open their first four-show season this September with a new translation of August Strindberg's Swanwhite, a play that utilizes fairy-tale conventions to investigate romantic love.

Transparent will have perks most small companies only dream of or wait years to get: real light and sound booths, for example, and a dedicated rehearsal space on the second floor, flooded with sun from two skylights. The company also plans to have a teaching component, the Free Speech Conservatory of Performing Arts. Along with the more traditional offerings -- acting, voice, movement, stage combat -- the conservatory will provide classes in hip-hop, deejaying, dance, and other up-to-the-minute expressive media.

The solid cinderblock building, built in 1963, has a very spare and simple interior. The most prominent feature is a series of graceful beams supporting a high, arched ceiling. Long and narrow, the theater, when completed, will boast a low proscenium stage and seating for 99 on the reclaimed pews, which now wait along the wall in orderly stacks. The rooms are currently bedecked with long laser-printed sheets of paper, stuck to the walls with blu-tack, delineating offices, rehearsal areas, bathrooms, and the scene shop. The latter is going to provide a challenge to Clyde's set designers, who will need to incorporate hinges to get their set pieces through a narrow door that can't be widened because it is set into a structural wall.

About a third of what will eventually be the green room was once the church's baptismal pool, a blue-painted space the size of a small bathroom. Clyde points to the stairs leading into the pool. "The priest had a pair of waders right there, and would step into them before performing the baptism. I asked if there was something we should do, some ritual, before we used this space. He said," and here Clyde smiles and thumps his chest lightly with his fist, "'God is in the heart, not in the building.'"

It encourages Clyde and Lally that the community supports what they're trying to build, and they speak enthusiastically about the help they're getting -- from the city, from other theater folks, and from neighbors. The city has waived Transparent's use permit fee and thrown some grant money its way. Impact Theater's artistic director Melissa Hillman has put Clyde in touch with playwrights, a bike-store owner donated a closetful of power woodworking tools, and the Web designer is working pro bono. The computers in the sweltering office are all donated. Clyde points out that the front steps of the former church serve as an informal community gathering spot (the building is right next to a bus stop) and mentions that neighbors have been asking after the theater's progress.

Even the second play of the first season is a gift, Robert O'Hara's Brave Brood. The second work in a three-part meditation "dealing with American history, race, and more specifically the legacy of slavery in this country," Brood will be making its West Coast premiere at Transparent. Part one, Insurrection: Holding History, premiered at ACT in 1997, and part three, Negative 14: An American Mall, was produced at the Magic. Getting the rights to the middle work is quite a coup, especially for a new company. Clyde became friendly with O'Hara when the two met a year and a half ago at ACT. The two were very impressed with each other, and O'Hara offered Clyde Brave Brood for the staged reading series. Clyde liked it so much that he asked O'Hara if Transparent could stage it, and O'Hara not only agreed but made time in his schedule to come out from New York to direct the play, which opens in November. O'Hara wanted to support "a small theater offering challenging work -- such as his!" says Clyde.

Like some other Bay Area companies -- Magic, Impact, Shotgun, Revolution, Thick Description -- Transparent's name sums up the company's outlook and plan: to, in Clyde's words, "create a very intimate and immediate experience that talks to people about their lives. We are open to old and new works, as long as they can be made relevant to a modern audience. We want to do plays that engage people in conversation about their lives and make them think. The idea behind 'transparent,' the idea behind the name, is that we want our relationship with our audience to be transparent, very open, in the sense that we choose plays that are immediate and engaging but have deeper conflicts, deeper tides under the surface waves."


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