Shotgun's Got a Brand-New Shack 

After thirteen years, Patrick Dooley's nomadic theater group has found its dream home.

Patrick Dooley is a happy man. Giving a brief tour of the new home of his theater company, the founder and artistic director of the Shotgun Players shows off the dressing rooms with giddy pride, saying how exciting it is "just to have a Dressing Room 1." Sitting in one of the leftover pews in the converted church at Ashby and Martin Luther King Jr. Way that until recently was the Transparent Theater and has been newly rechristened the Ashby Stage, Dooley seems very much at home. That's only natural, because after thirteen years of nomadic existence and a long search for permanent digs, his company finally has one.

Shotgun couldn't have asked for a better space. The former church was converted to a theater by Tom Clyde and Coley Lalley only three years back. The now-married partners staged shows at Transparent until a couple of months ago, when they canceled their last show to rent the space to Epic Arts for Tim Barsky's The Bright River. The Clydes opted to move on, and in April Shotgun announced that a "very special supporter" was buying the 150-seat theater to "guarantee the company a home for the next thirty years." The Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, meanwhile, released Shotgun from its recently signed five-year lease as the center's resident theater group.

As for that "special supporter," Dooley is now comfortable enough to reveal her identity: Mom. While he and his wife were visiting his family in Virginia and South Carolina, he got a message from Realtor Michael Korman that the theater was for sale. "He told me what the asking price was, and I said, 'Ha!'" Dooley says. "It was Valentine's Day, and I remember getting e-mail from him, and I came downstairs and was talking to my mom about it and said, 'This theater's four blocks from our front door. It's like it was built for our company.'"

It would be normal enough for a mom to want to help fulfill her son's dream, but Dooley's mother, Kitty Herz, thought it might actually be feasible. "Growing up, our family didn't have any money," he explains, "a single mother raising two boys on a farm. But my grandfather had a bunch of real estate, and he passed away a couple years ago. ... And so she said, 'Well, Patrick, before you say no, let's just see what I can do.' My mom, with some support from my grandmother, took out a significant loan and is selling some property to purchase this building. I gotta tell you, man, it's pretty intense. I still can't really wrap my head around it. She's taken an incredibly courageous step to make an investment like this, not even living out here."

It's a big step for the players as well. In addition to rent, they'll have to cover property taxes and utilities on top of all the normal operating costs of running a theater. But Dooley says it's high time. "I felt like it was a chance to step up to the plate," he says. "If I let this opportunity pass, I would be kicking myself. I've been working thirteen years so I could be ready to do this."

If this was the kind of luck that knocks but once, other prospects had been playing ding-dong-ditch at Shotgun's door for several years. Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy made a big deal about building Shotgun a theater on the ground floor of his Gaia Building two years ago. The city let him build seven stories instead of five only if he would dedicate the bottom two floors to a cultural use -- and because the planned Gaia Bookstore went out of business before it could move in, Kennedy told the zoning board, "Shotgun's the girl I'm bringing to the prom."

He wound up ditching her there: Kennedy announced later that year that it would cost an additional $800,000 to turn the space into a theater, rather than the $300,000 he'd previously estimated -- and hey, coming up with that extra money wasn't his responsibility.

Dooley, no stranger to performing in empty spaces, had expected to open A Fairy's Tail, the first show of the 2002 season, in the building anyway, but city officials ousted the troupe eleven days before the opening because it lacked construction permits for the restrooms. "I got a phone call from my costume designer who was at the space working on costumes," Dooley recalls. "She said, 'People from the city just walked in and said, You have to leave right now. This is done.' Fortunately, the Berkeley Rep became available -- we rented the Thrust Stage for thirteen performances immediately. We loaded in and did our opening night in one day."

Shotgun had its own crash course in permits when it cleaned up the shuttered UC Theatre just enough to stage Medea, its next show. The rest of the season was spent shuffling between Eighth Street Studio, the Julia Morgan Center, and John Hinkel Park. "When the Gaia thing went down, it kind of broke me," Dooley confesses. "That experience, and feeling kind of embarrassed about it all, just made me realize I didn't care if the Gaia ended up becoming a theater. I wasn't going to go into it."

But he says the Gaia experience taught him a valuable lesson. "I have to say we were naive," he says "I remember Bill Lambert [then Berkeley's director of economic development] said, 'You have to get a lease. If you don't have a lease, you have nothing. You have a handshake, and a handshake doesn't mean anything. A letter of agreement doesn't mean anything. A letter of intent doesn't mean anything. A lease means something. '"

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