Flame On 

Berkeley Rep bounces back from a fire that gutted its scene shop.

"Did you see the Q-tips?" Berkeley Rep PR director Terence Keane asks as I balance precariously on what was once the lid of an industrial-size plastic trashcan, now melted into a horror movie mask. He points to a shelf, the wood rounded into blisters of charcoal, that once held first-aid supplies. Oddly, the Q-tips are blindingly clean and white. They're virtually the only thing we see in the ruins of Berkeley Rep's scene shop that might still be usable two months after a June 29 fire gutted the 7,500-square-foot space, sent two seasoned Berkeley firefighters to the hospital, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of specialized metalwork, carpentry, and painting tools. Opened to the air by the collapse of its roof, the space off Gilman Street that birthed sets for nearly two hundred shows is now a blackened and rusting pile of books, fabric, twisted metal, broken glass, fallen beams, and the odds and ends that accumulate over fifteen years -- a pile of pine cones, a mini piñata, sooty takeout menus.

While no Rep employees were hurt -- most were at an A's game that night -- it was a devastating loss. Between finding new space, getting it OSHA-compliant, and replacing equipment, the fire could set the Rep back as much as $6 million. Season opener Our Town opened last week -- the Rep's builders managed to erect that set off-site -- but if they can't find a new dedicated space within the next six weeks, they'll have to contract out sets for the 2006-2007 season, which managing director Susan Medak says could cost ten times as much as doing it in-house. (The Maurice Sendak-designed Brundibár is already being built elsewhere.) Looking for 25,000 square feet in a neighborhood where warehouse owners are holding out for well-heeled business tenants or condo conversions doesn't help: "The Bay Area is not open to manufacturing," Medak explains. "And that's what we're building: an old-world manufacturing plant."

This fire wasn't just costly for the Rep. One of the injured firefighters was released from the hospital on the night of the blaze, but the other, a captain, lost all of the skin on one hand and is still under a specialist's care, says Berkeley Firefighter Association president Brian Harryman. Yet when Medak called to see how the firefighters were doing, she got a surprise. "I'd like to talk to you about something else," Gil Dong of the BFA told her. "We feel terrible that we couldn't save your building, and we'd like to do something about it." That something is a fund-raising "Three-Alarm Barbecue" for the theater to be held on Saturday. Medak, who tears up when she talks about that phone call, mentions a New York colleague's remark that he "couldn't imagine the New York Fire Department doing this for a theater."

The fire is teaching the Rep about community. "We're often asked to step up when other organizations are in trouble," Medak says. "It was interesting to be on the other end of the stick." Offers of help came from all over the country, and thousands of dollars' worth of paintbrushes and paint showed up unsolicited and unannounced from theatrical supplier Rosco International. Others have made smaller yet meaningful contributions. Aided by their little sisters, eight-year-old Kensingtonians Kenji Costantini and Elinor Lewis sold $132.25 worth of home-baked brownies to support the Rep.

The firefighters probably won't serve brownies this Saturday at the Rep, but they do promise grilled tri-tip and vegetarian kebabs as well as hamburgers, hot dogs, their "famous" Caesar salad, and desserts. Family activities range from fire-truck exploration to demonstrations of carpentry, costuming, and prop-making. The barbecue runs 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., followed by an optional 2 p.m. matinee of Our Town. The barbecue itself is $25 for adults, $15 for kids (kids under six eat free). A $70 family package admits two adults and two children, and barbecue attendees save $10 on a ticket to the show, which isn't recommended for children under ten. For tickets, visit BerkeleyRep.org or call 510-647-2949.


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