The Berkeley Rep Theater will open downtown accommodations for visiting performers

AUGUST 31 – Medak Center, Berkeley Rep artist housing
Susie Medak stands in the courtyard of the new guest artist housing in downtown Berkeley. It is a LEED Gold building designed with the needs of guest artists in mind. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

On a typical evening when a show is in town at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, actors, directors and staff spend hours rehearsing into the night, bussing back and forth between scattered apartments rented by the theater. in the city.

The costs of these units have skyrocketed along with Berkeley rents over the past decade. A budget of around $300,000 grew to nearly $2 million, and in difficult situations the theater had to shell out up to $6,800 in monthly rent for company-owned apartments.

“If we lose the next generation of artists, then what kind of city will we be in 10 years?”

Susie Medak, former chief executive of Berkeley Rep

But the theater’s decades-long vision of housing performers on its own property is finally coming to fruition with the debut of the Medak Center this fall. The 45-unit artist housing complex is nearly ready to open in downtown Berkeley’s Addison Street performing arts center next to good company from Aurora Theater, Freight and Salvage, California Jazz Conservatory and the UC Theater.

It is named after Susie Medak, the theater’s outgoing general manager, who led the team for 32 years until August. It also contains new classrooms, a gallery and studio, offices, warehouses, outdoor courtyards and socializing space.

“Berkeley’s identity is tied to our political activism, while being a city that values ​​culture and art,” Medak said Wednesday afternoon, standing in one of the building’s bright new studios. “If we lose the next generation of artists, then what kind of city will we be in 10 years?”

Susie Medak, who retired in August after a 32-year tenure at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, poses for a portrait in one of the new Medak Center studios. “We wanted the space to be a home for visitors,” she said. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ CatchLight

Most people working at Rep are visitors. However, Medak said 30% of the theater’s permanent staff come from its annual scholarship program, which will soon have access to suite-style apartments in the housing complex adjacent to the studios for artists in the shows.

The rep is also in the process of deciding if he can rent rooms to nearby arts organizations that need housing or other nonprofits. Medak said requests have already started coming in, and the Berkeley rep hopes to offer a deeply discounted rent if their artist schedules leave venues open during the year.

It is industry standard for theaters to rent housing to their hired performers for free, and while some theaters across the country own their properties for housing, it is still rare that this housing is on-site and fully integrated into the property.

In years past, Medak said Berkeley Rep housed artists all over town; they stayed in a building in North Berkeley on Delaware Street (not so fondly called “sent-o-wares”), crammed into units on Regent Street and apartments on Addison Street that Medak said were “just awful” . In a university town, it was also difficult for the staff to find accommodation where the artists could rest peacefully after long days and nights of rehearsals.

“I scoured every empty building in Berkeley for years looking for a suitable home,” said Medak, who never imagined herself in the “construction” industry. But she oversaw the construction of the 600-seat Roda Theater in 2001, the renovation of the 400-seat Peet’s Theater in 2016 and the establishment of the School of Theater in 2001 during her tenure.

The Medak housing is his last project before leaving Berkeley Rep, and he is expected to welcome his first batch of fellows this fall and guest artists with the Wuthering Heights cast in November.

Pam MacKinnon, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater across the bay from San Francisco, directed a show at the Berkeley Rep during her former freelance career. Having traveled across the country for shows, she said a big part of a theater’s job is to create a supportive environment for performers.

“It can take weeks and weeks to be away from home, it’s inherently stressful,” MacKinnon described. “If this accommodation allows Berkeley Rep to have more flexibility in what they put on their stages and makes artists feel supported, I think it serves the community.”

A studio inside the new Medack Center next to Berkeley Rep Credit: Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The COVID-19 pandemic nearly crushed the housing project

Like all arts institutions in Berkeley, the Berkeley Rep closed its doors and halted programming when news of the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020.

At a dramatic board meeting the following month, Medak and others weighed the current chaos with the theater’s future.

“It was the culmination of 20 years of planning,” Medak said. “We were so close to pulling the plug, but I realized that if we don’t build it now, we will never build it.”

Berkeley Rep decided to move forward with funding from New York-based Signature Bank, which agreed to fund the entire project. The bank loaned Berkeley Rep $38 million for the $26 million construction, according to Medak, who said it was the ‘right project at the right time’ for the bank as it expands on the coast west. She said the bank has also supported theater-related projects in New York.

The mixed-use building is a one-of-a-kind project built by Cahill Construction, envisioned by the San Francisco-based team at Berkeley Rep and De Quesada Architects. It is designed to specifically serve artists with quiet rooms and direct pathways to rehearsal spaces with safety and privacy in mind.

When celebrities are in town for certain productions (like Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian Mckellan, the late Carrie Fisher and others played Berkeley Rep), there are secret hallways for them to enter and exit the space.

Berkeley Repertory Theater Facilities Director Mark Morrisette inside a studio in the new housing development. Credit: Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Having on-site accommodation will also significantly reduce the workload of staff members who spend most of their time coordinating apartment rentals, transport and logistics, said Mark Morrisette, facilities manager of the representative from Berkeley.

“It gives us control of our space and proximity to the downtown arts district, it reduces transportation and our carbon footprint, as well as significant time savings for staff,” Morrisette said.

Berkeley’s arts organizations have largely been able to stay afloat thanks to Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans during the pandemic. According to federal data, Berkeley Rep received between $1 million and $2 million in PPP loans from Signature Bank in April 2020.

Berkeley Rep sees the housing project as another way to stabilize its presence for decades to come and allow artists to continue performing and build the city’s cultural cachet. On-site housing is also important because the theater cannot continue to raise its ticket prices to offset housing costs, Medak said, in an effort to keep its shows open to large audiences.

“Artists don’t make a lot of money, and the city has been losing artists for years because our rents are so high,” Medak said. “It is in the interest of the community to ensure that cultural organizations can thrive. If artists help us see ourselves, what does it mean when we don’t have artists to do it? »

Berkeley Rep initially planned live work spaces in its Harrison Street outpost, where staff build sets and do other manufacturing work. The Bay Area arts community is still healing from wounds from the Ghostship Warehouse Fire in Oakland, where 36 people — including a Berkeley Rep student — died in a fire at an unsanctioned artists’ residence. New Medak homes, as well as upcoming projects, emphasize fire safety and compliance with building codes.

Eventually, the theater hopes the Medak Center will become a hub for interdisciplinary artists with collaborations between various arts organizations in the city.

Students, low-income residents and the homeless are struggling to cope in a regional housing crisis that affects all populations. Medak said building any additional forms of housing benefits Berkeley’s broader ecosystem, and showing that artists are a priority in the crisis can also pave the way for creative new forms of housing to serve residents.

“The city bent over backwards to try to help us figure out how to do this,” Medak said. “I think every time one of us works with the city on a project that breaks the mould, to rethink what housing can look like, it benefits the next project.”

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