Berkeley Rep Blog

December 2008

Winter Wonderland

posted by prop shop on Wed, Dec 31

Santa's workshop

It’s ironic that right before the holidays that our shop looks like a Santa’s workshop of sorts. We even acquired some “elves” to come help us out. The set, designed by Annie Smart, for In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) has a winter garden, which she designed to look like paper cut-outs with burnt edges.

Initially we thought we would build these out of foam, but then it turned out that Russell Champa, the lighting designer, wanted to light them from below, so Annie wanted them to be translucent. We experimented with different materials to find the perfect blend of transparency, thickness, stiffness, and of course, cost. We went from talking about inch-thick soft foam, to hard, thin plexiglass…but actually ended up finding that felt was the best and fortunately, cheapest, solution.

After the assembly process began, I realized we could be making foliage until the show opened if we didn’t get some help. I solicited the staff and the board of trustees, and got a few volunteers (the “elves”).

Our Elves

And ultimately I hired on a few more people, playing my overhire card sooner than I would have liked.


Since we don’t start rehearsing until the end of December and so much of what we do in props comes out of rehearsal, I’d prefer to hire extra help when we get into the crunch time before the show opens. But, as I said, this project ended up being more labor-intensive than I had hoped…Thanks so much to Esther, Sharon, Dale, Kira, Rachel, and Sheri who came and bailed us out. We’re still not done, but at least we have all the pieces and a huge bag of scraps to donate to the Depot!

Once the rest of the crew gets back from visiting family on the East Coast, we’ll begin actually building the props for this huge show. It will be another crazy Victorian beauty for sure.


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Coming to terms with my own limitations, or how I tried to re-head the tabla drum for Arabian Nights

posted by Heather Bradley on Sun, Dec 28

The percussion instruments in The Arabian Nights are really taking a beating (pun intended). We've been replacing claves, tambourines, Djembes, and egg shakers left and right. There is a lot of action on stage and a lot of live music -- it's natural that this would be happening.

One of the recent casualties was the tabla drum -- specifically, what would normally be the larger drum in a pair of Indian tablas, called the Bayan. It had a small tear in the head. It was certainly still playable, but we anticipated that the problem would only get worse.

Heather - Tabla

I decided that it shouldn't be so hard to re-head the tabla myself. It really only involved lacing some animal hide "ribbon" through the holes in the braided portion of the drum head. I found some instructional videos on You Tube -- thanks to the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. It did look like some elbow grease was involved, but the guy did it quickly and easily. I just needed to pay close attention to how the ribbon threads through the braid -- and the loop at the bottom of the drum.

Heather - threading 

I purchased a drum head from Mrs. Khanna at Bazaar of India (on University, right around the corner from the theatre). She talked me through the process and it seemed pretty straightforward. She said I just needed to be patient. It would probably take me an hour or so. I gave myself three hours. OK -- I can do this! 

Heather- instruments 

I got the tools together and began to pull out the current ribbon of animal hide

First I soaked the hide in warm water -- directly in the sink, and also wrapping the drum in a warm wet towel.

Heather - soaking 

The threading started out OK actually, but at a certain point, things got sort of twisted and I was forced to pull it all out. I realized that things were drying a bit quickly and the cold room I was in didn't seem to be helping, so I changed to a heated room and soaked the hide again. Now it was nice and pliable, but the width had increased and it was impossible to thread it through the braiding. I began getting quite frustrated (and losing patience). By this time (three hours later) my hands were getting a bit raw, even though I was wearing gloves. I gave it one more shot. No luck.

I then proceeded to visit my friend Mrs. Khanna at Bazaar of India. She sold me a lovely new set of tablas, and assured me that I was on the right track with the work I had been doing -- but that perhaps I needed an assistant.

So. now they have a drum to play in Arabian Nights again. And Robyn and I will be attempting this crazy task again -- together. I'll let you know how it goes!

Here's a pic of the tabla as it exists right now:

Heather - unfinished 

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The Wonderful Bag

posted by Allen Gilmore on Wed, Dec 24

Hey there, blog enthusiasts--

I'm Allen and I play a few roles in The Arabian Nights, which is playing until Jan 18 at Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage.

I've been wondering what to write about that may bring you further into our experience as actors performing the show. Finally however, one subject has stood towering over the rest: THE BAG.

If you've seen the show, you know that "The Wonderful Bag" is an improvisation performed by two different members of the ensemble at each show. It is a source of fear and glory for us. A little piece of theatrical derring-do that can send an audience--and us, the actors--into throes of ecstacy or leave both groups scratching our heads and wondering, "What was that?" Well, that's what our adaptor-director, Mary Zimmerman, knew it would be, and so we, the acting ensemble, are being true to her vision--to a point.

Mary intended that all of us at one time or another find ourselves in the position of needing to save ourselves with a story before a very judgmental listener, much like Scheherezade does in front of the king, Sharyar, who wishes to kill her. We must pull a story (a list) out of our minds at an instant in front of our live audience and hope it is something that may please, distract, and/or otherwise engage them. The two improvisers for "the wonderful bag" are selected at random every night--the actor telling the tale of the bag throws it into the air, and the two people it lands closest to are the ones recruited.

Magic bag 
The cast of The Arabian Nights watches Evan Zes (standing, at left) 
defends the contents of his magic bag. At right, Ramiz Monsef prepares for his turn.
(photo courtesy of

Now, none of us are seasoned improv artists like you may have seen on comic improv shows on TV. In fact, all of us find the prospect of doing this rather terrifying. But it's part of the show, so we dive in and sink or swim. I personally know about the swimming and the sinking, having done both. When your little improvised list of absurd items in the bag goes well, as one fellow castmate put it, you are on the most euphoric high for the rest of the evening. But then it's over and you must perform the improv again soon and pray that you don't bomb, and yet you are faced with equaling or topping your own prior success.

When you bomb, it's a lonely feeling in the dressing room. People are very kind but you know you dropped the ball, putting that particular performance somewhat at risk and injuring your pride all at once--in public. For this reason, some of us prefer not to do The Bag very often, though we have all (who are eligible to do it) done it at one time or other and all of us have most often met with success. In fact, some of our finest bags have been performed by members who rarely do it. Meanwhile, practice does make perfect and those who do The Bag more often find it easier to do and are less daunted by the prospect. They get out there with a sense of ease and purpose and sometimes they can even feel eager to do the improv. These "bag veterans" can be absolutely brilliant. If you've seen them at work, then you know what I mean.

Having failed at The Bag at least once myself, I can tell you that's a moment unlike any other. The audience simply isn't with you. They do not respond as you make your list, or you may go down a subject path that is a turn-off to them. You can hear the "Ooooo's" and "Ohhhh's" and you know you need to turn around fast and find something that brings them back. Or you may simply need to end your list and hope the other performer has better luck. Or perhaps "The Kadi" will put you out of your misery by ending the improv for you. A lot of savvy goes into doing The Bag, particularly with a less responsive audience. We are constantly listening to the crowd's reactions during the show and making decisions based on their prior responses. With a less vocal audience, the bagger already knows that he or she may have to be a sacrificial lamb and "take one for the team" when the bag is tossed into the air and lands at her or his feet.

There are a couple of ways we do The Bag. Mary Z. may not like one of these because it violates slightly the idea of The Bag. Some of us have ideas already in mind that we hope to be calm enough to recall and explore under the pressure of performance. But others do a more 'pure bag' which is actually having no idea what you are going to say or do when you rise to begin your list of absurdities found in the bag. I think Mary would prefer this method, but it proves too scary to many of the most veteran bag improvisers. Also, we may sometimes "reference" or "steal" an idea from a prior bag improv of our own or someone else's. Mary would like each bag to be completely new, but some ideas are so rich and full of potential that some of us can't help giving them more exploration. Finally, The Bag should be a list of items found in the bag. We have had many absolutely brilliant, hysterically funny bag improvs that have more or less failed this task. Because we (may) make little explanations of certain items as we list them, some of us have found the explanations more engaging than the listing and tend to veer off into story-telling that finally verges on stand-up comedy. Audiences love this when it's well done, and it's been expertly done at some performances. This however, more than anything, would be a source of frustration to our director regarding The Bag. We have even met together recently to get back on track as an ensemble with The Bag and to ensure that future bags are to the director's specifications, so that future baggers feel safe and supported when they delve into the wacky mysteries of The Bag.

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They did it!

posted by Megan Wygant on Tue, Dec 23

A quick update on the Shakespeare Santa Cruz situation -- they did it.

Thanks to donations from theatre fans across the country, Shakespeare Santa Cruz was able to raise $416,417 in a little over a week. We're hugely relieved for our compatriots over the hill, and thrilled to live in a region where the arts are supported so strongly.

So, now that all the hubbub is over, and a little of the strain is off, it might be a good time to mention that...ahem...if you'd still like to get a write-off before tax season (by making a tax-deductable donation by the year's end), well, I can think of a few other local nonprofits that would welcome the help.

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You think you've got holiday shipping hassles?

posted by Terence Keane on Mon, Dec 22

At this time of year, lots of people worry about how much it will cost to ship gifts and if their packages will arrive on time. So this odd little office moment seemed apropos...

The other day our bookkeeper, Kristin, sent out an e-mail with the subject line "Fed-Ex mystery." When I read the message, I just had to laugh. Kristin was hoping that someone in the company could claim responsibility for an overnight package that had been billed to us, but she didn't have much to work with.

The package came from someone named Wileyuk Thessen at a business called CATCU in Ohio. Even better, according to Fed Ex, it was addressed to FJ Croeleng c/o Entucthen at Byhley R-perlviy. With admirable understatement, Kristin wrote, "I have a feeling some of these words are horribly misspelled. See if you can decipher."

It's fairly obvious that "Byhley R-perlviy" is scrawl for "Berkeley Repertory," but beyond that?

Well, incredibly, someone did break the code. The crucial bit was "CATCU," which turns out to be a theatre called Catco in Ohio. That's the usual artistic home for TJ Gerckens, the lighting designer who created the beautiful blend of lanterns, stars, and moonlight for The Arabian Nights. I guess TJ is also known to his friends as "FJ Croeleng."

And what about "c/o Entucthen"? I've studied a few foreign languages, and that looks vaguely like the German word for "duckling." Perhaps the package was sent via passenger pigeon? The best guess comes from Fred Geffken, our master electrician, who suspects the sender meant to write "c/o Electrics," since that's the department where TJ was working. While Fred is remarkably skilled at what he does, I think his brilliance in cracking the Duckling Code qualifies him for a high-level intelligence job doing cryptanalysis for the Obama administration.

So we can all sleep soundly now, with visions of Catcos and Croelengs dancing in our heads... Yet let this be a lesson to all of you elves out there: Santa can easily read millions of letters every year, but postal workers and bookkeepers really prefer if you write neatly when shipping those seasonal packages. (And it doesn't hurt to leave them some milk and cookies either.)

Happy holidays, everyone, from all of us at Berkeley Rep.

And Froehliche Weihnachten, Wileyuk Thessen, wherever you are.

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Save Shakespeare Santa Cruz!

posted by Megan Wygant on Fri, Dec 19

This week, Shakespeare Santa Cruz sent out an urgent plea for help: by next Monday (Dec 22), they need to raise $300,000 -- or shelve the 2009 summer season, and likely close the company for good.

It's been the hot topic of conversation at Berkeley Rep for the past week. How much have they raised? How close are they? Will they make it?

Michelle Morain - HH 
Heartbreak House. Costumes by Anna R. Oliver; set by Annie Smart,
both Bay Area designers. (photo by

I don't know about you, but I like living in a region where the theatre community is healthy and strong. I love that on any given night, if I'm in the mood for live theatre, I can find something worth seeing -- whether it's here at Berkeley Rep, a short walk up the street to Impact Theatre or Shotgun Players, a BART ride away at A.C.T. or other San Francisco companies... Or, on warm summer nights, a drive over to my childhood stomping grounds in Santa Cruz with a picnic basket and plans to reunite with the rest of my high school's one-time Shakespeare Club. (What can I say? Once a drama nerd, always a drama nerd.)

Schematics for prop currently under construction for
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), designed by Annie Smart

I say this not as someone whose livelihood is also in theatre, but as someone who is a resident of the Bay Area. As a supporter of the arts, I believe that more theatres out there producing good work means that there are more chances for people to attend theatre. More chances for first-time playgoers to give this live theatre thing a try, and discover that--guess what--you can't have this experience anywhere else. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but more theatres means more theatregoers, meaning more audiences for all the arts in the area. And that is a very, very good thing.

 Mike Fink 
Scenic intern Mike Fink works on an inlaid ottoman for
The Arabian Nights (photo by brtpropshop)

Of course, as someone who does work in the arts, I'm proud to live in a place where we have enough professional theatres to support a highly-skilled, hugely talented pool of craft artisans. I'm not sure if you realize that the Bay Area is the locus of an incredible pool of theatrical gifts, from actors like Dan Hiatt to craftspeople like Bruce Busby, Sarah Lowe, Janet Conery, Kitty Muntzel and Lisa Lazar, just to name a few (and our scenic art intern, Mike Fink, above). These are people who have worked at theatres throughout the country, but they've chosen to settle in the Bay Area--and a huge part of the attraction is that there are enough theatres here to ensure they will always be able to find a job doing the work they have been trained to do.

We attract some of the nation's best artisans because we have a theatrical community which can support them. One theatre going under won't definitively destroy that (although many of the people here at Berkeley Rep are watching the outcome of this week's race because their summer jobs are on the line), but this sense of community is possibly the best example of why so many of us feel so strongly that Shakespeare Santa Cruz must win this fight.

As of this morning, Shakespeare Santa Cruz has raised $255,851. They're close, but time is running out. If you can help, please do.

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The best gift...

posted by Lynn Eve Komaromi on Thu, Dec 18

It's interesting how this economy is affecting the psychology of gift-giving -- whether it's exchanging holiday gifts or making financial contributions to charitable organizations. Everyone is feeling like there is less money in their pocketbooks and there's almost a sense of apology people are making when they aren't able to make as (financially) generous a gift as they were in the past.

My son taught me something valuable this year, when for my birthday he composed a little ditty about my life, recorded using a computer program (Garage Band, I think), and giving me a DVD of it. It was funny, touching, and struck me to the core. That he put so much effort into it, that he actually knew some of the details of my life (which confirmed that he has indeed been paying attention!), was so moving to me. I was simply blown away.

So Christmas and the other present-exchange holidays have arrived and we're all trying to figure out what to do this year. My own family has long purchased a single gift for one member of the family (we exchange names randomly at Thanksgiving), but even this year we felt it was so burdensome financially that we are limiting the exchange to stocking-stuffers with a $5-$10 limit.

But a wonderful thing happened today for our Devo Department get-together. I had proposed a couple of weeks ago that instead of playing Secret Santa that we draw names and come up with a "performance piece" to do for "our" person. It could be a limerick, a haiku, a song, a dance, anything -- just something special for our person.

Oh my god. I know that I work with truly special people, but yesterday's holiday tea and performance "gift exchange" was proof positive of how extraordinary the Devo staff is.

Angele, our intern, wrote a beautiful piece about Jane, our database coordinator. Angele captured everything we love about Jane -- from having been a career woman who has transitioned into retirement, raised two beautiful daughters, and has an infectious laugh that everyone can hear from down the hall. Siobhan wrote a series of haikus about Angele that had us rolling with laughter (and which even included some facts captured from Angele's Facebook bio). Elisabeth used a Celtic brogue to recite a poem about the beautiful Siobhan and the light she brings to our office. Jane had a great limerick about the fabulous grant-writing Elisabeth -- including a factoid Jane picked up on Elisabeth through the internet! Rachel pulled out her Blackberry to sing lyrics to Catrina, using the famous Maria tune from West Side Story. Laura and Margo had each other's names, and Laura movingly read a poem about Margo, who simply is marvelous. Margo harkened back to all of our youths when she presented Laura with a "cootie catcher" (remember those?), a childhood paper origami fortune telling game which Laura can use in the office when it's time to take a break (Get a gelato, reads one of the random choices). Catrina belted out a Ry Cooder-esque song about me and the "Devo Chicks" that had us laughing so hard that we now want to adopt it as our official department anthem. And I got everyone singing a song to Rachel based on the 12 Days of Christmas, only it was the 8 Nights of Hannukah...and there were Five Drama Queens. The only thing missing from this was having Sara, my former co-director of devo who very recently moved down to the Southland, there. But we thought about her nonetheless.

Maybe only an all-female department could pull off something like this. I don't know. But what I do know is how everyone seemed to feel so appreciated and it was evident how each of us values the other. In times like this, we need those moments that money can't buy. And maybe I'm thankful we don't have the money for presents. Because really, these are the best gifts.

What artistic and creative ideas are you using to celebrate your family and friends this year?

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It's the most wonderful time of the year!

posted by Margaret Whitaker on Mon, Dec 15

As I am writing this, we are underway with our preparations for In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). Following the opening of Arabian Nights, I made the executive decision to take the week of Thanksgiving off, wherein I cooked, ate and slept as much as possible. The last two weeks have been marked by a gentle ramping up of productivity, and a little bit of sick and travel. I went back down to San Diego to talk to my former classmates about Clambake last week. I was out sick for two days this week, and in fact, I am still sick, but I just can't watch any more tv or I will go absolutely nuts, so here I am!

This week is all about skill checks, gathering information rolls, and putting stuff away. We are in communication with our designer about the costumes for the vibrator play: this entails detailed discussions about how big those bustles are going to be, what the fabrics are like, and how we will deal with all of the dressing and undressing onstage. In an effort to be frugal, I am not spending money like its going out of style at Zappos; I am hoping we can reuse some of those fine looking shoes I purchaced for Joe Turner on this show. We are also making sure we have accurate measurments for the actors, and contacting some outside sources to build some of the dresses. We got a lot of dresses to build, eek!

The last thing I am doing is working on my secret ornament project for our gift exchange in the costume shop... I'll post a photo after the exchange is over... I don't want the surprise to be ruined...

Costume sketch by designer David Zinn

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Behold: Ennio! (& me)

posted by Pauline Luppert on Fri, Dec 12

So--here's our 15-second TV spot for Ennio, which will premier on KTVU TV2 tomorrow.  It features video excerpts of a show Ennio did in England.  It was edited by our multi-talented art director, Cheshire. The oh-so-dulcet voice-over was provided by yours truly, and it was recorded and mixed by the exceptionally charming ladies of our sound department:

If we'd all had our druthers and a Hollywood budget we'd have had a professional voice-over artist like Hal Douglas and it would sound more like the commercial for Jerry Seinfeld's new movie:



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Monday night dance party

posted by Megan Wygant on Thu, Dec 11

Holiday party --people 

This past Monday, Berkeley Rep staff, crew, and friends gathered in the rehearsal hall to chow down on a fantastic potluck, dance like crazy people, and generally spread holiday cheer.

Wait, Monday??

Well, yes-–Monday’s the only day the theatre is dark (meaning there are no shows). It’s actually the day off for about half our staff—-specifically, the half that just came off a grueling five-show weekend, and will be back at the Theatre on Tuesday night, running Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Arabian Nights. So we couldn’t have the party on any other night—-and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The high point of the party each year is the centerpiece competition. Each department is responsible for bringing a centerpiece for one of the dining tables, and a panel of anonymous and impartial staff judges (only one of those two adjectives is true) convenes to choose the winner and two runners-up. Competition is fierce and awe-inspiring. I mean, would you want to go up against the costume or prop department? This kind of thing is their livelihood. And don’t get me started on the pyrotechnics that electrics is capable of, or the things that the scenic studios can make with their power tools.

Below is a photo of the costume shop's 2006 prize-winning entry. We made this and other photos of the winners into a set of lovely holiday cards.

BRT Glove xmas tree 

This year, the judges clearly had a different idea of holiday cheer in mind. I have to give a shout-out to my department, marketing, which got into the winner's circle for the first time EVER thanks to Elissa Dunn's inspired merging of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The School of Theatre pulled a second-place win with their interactive Pictionary tree. And in first place was the development department with their centerpiece, “Have a very Carrie Christmas.”

Holiday party - devo 

In the words of one of the judges, “they won because, well, they went THERE.”

Yeah, they did.

One of my favorite things about the holiday party is that it’s entirely self-created. The electrics department brings in the disco ball and hooks up lights, the sound department brings in a sound board and speakers, the board and development department works to get donated gifts for our raffle, and everyone brings food to contribute to the potluck. (And what a spread it is –- Berkeley Rep staff can really--I mean really--cook.) (Has anyone mentioned recently that we love free food?)

And after that? We break it down. We’ve got a few moonlighting DJs on staff, plus the professional talents of our head sound engineer’s husband (their daughter, Anja, is below, boogying down with Gendell Hernandez from the School of Theatre).

Holiday party - Anja   

Our Monday night dance party is off the hook. And every year, watching the fantastic talents of each department bring it all home, it reminds me-—again-—why I’m so glad to be celebrating the holidays with this group of people.

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