Berkeley Rep Blog

September 2011

Les Waters' summer vacation

posted by Karen McKevitt on Fri, Sep 30

It was a busy summer here at Berkeley Rep: we wrapped an encore performance of Let Me Down Easy, rehearsed and opened Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, and started rehearsing Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible. But associate artistic director Les Waters wasn’t hanging out by the pool: he was off to Yale Repertory Theatre (after some slight travel delays due to hurricanes) to restage Sarah Ruhl’s version of Three Sisters with most of the original cast seen here including locals James Carpenter, Alex Moggridge, and Barbara Oliver, among others. And they earned some great reviews. Here are some excerpts:

From the Boston Globe:

If done right, as in the incisive and well-acted production at Yale Repertory Theatre directed by Les Waters, “Three Sisters’’ reminds us that few writers have ever seen into the human soul with more acuity and understanding than Chekhov.

Waters has taken pains to ensure that the performances remain grounded in the particulars of each character, so the sisters and their friends register as real people who are grappling with the difficulties and disappointments of existence. Scene by scene, the Yale Rep’s “Three Sisters’’ adds up to a compelling group portrait of characters who, in ways large and small, try to escape the limitations life has imposed on them.

TS12_lrNatalia Payne, Heather Wood and Wendy Rich Stetson play the title characters. Photo by

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Amplifying Rita Moreno

posted by Karen McKevitt on Thu, Sep 29

By Elliott Ares, sound fellow

Many elements go into the sound design for Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, but one element in particular is essential: vocal amplification. Wireless microphones are utilized so that the audience can hear the actors over the sound effects and live music.


These two RF (radio frequency) mics are assigned to each dancer, Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo. The flesh-colored cable at the top left of the image is the lavalier.

The lavalier sucks up sound and puts it into the body pack transmitter. We painted some of the lavalier cables black to blend in with Ray and Salvatore's hair.


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An ode to the rumba

posted by Amy Bobeda on Wed, Sep 28

In the production departments, we have to learn to let go of our work. Many artisans at Berkeley Rep are artists outside the gates of our Harrison St. and Addison St. campuses, but here, as artisans we have to embrace what most artists fear: our hard work may never see the light of day. Some departments are used to this; the scenic painting folks work tirelessly to paint the steel framing on the backside of scenery that will never be seen by anyone beyond stage crew.

Change is particularly common on world premieres of shows that have had limited workshop time. Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup is a perfect example.

When the costume shop began production, we began reconstructing a beautiful black-and-white gown for a rumba number. It was a snow storm of rhinestones, spandex, and about 30 yards of sheer and opaque black-and-white taffeta ruffles. Needless to say, it was, as many of our garments are, a challenging by enjoyable execution process.

Alas, no Berkeley Rep audience member will ever gaze upon the rumba dress, because the number was cut from the show.

Many people may read this and think “OMG weren’t you guys mad!? You made so many ruffles!” But here is the kicker: we are just here to make the beautiful things, it isn’t up to us what happens with them next, and there is something incredibly freeing about that feeling.

Personally, I loved the rumba dress. It was sparkly. It was outrageous. It looked darn good on Ms. Moreno, and hopefully its ruffles will one day be seen by eyes other than those of the costume department. Am I sad to see it go? Sure. But, the beautiful thing about costumes is that one day, the rumba dress will come out of the closet again.

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If you were looking for a reason to email Oprah...

posted by Megan Wygant on Mon, Sep 26

...let it never be said that a passion for the arts didn't give you that opportunity.

RUpre2b_lr Earlier this week, I was pleasantly surprised when an email from Oberon K.A. Adjepong arrived in my inbox. Oberon played Christian, the traveling salesman, in Berkeley Rep's production of Ruined last season and we've kept in touch on and off since then. Like the character you saw on the Roda stage, the real-life Oberon is gifted with a strong sense of humor, an instinct for mischief, and a singular ability to make you feel like a dear friend from the first moment you meet. I really enjoyed having him with us in Berkeley, and am always happy to hear from him.

Oberon was writing because he wanted to ask for my help. And, reading his request, I thought that it might be something that the greater Berkeley Rep community might like to jump in on as well!

Here's the deal: 

Late last year, Oprah announced that she was involved with a film adaptation of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning play, Ruined. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that she would be playing Mama Nadi

At present, the role of Christian has not been cast.

Oberon would very much like to be the one tapped for that role -- and the first step is getting an audition. He and his agent are working the regular channels to make such a thing happen, but he recognizes that this is the time to think about nontraditional solutions as well.

Oberon is therefore asking his friends and family to launch a letter-writing campaign in support of his recent work with Ruined, and to recommend his being given the opportunity to audition for the role. 

You see where you can help, don't you? The more, the merrier!

It's pretty simple: write a letter to Tell her that you saw Oberon in the recent Berkeley Rep production of Ruined (if you'd like, you can also mention that he played the role at La Jolla Playhouse and the Huntington Theatre in Boston). Tell Ms. Winfrey how much you liked Oberon's work as Christian. Be specific if you can. And ask her to consider casting him in the role of Christian for her film.

Again, that email address is

We all talk about how, in this business, being successful is a combination of talent, hard work, and luck. Sometimes, you just have to make your own luck -- and this is one of those times.  Let's help him do it!


Photo: Oberon K.A. Adjepong as Christian and Tonye Patano as Mama Nadi in Berkeley Rep's production of Ruined (photo by Kevin Berne)

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At Burning Man

posted by Karen McKevitt on Fri, Sep 23

By Colin Babcock

As master carpenter of Berkeley Rep, I am constantly confronted with new challenges and get to work with new materials and techniques. It’s my favorite part about my job. Recently I built the rolling fire escape and stoop unit you saw on stage in Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. The stoop unit was tricky. It had to be wheeled out and placed on its spike mark and stay there as Rita Moreno recounted her early years in New York. To accomplish my given task, I drew upon past Berkeley Rep experience, with some help from my wife Stephanie Shipman, who built two rolling desks for The Peoples Temple back when she was the scene-shop intern during the 2004/05 season. I was able to base the engineering of my stoop on what she did with the desks, but augmented her design with some techniques I recently employed on an outside project. I devised a lever-and-pulley system in the stoop that engages the wheels in much the same way that I made the rudder turn with the front wheels of the 25-foot-long submarine my friends and I made from scratch this summer.

The task was to build a replica of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that could be driven around the playa at the recent Burning Man Festival in Nevada. About 40 of us worked long nights and weekends all summer long at the Five Ton Crane Headquarters in West Oakland to accomplish our goal.

6034468988219_ORIG Attaching skeleton to the vehicle

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The Glamour of Old Hollywood: A New World for Teens

posted by School of Theatre on Thu, Sep 22

By Gisela Feied

One of the best parts of being a part of Berkeley Rep’s Teen Council is that it allows a teenager like me to see beautiful plays at an amazing theatre. Attending Teen Night for Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup on September 9 was no exception.


As I walked in through the doors of the School of Theatre, I instantly felt the welcoming smiles of Teen Council members and School of Theatre staff. The food was to die for (adorable mini burgers from Phil’s Sliders -- thanks Phil's!). As we enjoyed our dinner, we talked to Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, the two back-up dancers in Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. It was very easy and fun to ask them questions about their performing arts training, including their triple-threat status being singers, actors, and dancers.  And, of course, what was it like working with Rita Moreno? It was extremely exciting to hear about how Salvatore has toured the world with stars like Cher and Britney Spears! Ray was asked about his experience in the Broadway production of Rent! In the show we would get visual proof of how gifted and skilled they truly are. 

After interviewing Ray and Sal, we walked together to the theatre with tickets in hand and found our seats. As the lights went down and the curtain came up we leaned forward in our chairs and were enchanted to see Rita Moreno standing centerstage, looking out over the audience. Throughout the performance there was in intensity in watching Rita’s life unfold as a one-woman show. Seeing her life was like a seeing a new world! From an early age she realized she was a performer, and at 16 she got her first contract. She got to meet people like Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley. Not to mention the fact that she played Anita in the movie version of West Side Story! She spoke about how frustrating and unfair it was to be cast in many movies and plays based on a stereotype of her ethnicity, despite her incredible talents.

Intermission was the longest 15 minutes of my life. After the show, I was completely speechless. We could only listen to the each other try to formulate thoughts into words. It was useless, but we all knew what the others were feeling, because we felt it too. It also connected us to a whole world that, until that night, I, and many of my peers, hadn’t been exposed to. That new world was the glamour of old Hollywood. Seeing this show made me more confident in my pursuit to become a working actor one day.  What an amazing show.  It will stay with me for the rest of my life -- I can’t wait for the next Teen Night! 

An aspiring actress and stage combatant, Gisela Feied is a junior at Oakland School for the Arts. A Teen Council regular, Gisela has participated in many Teen Council programs, including acting in the Teen One-Acts Festival and winning the title of Top Fundraiser at last year’s Teen Council Dramathon. 

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Gotta dance!

posted by Karen McKevitt on Wed, Sep 21

By Aleta George

In Singin’ in the Rain, an energetic, bespectacled young man hits the streets of New York, proclaiming, “Gotta dance!”

Every dancer recalls their first “Gotta dance!” moment. Rita Moreno’s came at the tender age of 6 after her first time on stage in a Greenwich Village nightclub. In Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, she tells the audience that in that moment she thought, “Forget school, I want to do this for the rest of my life!”

For Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, the talented dancers who have Moreno’s back in Life Without Makeup, their moments came as teenagers.

RM3_lr Rita Moreno performs with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia. Photo by

Garcia grew up in Bay City, Texas, a small town of 13,000 people that had no theatre and no performing arts classes at the high school. Garcia fell in love with the piano (his neighbor had one), worked hard, and nabbed a music scholarship for college. That was before the Young Americans came to town in his senior year. “Oh my God, I want to do that!” he said after seeing them perform. He auditioned that day and nailed it.

He went home and told his parents, “Gotta dance!” They didn’t have the money for his tuition, but raised it with the help of the community. When Garcia flew to Los Angeles, it was his first time away from home and his first time on an airplane.

 “America” was among the first songs that Garcia learned with the Young Americans, and West Side Story became his favorite musical of all time. “It’s so crazy that I’m dancing it with Rita Moreno now,” he says. “I have to pinch myself every time.”

Salvatore Vassallo’s moment hit when he was a young teen. Like Moreno, Vassallo came to America as a child immigrant, but his family came from Italy. For many years, culture shock and an unfamiliar language silenced Vassallo until he discovered he could communicate through dance. His “Gotta Dance!” moment came after watching the captain of the dance team perform at Dana Junior High School in San Pedro, CA. “She looked like she was in her element and having such a great time,” he says. “From the moment I auditioned for the dance department at 14, I have never stopped moving.”

By the time Vassallo and Garcia launched their careers, they didn’t have to lighten their skin or hide their ethnicity like Moreno did in her early career. “She paved the way for Latinos in show business,” says Garcia. “I’m very grateful for that.” Garcia is passing the torch, too. He frequently returns to his old high school in Bay City to talk to the kids. “It’s hard to get out of a small town like that, and even harder to believe you can go somewhere and pursue your dreams.”

The three American success stories now onstage of the Roda Theatre have proven that it’s not only possible to pursue you dreams but to attain them.

Aleta George, house manager at Berkeley Rep and a journalist, had her “Gotta dance” moment in high school. In her 20s she was a DAW (dancer, actress, waitress) in Los Angeles and played Rosalia in West Side Story at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. She applied pancake makeup to darken her skin.


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Outreach to local schools - why are we doing this?

posted by School of Theatre on Tue, Sep 20

By Dave Maier, outreach coordinator

Earlier this week I was driving up to Santa Rosa for my first high-school outreach visit of the year. Excited to build on the previous year’s success, I was going over the three-hour playwriting curriculum in my head and how I might adapt it to fit the needs of this particular class. When suddenly: TRAFFIC! The 101 highway north was a parking lot due to construction. “Don’t panic,” the voice in my head began, “you have plenty of time and this back-up can’t last too long.” During the seemingly endless delay my frustration grew and that voice became more frantic and challenged me with the repeated question, “Why are you doing this?”

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Teaching students age 6 to 80

posted by School of Theatre on Tue, Sep 20

By MaryBeth Cavanaugh, associate director of the School of Theatre


One of my earliest experiences at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre was a class I taught for an open house that involved teaching movement techniques to people of all ages. As I entered the class I saw a girl about 6 and an 80-year-old woman. I was completely taken aback at the situation before me. I'd taught young children and adults and professional actors/dancers, but never in the same space at the same time. Movement classes by their nature force people to stretch their boundaries and get outside  their comfort zones. In my experience, the social makeup and experience levels of the group (whether college students, K-8, etc...) would invariably dictate the degree to which the students would explore and challenge themselves. Now I was facing a generational spectrum I'd never seen in any class, anywhere. I forced a smile as I took my place and muttered quietly, "This is going to be rough." 

The students, I noticed, seemed completely at ease and eager to begin the class. And so I simply launched into the lesson plan, and felt immediate relief that the students -- all ages -- were instantly engaged and moved with great enthusiasm and commitment. There was no obvious generational discomfort; there was no self-segregation by age or sex or race or aptitude; everyone moved and worked as a group, as a community. The students displayed none of the trepidation I initially felt, and I will never forget watching a 6- and 80-year-old doing triplets together across the floor. They were moving in unison, as members of a community.  

What sets the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre apart is its unique and inclusive student body. They play as important a role as any teacher or any curriculum. They enter the classes as members of a community. They challenge and accept their classmates -- inclusive of age, race or experience.  Everyone learns, everyone is challenged as much as they want to be, and everyone is accepted.   

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“What do ya do with a B.A. in English?”

posted by School of Theatre on Mon, Sep 19

Good question, Avenue Q writers.  As two recently graduated English majors who “can’t pay the bills yet, cuz we have no skills yet,” that question dominated our thoughts for the last year. And so, in celebration of National Arts in Education Week, we’re sharing our answer with you.

Our answer:  Arts Education. 

I’m Shari McDonald, education fellow and recent graduate of Bennett College with a B.A. in English and concentration in Theatre. Here’s why “arts education” is my answer.

Arts education is a basic necessity. Sure, including arts education as a basic necessity along with water, food, shelter, and clothing is a bit of a stretch, but maybe all too often we neglect our need to exhibit human qualities. The need to connect, touch, inspire, engage, and express will never vanish, so perhaps arts education needs to be added to that list of basic necessities.

Arts education serves as an integral part of an adolescent's development. Youth who have participated in the arts have improved communication skills, motivation, cognitive ability, confidence, concentration, and teamwork. The arts help to create well-rounded students who not only care about their own success, but also are empathetic, compassionate, and charitable to others. And, people who create art often allow themselves to be vulnerable and empathetic. If everyone allowed themselves to experience these emotions, we’d have a world of humanitarians! 

“The children are the future,” so I have decided to invest in our society’s future by being an educator who utilizes the arts as a teaching method. Education is the most unique and fluid field. It is a noble, selfless, and evolving profession. Teachers exist in all forms: dancers, philosophers, doctors, scientists, architects, economists, and artists. The ability to share your knowledge, and inspire others is the most rewarding experience. There is no better way to change the world than to be an educator who understands the importance of integrating arts education.

I’m Hannah Lennett, education fellow and recent Graduate of Brown University with degrees in English Literature and Performance Studies. Here’s why “arts education” is my answer.

I went to college with a lot of people who wanted to change the world.  I sat in a seminar one day with a student to my left studying health policy in order to travel to Mali and start an orphanage, while to my right was a soon-to-be civil rights attorney. I sat in the middle, swamped with rehearsal schedules, English papers, and teaching gigs, hoping that I would be able to construct as noble and vast a dream as theirs.  My classmates' dreams were immense and different, creative and challenging -- but there was one thing they had in common. They had all been touched by the arts in some way.  The civil rights lawyer learned her love for public speaking in her middle school drama club. The orphanage had been the brainchild of my other classmate ever since he took an African drumming class in his elementary school and became engrossed in Malian culture. Every dreamer I talked to was inspired by the arts. 

There I was -- graduation approaching, staring at the options available to an English major like myself, and pretty consistently humming the Avenue Q soundtrack under my breath like the faithful theatre geek that I am. 

In the end I skipped over the consulting firms and the entry-level publishing jobs (even though they were tempting both in salary and content) because in this culture of big dreamers, I found myself looking around me at my outstanding peers who were able to enter such incredible fields, and I decided my big dream was to make sure that our country is preserving and creating new generations of big dreamers.  Dreamers who get their start when a teacher hands them their first musical instrument, teaches them a dance step, or asks them to take the lead in the school play. 

So here I am in my dream(er) fellowship at Berkeley Rep School of Theatre.  In National Arts in Education Week, I am thankful for all the arts educators who work to inspire students every day and look forward to supporting and working with them in my time at Berkeley Rep and beyond.

 Happy National Arts in Education Week!



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