Alameda has lots of theater, but little space
Alameda has lots of theater, but little space
This past Labor Day weekend brought some disappointing news for some of Alameda’s youngest thespians: Alameda Children’s Musical Theatre’s planned production of “Meet Me in St. Louis” at Kofman Auditorium was being canceled.
“We very much wanted to do this production, but after careful consideration, we have determined that ACMT simply does not have the human, technical and financial resources needed to stage this production at Kofman and that no suitable alternate venue is available,” Page Barnes, president of the theater company’s board, wrote in an e-mail to families.
The children’s theater company – which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year – had originally planned to hold the performance at the Altarena Playhouse on High Street, its home of 10 years. But in late May, Barnes said the board that manages the Altarena informed ACMT’s leaders that it would no longer rent its space to outside groups, a move that she said sent the children’s theater group scrambling for a new place to perform.
“We tried to work with them and they just shut the door on us,” Barnes said in an interview with The Alamedan.
The children’s theater group’s struggles illustrate a problem that several local theater groups face: Alameda offers few venues for them to stage performances. The dearth of properly outfitted theater space has forced local directors to be a little more creative in making do with makeshift spaces – but has also served to push some of their productions off-Island.
Laura Lundy-Paine, who runs the Virago Theatre Company, said her company has “jumped from place to place” since their founding, in 2006. The group started at the old Monart space before moving, a year later to Rhythmix Cultural Works, and it has set up makeshift theater productions in other spaces.
Lundy-Paine said Rhythmix and others have been generous in offering their space for performances (the group will be staging performances of its upcoming show at Rock Wall Wine Company in October). But the lack of a small theater that could serve as Virago’s home base forced the group to set up the production of its next show, the premiere of the musical “Zombie Vixens From Hell,” in a theater in San Francisco. And Lundy-Paine says that the group, unable to find a permanent home in Alameda, has been looking at space in Berkeley.
“Berkeley’s great, but it sure would be nice to be at home if there were any possibility,” she said.
At Encinal High School – which lacks a theater – teachers Gene Kahane and Bob Moorhead stage most of their shows in the school’s cafeteria and gymnasium. He said he has had to be “creative” with other shows, staging productions in the school’s faculty lunchroom, a stairway and a vacant lot.
“There literally have been times where (Moorhead’s) had rehearsals with curtains closed and basketball practice was going on the other side,” Kahane said.
Even Altarena has had its struggles with space. When the group got its start in 1938 as the Alameda Little Theatre, it bounced from venue to venue before acquiring the abandoned grocery store on High Street that became its permanent home, in 1957.
Kahane said there have been several junctures at which he and others were hopeful Encinal – or Alameda’s West End as a whole – would get a dedicated theater space, though none of the plans have come to fruition. Most recently, he said, Antiques By the Bay owner Allen Michaan offered the Alameda Point theater he leased and renovated; but converting the space for the school’s use would have been too costly.
Kahane is hoping that with Encinal’s conversion to a 6-12 school next year and the Alameda Community Learning Center’s move off of the Encinal campus that there is a possibility a dedicated theater space could be created.
“There’s a lot of theater in Alameda for a city of this size,” he said. “We all struggle to find places to perform. It’s difficult.”
After being told they could no longer stage shows at the Altarena, Barnes – who said there’s a “desperate need” for performance space in Alameda – said ACMT rented the one space that was available to them – Kofman Auditorium. But Kofman proved to be too large for the group.
She said its size would have necessitated larger – and costlier – sets than the group is accustomed to building, and a full orchestra in place of the piano that typically accompanies the group’s young performers (ACMT’s performances usually include a cast of 20 to 30 youths aged 7 to 18 and five additional young crew members).
Barnes and others interviewed for this story said the loss of the space ends what they saw as a mutually beneficial relationship between ACMT and Altarena. They said the youth group has trained generations of young performers and technicians who grew up and joined the casts and crews of Altarena’s shows – and performed for thousands of children – including those who attend low-cost, school-day matinees the group performs – helping to establish an audience base for the adult theater’s shows.
She said Altarena’s board “repeatedly reassured” ACMT’s leaders that the decision wasn’t the result of anything they did, but that the board had determined that renting the theater was not part of its owners’ mission. Patrick Tracy, who is listed as the president of Altarena’s board on the theater’s website, did not respond to an e-mail or a call seeking his side of the story.
Barnes said the children’s theater will stage its spring show, a Kahane-directed production of “Willie Wonka,” at Encinal High. But she’s hoping Altarena’s board will listen to her and other community members who want the theater’s doors opened to the youth theater group again.
“I’m hoping the Altarena will reconsider its position and offer us the theater again,” Barnes said.
Kahane called Encinal cafeteria where ACMT’s production will be staged instead is “a makeshift kind of school theater” but said he plans to make the best of the space he has.
“It’s not an ideal space, but we will make it work,” Kahane said.