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Berkeley Rep's 'The Ground Floor' Revolutionizes New Play Development (PHOTOS)

First Posted: 09/26/11 10:28 PM ET   Updated: 11/26/11 05:12 AM ET

The world-famous the Berkeley Repertory Theater was tired of telling people they were sorry.

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For years, talented theater artists came to the Berkeley-based theatrical institution looking for help transforming the ideas in their heads into reality on the stage.

They came to Berkeley Rep because, for over four decades, the company has been the place to develop new work in the Bay Area—it hosted the world premiere of Green Day's rock opera "American Idiot," staged the first ever production of Sarah Rhul's "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)" that took Broadway by storm and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Artistic Director Tony Taccone steered Carrie Fisher back into the spotlight when he directed her solo show "Wishful Drinking."

Berkeley Rep has a reputation for success, sending a show to Broadway nearly every year for close to a decade, but the logistical limitations of needing to travel all over the country to develop new plays made it such that the company wasn't able to take on as many new shows as it would have liked.

"We had to run from workshops in New York to rehearsals in Chicago and then down to L.A. for something else," said company dramaturg Madeline Oldham. Having to bounce from one coast to the other to help shepherd a new work to the stage was making life difficult.

It was out of this dilemma that The Ground Floor was born.

The idea behind The Ground Floor is to treat exciting new theater projects like innovative cities treat exciting new tech companies—put them all together in a former warehouse space converted into a "incubator" and hope something amazing comes out.

That aforementioned warehouse space was discovered when Berkeley Rep consolidated all of its pre-production facilities (costume, prop and scene shops as well as its administrative offices) onto a single campus in West Berkeley. The site came with a vacant warehouse space that was sitting vacant. The Berkeley Rep staff—always a creative lot—decided there was no better use for the facility than turning it into a hotbed for new play development.

The company is using the space as an umbrella organization for all of its new work development efforts as part of an innovative program that's the first of its kind anywhere in the United States.

There are some other companies around the country working on similar endeavors, such as Arena Stage's New Play Institute in Washington, D.C. and Yale Rep's Center For New Theatre; however, those are essentially only doing bits and pieces of what Berkeley Rep is trying to accomplish in its entirety.

The Ground Floor will be comprised of two key elements. There is an annual residency lab where theater artists come in for three to six weeks over the summer and take their project, be it a nearly completed draft or nothing more than an idea bouncing off the sides of their skull, to the next level. It will also serve as a venue for commissioned projects breathe until they're ready for an audience.

Giving work the time and space it requires is one of the primary reasons why The Ground Floor was created in the first place. "The traditional four week rehearsal process is fine when the script is already there," said Oldham, who also serves as The Ground Floor's director, "but if you have to develop something from scratch and then, for example, make dozens of puppets by hand [as was the case when the company premiered Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead last year, four weeks is ridiculously short."

One of the new works being considered is a piece by playwright Dan LeFranc that includes an onstage boat chase. Figuring out how to stage that particular scene, short of dropping a speedboat on the stage "Miss Saigon"-style, is the type of situation where a slightly longer production schedule is welcome.

"As we've explored new ways to develop plays and expanded our use of other artistic mediums, we've discovered that our familiar rehearsal and performance model is well-suited to work that is rooted in language and narrative -- but it's not as effective for work that draws on other media, such as music and dance, or which evolves through collaborative creation," said Taccone. "So we're launching The Ground Floor to encompass all of our efforts to create new work, including commissions, workshops, and an exciting new summer residency lab."

There is also an effort to bring more of the Bay Area theater-going community into the process of creating new work. "We're hoping to open up play development so its more than just three rich people coming to a rehearsal," said Oldham. "Not that rich people coming to workshops is a bad thing, but the development of new plays is something that a lot of people are interested in and it would be good to open it up to a wider audience."

The program is largely being funded by a $1 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation and a $750,000 grant from the National Endowment For The Arts offshoot ArtPlace.

The first artists are scheduled to begin their residencies at The Ground Floor next July.

Check out this slideshow of past Berkeley Rep productions:

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup
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Legendary actress Rita Moreno performs with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia during dress rehearsal for the world premiere of Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup at Berkeley Rep.

Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
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