Alameda has lots of theater, but little space

Alameda has lots of theater, but little space

Michele Ellson
Alameda Children's Musical Theatre - contributed photo

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.


Submitted by Christopher on Mon, Sep 10, 2012

I believe I have seen ACMT productions at the AHS "Little Theater" in the past... Why has that venue not been brought up now? It was the perfect size then, why not now?

Submitted by Page Barnes on Mon, Sep 10, 2012


You are right. ACMT is sometimes able to use the Little Theater, but priority is (rightly) given to AHS productions and classes. Fred Chacon, the drama teacher at AHS, has been extraordinarily generous with ACMT. It is a considerable inconvenience to him when ACMT uses the theater because backstage is literally his classroom. Despite the inconvenience, he makes the theater available to ACMT as often as he can, and ACMT is very grateful to him. This fall, the Little Theater was not available to ACMT because AHS will be doing its own production in the space.

Submitted by Christopher on Mon, Sep 10, 2012

Have you considered all of the other school theaters? That would likely be as inexpensive as a venue can be, even if not the most desirable because audience would not be in comfy theater chairs on raked floors, nor would the technical aspects in place be of high quality, but I think every school does have a stage, and anything can be a theater... The article does not state your budget, the scale of your sets, the age and expectations of the young actors you work with as to technical aspects, (sound, lights, projection, etc), or the expectations of the target audience you desire. (are they 90% family of performers who would be satisfied with a low budget house without carpeted aisles, a catered foyer, hanging chandeliers, and willing to be on folding chairs on a flat floor for the production? That is what most Alameda schools can provide. Berkeley middle schools have outstanding theaters and drama teachers, and that is nearby for your higher end productions. And I would not dismiss Oakland's schools either.
Might I also have seen ACMT production at an Alameda elementary school too? (I think Emerson).
What I am getting at is that there really seems to be a lot of opportunity unless you are really looking for a real legit theater at pro-bono pricing. That you are not likely to find any more. Part of the normal "problem" all un-established artists always face is funding. But that also leads to a lot of creativity, out of the box thinking, part of the verve that often gentrifies forgotten parts of towns and brings them back to the community.
I certainly would not expect handout funding, or anything new supported by our city when we can barely take care of roads, parks, pools, libraries, etc.

Good luck to you and all the areas young artists. Maybe you can talk to the Journal's new editor for a front page ad - they helped another young artist business last week.

Submitted by Page Barnes on Mon, Sep 10, 2012


I'm not sure why you would jump to the conclusion that we are requesting any sort of handout. For 30 years, ACMT has paid the going rate for our theater rentals. We do not expect space to be made available pro bono or for the City to come to our aid.

While we do not demand plush accommodations, our participants and audiences do expect a "real" theater experience -- meaning, at a minimum, theatrical lighting and acoustics that allow the audience to hear our actors. And they expect that the productions will be performed in Alameda, not Berkeley or Oakland. The young actors who participate in most of our shows have, for the most part, already participated in introductory theater and are hoping to move up to the next level. Folding chairs are fine, but the elementary school theaters do not meet our minimum requirements. For the many years I have been involved in ACMT, we have never done a show at an elementary school.

If you don't believe that the many people who are put countless volunteer hours into ACMT (including all the board members who produce the shows) are doing the community a service, that's certainly your prerogative. But those of us who are involved in ACMT are, genuinely, doing this as a community service to Alameda. We work very hard at what we do -- for no pay and virtually no recognition. If the community does not value what we are trying to do, we'll just stop doing it and spend more time with our families and doing the jobs for which we get paid.

Submitted by Christopher on Tue, Sep 11, 2012

Page - I was not making any conclusions & certainly was not making any negative statements about you, ACMT, or those who volunteer for, or participate in, your programs. I do value commitments to the arts and your community service. I was trying to explain I know little of what your program's basic needs are while trying to make suggestions to help you. I still do not know what level of theater you are looking to house, and I am sure you know light & sound packages can be rented for any venue, even outdoors.
Best I just say "good luck", and leave it at that.