At a rehearsal less than two weeks before Beneath the Tall Tree opened at TheatreFIRST, a theater company that leases and operates Live Oak Theater in North Berkeley, Joy Carlin, the director, and Adrienne Walters, the playwright, were deep in discussion about a how a new speech would fit into the story arc.
Walters had just written the speech the night before and it was meant to reflect a central question of the play: what it is like to be ambiguously biracial. Walters, who modeled the main character on herself, said she wrote the speech to express the character’s “lack of identity.”
“She isn’t Japanese, but she’s not, like, white,” Walters said. “I don’t identify with either, which is how a lot of hapas feel.” (Hapa comes from Hawaiian and designates someone of mixed ancestry or half-Asian.)
Carlin agreed to give the speech a try in rehearsal that night, and she ultimately decided to keep it in. It is one of many revelatory moments in “Beneath the Tall Tree,” the story of a Japanese-American teenager who buries his family’s heirloom, a samurai sword, before the family is interned during World War II. After the war, he goes to look for the sword but cannot remember where it is buried. Two generations later, his granddaughter, who is training as an archaeologist, decides to search for the sword — and a lost cultural identity — after her grandfather’s death. The play runs through March 25.
The last-minute changes to the script, as well as the community and culture represented in Beneath the Tall Tree, reflect the mission of TheatreFIRST, which sees itself as a development company bringing underrepresented points of view to the stage. The company also works hard to diversify its audience and its leadership.
“TheatreFIRST creates a social hub where, through the art of storytelling, all voices get heard,” according to the company’s website. “Dedicated to telling the world’s stories through multiple, simultaneous viewpoints, TheatreFIRST has redeveloped its lens so that a more actual world will be reflected and a more actual world will attend.”
To do this, TheatreFIRST helps foster “new, necessary stories,” by bringing aspiring and accomplished playwrights into “collaborative residencies,” according to the group’s mission statement. The plays produced in the workshops then go on to be presented to audiences the next season.
“How do you put the artists at the center of their own stories?” said Jon Tracy, a well-regarded Bay Area director who took the helm as TheatreFIRST’s artistic director a year ago. “What is it to build work from the ground up, from the origins of the artists that should be telling the story and have not had the chance to tell these stories?”
One Tracy’s first steps when he came to TheatreFIRST was to expand the board of directors, as a system of checks and balances on himself, a white man, and to reflect more accurately the population of Berkeley and the society they serve, he said. In practical terms, this means that at least fifty percent of the advisory board, staff, casts and creative teams are female-identified and two-thirds are people of color. Tracy said his board is filled with “business-minded creatives” who can build “sustainable projects,” rather than the traditional arts patrons with deep pockets.
Making changes didn’t stop there, however.
“There are no answers; there are only better questions,” Tracy said. “What does it mean to say, ‘fifty-percent female-identified,’ where a lot of our artists identify somewhere on the spectrum?” he asked. “We wouldn’t have been able to get to that question if we hadn’t asked the first.”
TheatreFIRST has also inspired some alterations to the theater itself. There’s no more boxy snack bar in the lobby. The exterior wall on the Live Oak Park side of the lobby will be removed and rebuilt several feet further out, making way for an ADA-compliant bathroom near the theater entrance, according to Tracy. Several rows of seats were removed from the theater so that the front of the stage could be extended forward for the current play.
Beneath the Tall Tree is the third of four new works offered by TheatreFIRST this season. Director Carlin, who in 1971 was the first woman to direct a play on the Geary stage of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, said she hopes other theatre companies will perform the play
“It’s instructional; it’s theatrical, it’s dramatic — it’s a good play; I would hope people pick it up, but you never know,” Carlin said.
She said that the audience at Live Oak Theater is far younger than at most of the theaters she has worked in. “I think that’s good because so many of them really don’t know about the (Japanese) relocation at all, so it could be news to them,” Carlin said, “and they’ll find out a lot about it in this play.”
Besides developing new stories for the stage, TheatreFIRST aims to invite and build a more diverse theatre-going audience. Tracy said that takes “getting humble” and “listening to other people’s stories.” It means “really exploring the word ‘outreach,’ what it is physically, but much more emotionally and socially, going to their door, to their space, acting as a guest, not a colonizer, and listening,” Tracy said.
The next season for TheatreFIRST is already under discussion. “We’re looking at how each one of the plays that we do has a continuation factor,” Tracy said. For example, one play under consideration for 2017-18 deals with redress for the interned Japanese and their descendants.
Beneath the Tall Tree, written by Walters and Jeffrey Lo, with dramaturgy by Oona Hatton, and direction by Carlin, plays through Saturday, March 25, at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave. Tickets cost $20 to $25.