By Marta Yamamoto
Bay Area News Group Correspondent
OAKLAND -- Piedmont Avenue, home to three bookstores, a cinema, and numerous coffee houses and restaurants, will soon be home to a whole new venture, one in keeping with the intelligencia and demographics of the area, the Piedmont Avenue Repertory Theatre.
Under the direction of John McMullen, the man behind the idea, a cast has been selected and rehearsals are underway for the theatre's first production, "The Dining Room" by A.R. Gurney, set to open Nov. 22.
McMullen is no stranger to theater, having earned a master's in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon, teaching drama at City College of San Francisco, Los Medanos College and Carnegie Mellon; and working as an art critic for the Berkeley Daily Planet for the past two years.
"My life for the past 25 to 30 years has been theater. As a theater critic, I've watched two or three plays a week and having to express what I thought was good and bad has really honed my aesthetic," McMullen said. "For a while, I've been thinking about this wonderful avenue and I think the people here would support and attend a theater."
To test his premise, McMullen polled Piedmont Avenue merchants one Saturday and got 80 signatures on a petition of support.
"They thought it would be a great idea to have a theater on Piedmont Avenue," he said.
McMullen has assembled a board of directors that includes Nancy Lehrkind of Piedmont Center for the Arts; Judith Bloom, past treasurer of Berkeley Symphony; Regina Cate, a recently retired professor who chaired the theater department at Cal State East Bay; and Don Cate, retired head of the theater department at City College of San Francisco.
Ideas are firm about what type of organization the Piedmont Avenue Repertory Theatre will be. "We want it to be semi-professional theater with paid, experienced actors," McMullen said. "We want an audience size of around 40, this is very important. It will be that kind of intimate, up close, smell the actors' sweat, experience."
The schedule calls for five productions per year, mostly modern plays that have been recently written and have met with favorable critical and popular response, as well as one classic, such as a two-hour Shakespeare.
"The Dining Room" was selected as the first production partly because its theme of gathering around a dining room fits in well with the holidays. The action all takes place in this one special room and celebrates northeastern United States upper-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. Labeled a sophisticated play and a human comedy, it challenges the cast and audience by having its 58 parts shared by six actors.
"I wanted to do this on the cusp and around the holidays because that's when people will be gathering around their dining rooms and I hope it will bring a smile to their face to see all the human comedy this play incorporates," McMullen said. "This play is a lot of fun, a grab-it-and-run. It makes it incredibly enjoyable for the audience just to see what else is coming up and what part each actor is going to play."
With an eye toward the future, McMullen is looking for theater space on Piedmont Avenue, thinking that Piedmont Avenue Repertory would fill the space left when Oakland's TheatreFIRST moved to Berkeley and that theatergoers would support local businesses and eateries. The plan would be to also teach acting classes and rent the space to other groups or theater groups, bringing other kinds of theater to the avenue.
With the first production underway, McMullen has set several goals for the first year -- to bring together a core group of actors, to put together a season that is balanced and appeals to the public, and to get that public into the habit of coming to the theater.
"I like to get people together and cross boundary lines and to give them an emotional experience," McMullen said. "In Ancient Greece, they had theater only once or twice a year and there'd be 15,000 people wailing and crying. And it just hasn't died."