Across the breezeway from Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new Medak Center, fuchsia light from the set of the new musical “Goddess” streamed through an open loading bay door, like a portal to Narnia.
Such a sight might frequently greet the company’s out-of-town actors, directors, designers and playwrights — as well as its fellows, Berkeley Rep’s interns — when they wake up each morning and walk next door to work from their new home.
But the 42,885-square-foot, $26.2 million center, which plans to host a dedication ceremony on Sept. 3, isn’t just about short commutes. It marks a historic and visionary investment in artist housing in a region with ballooning real estate costs.
Berkeley Rep’s outgoing managing director, Susie Medak, the center’s namesake and the driving force behind its construction, remembers when housing out-of-town artists cost the company $300,000 to $400,000 per year. These days it’s more like $2 million. Before the pandemic postponed the most recent season opening, Berkeley Rep had committed to paying for 7,000 nights at a nearby Marriott hotel for this past year.
“The amount of money we spend on other people’s buildings — that’s why this is so necessary,” Medak said while leading The Chronicle on a tour of the space in advance of the dedication ceremony. “Even if we couldn’t lower our costs, if we could fix them, that would make a big difference.”
Assuring comfort and quiet was another objective for the Medak Center. In a university town, a living situation that looked promising during daylight hours might be beset by 3 a.m. parties.
“I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had to move actors in the middle of a run,” Medak said.
The new center, located next door to Berkeley Rep’s Roda and Peet’s Theatres, has 45 units with capacity for 128 occupants. (Fellows will share three-bedroom units.) When Berkeley Rep’s not using those rooms, it plans to rent them to other nonprofits. Medak said she’s already gotten calls from Aurora Theatre Company, the Freight Salvage venue and American Conservatory Theater.
The building also features a classroom and a studio workshop space, which could host anything from movement classes to small experimental performances. Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer’s vision, Medak said, is to engage audiences “who are as excited about the process as they are about product.” Creating this new small venue adjacent to the flagship spaces is a part of that effort.
Other amenities include new storage space, a third-floor terrace with gardening beds for organic produce for residents, and a covered loading dock for the theaters so crews no longer have to load and unload sets while exposed to the rain.
The building has key-card access, laundry on every floor and full kitchens in every unit. It’s also Gold LEED-certified for environmental efficiency.
A trendy gray palette marks the interior. For one wall of the exterior, Berkeley Rep has commissioned a four-story mural by Oakland artist Cece Carpio to honor Ohlone peoples, on whose ancestral and unceded lands Berkeley Rep now sits.
The theater has owned the property where the Medak Center was built since 1991, but for years it contained an empty lot and a warehouse. The project was a decades-long dream until Signature Bank helped finance it; the theater company finally broke ground in 2019.
One comparable local facility is the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Ute and William K. Bowes Jr. Center for Performing Arts, which opened in 2020 and can house 400 conservatory students and 10 visiting artists, as well as 52 students from the San Francisco Ballet School. Those students pay for rooms, however, while Berkeley Rep’s fellows get free housing as part of their contract as workers.
“The Bowes Center brought together a range of our ambitions: positioning the institution right in the middle of Civic Center, providing much needed additional performance and teaching space, giving our students beautiful, safe accommodations in a place where they can work and live,” said President David H. Stull.
That means, for example, a guest artist such as superstar Chinese pianist Yuja Wang might live and create and record music in the same building as students. “It’s really created this fantastic nexus of opportunities,” Stull noted.
The San Francisco Ballet School has been able to increase student beds from 40 to 52 since the Bowes Center opened, reports Director of Education and Training Jennie Scholick. And now that students live right next to where they take classes, as opposed to a bus ride away in Pacific Heights, the school can accept younger students.
At Berkeley Rep, Medak said that the company won’t know all the new center’s benefits and opportunities until residents move in, but her excitement is palpable.
The company’s first fellows are set to move into the new building Sept. 26, followed by visiting artists in Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor program, and then the cast and creative team for “Wuthering Heights” later in the fall.
The board’s commitment to the Medak Center through pandemic delays and uncertainty, Medak said, was “the greatest statement of our intent to exist on the other side of this pandemic. Building this building is a statement of optimism.”
Medak recalled something the late New York theater producer Margo Lion once told her: “The only thing that kept (Berkeley Rep) from being the perfect place to develop new work is the extraordinary cost of our housing.”
Now, she said, “we’ve fixed that.”