By most metrics, Oakland is undergoing an artistic renaissance. The Bay Area’s third-largest city has long housed artists who can’t afford to live in other urban parts of the Bay Area, and even more so in recent years as rents have skyrocketed in San Francisco. With flourishing music and visual art scenes, including uber-popular events like Art Murmur, the city has also become a draw for those who live elsewhere but seek the Bay Area’s most cutting-edge and affordable art.
Curiously, though, the theatre world hasn’t been a part of Oakland’s arts boom. Though many theatre artists live in Oakland, they often commute to work in San Francisco and Berkeley. Ragged Wing Ensemble executive director Anna Shneiderman, in looking for a permanent home for her company, is particularly attuned to how stark the numbers are. By her count, there is just one theatre company currently in residence within Oakland city limits: the Lower Bottom Playaz. And looking back over recent decades, at any given time, there has never been more than one or two theatre companies in residence in Oakland. The Oakland Ensemble Theatre, which was founded in the early 1970s by artists of color, finally closed in the 1990s after struggling for many years. The Oakland Box Theater was open (in the Uptown Nightclub’s current space) from 2001 to 2004; TheatreFirst has had many Oakland homes in its search for a permanent space, including a storefront, as well as spaces at Mills College and the Oakland School for the Arts. (The company is now in the Live Oak Theatre, in Berkeley.) Shneiderman, a longtime East Bay resident, is not aware of any other companies.
But now, after being nomadic since its founding in 2004, Ragged Wing is about to move into a permanent home, and one that will give a major bump to dismal numbers of Oakland-based theatre companies. In spring 2014, the company will move into the Flight Deck, located at 1540 Broadway in downtown Oakland (convenient to two BART stations), with the restaurant Township, which serves New American cuisine, next door in the same building. The Flight Deck comprises, on the ground floor, a gallery; a 1750-square foot, 99-seat black box theatre; an 810-square foot rehearsal space; and a lounge with a kitchenette. The mezzanine level will be structured as a shared office space, housing, in addition to Ragged Wing, Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre and Aluminous Collective.
The Flight Deck has capacity for one more full resident company or two or three partial-resident companies. Ragged Wing, which is creating and managing the space, has an open call for the remaining slot(s); inquiries are due by November 15 and full applications by November 21. The application and more information about the benefits of residency (which includes first dibs on rehearsal and performance spaces, before they’re made available for rental to the community at large) are available here.
Ragged Wing found out about the space, which had previously been a warehouse, simply by walking by and seeing a for-rent sign. Ragged Wing had been actively searching for a permanent home for two years, but other leases had fallen through when building owners balked at making structural changes necessary to accommodate a theatre company and its audiences. By contrast, Shneiderman says, Ben and Richard Weinstein, Flight Deck’s owners, “were totally up for doing all the upgrades. They seem to be really invested in downtown Oakland in particular” and “committed to developing that neighborhood in a responsible way.”
Shneiderman says the project has also benefitted from tremendous help from the City of Oakland, which supplied matching funds for improvements to the building, and from fortuitous timing. Jerry Brown’s 2011 shutdown of Oakland’s redevelopment agency (and all other California redevelopment agencies) shelved many similar building projects. “Luckily,” Shneiderman says, “with this particular building, funds were allocated before the agency was dissolved.”
Now, funding for the new building is over 80 percent complete; the Flight Deck is accepting donations at theflightdeck.org, with a major fundraising campaign to begin soon.
Shneiderman sees the Flight Deck as a major civic contribution to her hometown. “As we started talking with folks about two years ago, it seemed like there were a lot of groups who didn’t have anywhere to be in the East Bay, and in Oakland in particular. It seemed like a need that was larger than us.”
And now, it’s starting to be filled.