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Berkeley Rep Spotlights Writers Through ‘Place/Settings’ Podcast Series

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is releasing audio stories by ten different writers, highlighting special places in Berkeley.

Starting January 12, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre began the process of releasing ten “Aural Adventures.” These ten minute long stories from famous Berkeley residents are through podcast form, in a program entitled Place/Settings: Berkeley. 

The narratives are each centered around specific places integral to Berkeley, spinning immersive, intimate tales to create an audial guide to the city. Ticket purchases are accompanied by a hand-drawn map by cartoonist Tom Toro, detailing the ten places highlighted in the stories. 

Penning Berkeley Rep’s lineup are Daniel Handler, Eisa Davis, Phillip Kan Gotanda, Aya de Leon, Richard Montoya, Adam Mansbach, Itamar Moses, Kamala Parks, Sean San Jose, and Sarah Ruhl. Each are veteran screenwriters, playwrights, and authors, and each have written their own piece for the program. 

Upon completion of writing “20 Weeks,” Adam Mansbach notched another achievement in a dizzying array of publications. The bestselling author of The End of the Jews, Rage Is Back, and Angry White Boy “kinda always knew [he] was going to be a writer,” even from an early age. He recounted, before he could read and write, following family members around, “basically going around making them take dictation for me … having a notepad at parties like ‘write this down!’ ” Though Mansbach’s methods have changed, his careers as a high school journalist, poet, novelist, and screenwriter show that his wit has not. 

Although his career has been not without the occasional stumble, his writing of “20 Weeks” came easily to him — due to its semi-autobiographical nature. Set in Alta Bates Hospital, “20 Weeks” recounts the harrowing experiences of Mansbach, his partner, and their unborn child, “going in [Alta Bates] to get an ultrasound.” Worry set in with readings reporting that their unborn daughter had a condition termed ‘bilateral clubfoot,’ a birth defect “that causes the feet to be almost … twisted inward,” the author commented. 

Relief followed quickly, as the expectant pair learned of its easy curability, but was dashed away by fear; although bilateral clubfoot is relatively harmless, “in 6 percent of cases, the clubfoot can be connected to other defects,” ones that ultrasound would not necessarily be able to detect, Mansbach said. 

“We didn’t know whether that would be the case for us, whether to do further testing, to find out,” he said. “[It] wasn’t just finding that she had this physical problem … it was also the much more terrifying possibility that there might be more wrong … and that we might not be able to find out if there was or not.” His story is one of emotional turbulence and love.

For Eisa Davis, becoming a writer was a job of documentation. “I wanted to share what I saw and felt and thought as I walked through life,” said the award-winning singer/songwriter and playwright. She describes her childhood life as one of content and the arts, of “political activism and holistic health,” where “the feeling that we lived in a utopia was never shaken,” despite multiple break-ins. She came to realize slowly that the world of her imagination and invention “was an illusion.”

Davis could script lives in her writing, but not in her reality, themes she explores in her story “The Fundamental Kiss, With Overtones.” Her autobiographical narrative takes place on the corner of Oxford and Center Street, where she finds first love and almost in the same breath, heartbreak.

“The Fundamental Kiss” tells the story of how, when 13-year-old Davis first fell in love, nothing went according to plan. Her own insecurities caused her to spurn both herself and her new friend Marco; she describes that she “grew up with a sense of order, and with a fear of revealing [herself].” Nothing about this new world she suddenly found herself in made sense to the shy, orderly person Davis was. As she learned to deal with how unpredictable the world outside her mind could be, she recounts harnessing it, and ending up lifelong friends with the boy who she once cast aside against her better judgement. Hers is a story of comprehension and acceptance.

Philip Kan Gotanda’s journey to becoming a writer was far less foretold than Davis’ and Mansbach’s. As for so many people, after his dream of making it in the music industry was dashed, the eminent filmmaker and playwright found himself a budding lawyer, studying to take the bar exam at Hastings. The career didn’t suit him, and he found himself penning a musical as he studied, the date of his life-defining exam drawing closer. “I thought I could try it, since I couldn’t do anything else,” Gotanda commented. 

His fortunes then took a turn, as a nearby publishing agency accepted his new play, and he faced a critical decision: abandon law school as the test grew nearer to promote and produce this new focus of his, or stay on his prescribed track? “I thought, you know, I’d rather do this play,” Gotanda said.

For the nearly seventy-year-old Guggenheim fellow for Drama and Performance Art, his unexpected decision proved to definitely be the right one. His drift from career to career is modeled by his serendipitous method of drafting; his Place/Settings narrative, “night fishing,” was inspired by the confluence of a passing comment and an old story he wrote long ago. Gotanda read in a newsletter about a “woman [who] had written how she was sad that she went to Tilden Park, and this one lake [Jewel Lake] that she used to take her kids to all the time seemed to be drying up,” he said. This flyaway comment turned into a tale, coupled with Gotanda’s long love of fishing. “The image piqued something in me,” Gotanda commented. 

In “night fishing,” an adaption of a story Gotanda had worked on a long time ago, a father casts his line every night into the lake, where his son once tragically drowned. Every night, this lost soul trawls for others, and every night, his hope dwindles with the lake. Except one. This time, upon sending out his rod, the main character begins to “reel something in,” and comes to grips with harsh realities. “It’s a metaphor for him trying to bring back lost memories, memories that he could not hold on to,” the playwright elaborated. 

Gotanda has not strayed far from his initial hopes of being a musician or producer: he has worked with “a local composer who’s a friend of [Gotanda’s], his name is David Coulter,” to produce and oversee the casting and performance of his radio drama. His is a story of providence and morbid tranquility.

Berkeley Rep’s Place/Settings can be found at https://berkeleyrep.org/season/2021/15861.asp

Update: This article was updated to include the link to purchase tickets for Places/Settings.

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