When Berkeley High School (BHS) teachers Sarah Cline and Linda Carr first heard about proposed renovations to the BHS’s A-Building, they were under the impression that despite some temporary inconveniences, long term benefits — specifically a dance studio for Carr and improved jazz spaces for Cline — were also a part of the deal. These renovations to the building were part of the last of three planned stages, only the first of which is currently being done.
The first phase of construction is happening now and will include updates to the classroom wing of the A-Building. Before construction began, the A-Building hosted performing arts teachers like Carr, the modern dance teacher, as well as Cline, the director of the BHS jazz program.
“We’re like, ‘Okay, well, we’ll kind of take a cut during phase one and two [of the renovations], because [after] phase three, we’re gonna get this great thing for our students and for the school,’” Carr said. “And then right after we went ‘yes’ and signed on the dotted line, the principal at that time was like, ‘We’re going to pursue phase one, and we’re going to pursue phase two, but I’m no longer backing phase three.’”
Carr has been teaching modern dance in the M-Gym since 2020, when construction began. When the A-Building opens at the beginning of 2023, instead of teaching in a new dance studio, Carr will return to her old one, the stage of the Berkeley Community Theater (BCT).
Cline is currently teaching jazz in a portable classroom. According to Cline, when she returns to the A-Building, she will be teaching in rooms that are “small and the wrong dimensions” because the new jazz rooms she was expecting are a part of phase three.
Phase two would involve renovations and updates to the 575-seat Florence Schwimley Little Theater. John Calise, the Executive Director of Facilities, Maintenance and Operations for Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), said that because of the specifics of the plans, the renovations to the Little Theater would require work on the BCT as well, leaving the project $35 million over budget.
The administration is working to secure funding from the state but is not currently able to move forward with phase two.
Phase three, while lowest on the district’s priority list, is most exciting for Cline and Carr. According to Calise, phase three would involve cutting the BCT down to between 1,200 and 1,800 seats.
The BCT is located on the BHS campus and currently has 3,500 seats, making it one of the largest indoor theaters in California. It is maintained and operated by BUSD. In the space created by cutting seats, additional classrooms would be added to the A-Building.
Cline said that currently, the BCT is too large for any student performance to fill, and the hundreds of empty seats are disappointing for performers.
“2,900 empty seats, that feels horrible,” said Cline. “It’s not the way the performing arts are meant to happen. You’re meant to have an audience that’s close, engaged, and giving you a lot of love back.”
According to Cline, the empty seats are also a problem when the theater is not in use. Besides occasional school assemblies and a few performances a year, the BCT is largely unused, taking up space on a crowded campus. Carr said that her use of the stage as a dance studio can also create logistical challenges.
With these complaints in mind, a few years ago, when Carr, Cline, and some other performing arts teachers heard that the school had money to spend on the BHS theaters, they discussed the benefits of a smaller theater and shared their thoughts with the administration.
“We pitched this idea to the administration and they actually listened to us,” Cline said. However, after drawing up plans for three phases of construction, Cline and Carr were disappointed to see only the first phase being pursued.
“There was a lot of excitement [about the plans to renovate the A-Building], not just at BHS,” Cline said. “This could be a moneymaker for the school district.” According to Cline, there is no other theater of a similar size in Berkeley.
In the past, the BCT hosted an extensive list of musical and cultural icons. Cline and Carr hoped that an update to the theater would bring new life to the theater through student and community use.
Calise said that the master plan that includes all three stages of renovations was also never formally adopted by the board of education.
“While there were certain teachers and certain community members who absolutely wanted the [BCT] to be shrunk down and classrooms added, there was also a strong contingent advocating against [it], and for that reason, that was never agreed upon to be done,” Calise said. “What the board did do was they authorized the phase one construction of this project.”
Calise said the controversy surrounding the rightsizing or shrinking of the theater stems from the BCT’s historic status.
“There’s a lot of really rich history deeply embedded into that building. … People don’t want to see it rightsized,” Calise said.
Despite these obstacles, Carr and Cline still hope to see the BCT renovated one day.
“If you build performance spaces, then peoples’ ideas start flowing,” said Cline. “And I know that students would find ways to put on shows and have concerts all the time. You build it, then it will get used.”