In January of 2024, the nearly four-year-long remodel to the Berkeley High School Community Theater is expected to reach completion. The COVID-19 shutdown delayed construction, but the majority of structural and aesthetic renovations have been completed. The theater is partially in use and has been used for band and orchestra performances this year.
“They tell us it’s close to being done,” said Karen Wells, who directs the BHS Band along with Mary Dougherty. “We’re thinking that (the Community Theater) is going to be all done by January,” said Wells.
Recently, in early November, the BHS band and orchestra were able to host a concert in the Community Theater. The performers were able to use the front half of the stage.
“Behind the curtain there is twice as much room,” said Wells. “(The stage) is actually smaller than it was before because they built a hallway back there.”
There have been minimal aesthetic upgrades to the green room, dressing rooms, costume storage, and other supporting areas for performers.
“The entire underneath was gutted and changed, and the backstage was changed as well. The seats and the carpet and the paint job in the main audience area (have) not changed at all,” said Wells.
Before construction began, some dance and other performing arts classes were held in the theater. Dougherty and Wells are looking forward to being able to use the space for classes and performances again.
“The construction that has happened just now is really the classroom wing of the A-building. That was the focus of the first phase of the construction,” said Linda Carr, the modern dance teacher.
The A-building reopened on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, and has been in use since. The budget for the first phase, which involved mitigation regarding seismic safety and additional construction of the A-building, was $38 million according to Berkeley Unified School District. During the construction of the A-building, the seventeen classes in the building itself, which include film classes, band, orchestra, and more, had to meet in the portables.
Abraham Lee, a junior in the 0 period Chamber Orchestra class said, “The construction hadn’t affected my classes that much, but the space in the theater is so much better than a gym or the little theater. I feel like I’m in a legit band class now.”
All of the buildings that are allocated for construction, The Community Theater, Florence Schwimley Little Theater, and A-Building were built in the 1940’s. Measure I, a $210 million facilities bond that passed in 2010, was issued in order to fund upgrades in the community, but the funding was mostly geared toward the renovations that were needed in the Community Theater. The money was designated for use in the first phase of the project, but any changes to the interior of the Community Theater would be regarded as phase two and would need a different source of money.
“The idea was to renovate both the classroom wing and the two theaters to update them, and to make them more user-friendly and helpful for our campus,” said Carr.
While the inside of the Community Theater may appear unchanged, many of the notable differences have to do with making the buildings accessible for those who need it, and revamping the backstage and underneath the stage.
Wells said, “There were some accessibility issues, so they built a ramp up to the stage. I think that the goal was to have the lighting and everything on stage to be up to date standards. It needed to be up to standard so that it could be rented out.”
The Community Theater functions as a community gathering space for performances and ceremonies. Last year, Willard Middle School used the theater to host their eighth-grade graduation According to Carr, the space also has a historical significance to the community.
“I myself went to see my very first concert at the Berkeley Community Theater to see Phil Collins,” said Carr. The theater has hosted many famous performers of the 60s and 70s including Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and many more, as well as musicians in the 80s and 90s like Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Elton John, and Foo Fighters.
A booking form must be completed 120 days in advance to rent the Theater. More information is available on the website. The Community Theater is not currently available for rentals, but once construction is complete, it will resume its course in hosting performers and musicians.