Downtown Berkeley Spotlight
Celebrating Our Community
Madeleine Oldham, Director
Berkeley Rep Ground Floor
“The arts thrive in places where people value community, and aspire to create shared experience.”
First tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? When did you first become interested in theatre?
Thanks for talking with me! I grew up in Pelham, New York, which was a 30 minute train ride to Grand Central Station. My parents took me to see Cats at the Winter Garden Theater when I was 9. I don’t think I ever forgave my mother for refusing to dance with the Rum Tum Tugger, because she had a chance to be part of that magic and turned it down. But for me, it was game over. The theater bug bit hard, and I spent the next 10 years on the train every chance I got, seeing anything I could. Which was my education – I saw everything: classics, new plays, musicals – there was nothing I would not watch. It’s how I developed an understanding of what worked and didn’t on stage. I went to undergrad at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. Years later I started a grad program in Whole Systems Design at Seattle’s Antioch University because I thought I needed to do something other than theater. I went for 7 years and dropped out before I finished, because it became clear I really didn’t want to do anything else.
“There are very few proscribed paths in this business. Don’t be afraid to carve one out for yourself that might not have existed before. “
Ground Floor is a really interesting program at the Berkeley Rep. Could you tell us a little bit about the Ground Floor program and how you became a part of it?
Sure. GF is the umbrella for almost all of the new work development that happens at Berkeley Rep. So it encompasses our commissions, workshops, East Bay writers’ room, and our cornerstone Summer Residency Lab. I’ve been the director since it started, and got to build and design the program along with Megan Pressman, who developed the administrative systems and structures. We wanted to make something that could provide a contribution to Berkeley Rep as an institution, Berkeley as a community, and to the national field. We started out asking artists what they wanted, and the answer came back resoundingly: time and space. Which didn’t seem like rocket science, but as it turns out, is just a really precious thing. So we took that and ran with it, setting a priority for ourselves that Ground Floor would be a place that fosters creativity, encourages exploration and experimentation, and champions imagination. We focus on process rather than product, and this approach has worked very well. Product happens eventually, but there’s something really magical that happens when the pressure for outcomes and results is removed and artists are given permission to go deep, or take a wrong turn. Because you always learn from those experiences and ironically, it makes for a richer, stronger product in the end.
What about the GF program do you find most important?
So many things! But probably I’d say the program’s radical responsiveness and flexibility. We don’t think new play development should be a cookie cutter situation. Each artist and each project requires different things, and we do our best to meet people where they are. We don’t want artists trying to contort themselves into a shape that isn’t organic to what they’re trying to do. We’d rather they tell us what they want and need and then we try to respond to that. And it can change, even on a dime. We’ve had plenty of instances where someone got more work done than they thought they would, and requested actors last minute, or to add a choreographer in the middle of their residency, etc. And that’s all great. We try to build a program that allows for that, instead of treating people’s residencies as a fixed entity. Art doesn’t work that way.
What piece of advice would you give to folks with budding interest in theatre?
Follow your nose, always. There are very few proscribed paths in this business, and don’t be afraid to carve one out for yourself that might not have existed before. I wear a bunch of different hats (radio DJ and music enthusiast, ice hockey referee, motorcyclist, wiener dog lover, etc.) and all of them inform my theater work in some way or other.
Any new GF projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
Yes! We’re working on selecting the slate of projects for the 2018 Summer Residency Lab, which is always almost unbearably exciting. We got 700 applications this year, and artists are on FIRE with things to say about our country right now. It’s incredibly hard to narrow it down, but we’re getting there.
What do you love about Downtown Berkeley?
The fact that you can feel the history – so much has happened here. So much dialogue, so much advocacy, so much integrity. Walking down the street, I feel connected to a spirit of vigorous respect for the collective good, and there aren’t many places where that’s so alive. And I don’t think it’s an accident that there’s so much culture here – the arts thrive in places where people value community, and aspire to create shared experience. It’s a special place.