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18 years in, a theater group continues to surprise

on July 25, 2009

When the Shotgun Players staged Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” about England’s bloody War of the Roses, they did it without Elizabethan costumes, stage props, elaborate sets, or even seats for the playgoers.

Makeshift propane lamps lit the stage – a windy parking lot at King Middle School in North Berkeley.  Audience members perched on plastic, five-gallon buckets or tried to get comfortable on the concrete for the nearly three-hour production.

Actors wore a random assortment of street clothes, which the audience had been asked to bring with them (the costume designer had eloped and disappeared the week before).

And August in Northern California caught them by surprise.  It was freezing. Patrick Dooley, the artistic director of Shotgun, a small theater group in the East Bay, remembered circulating through the audience, covering spectators with blankets and sleeping bags. There were no bathroom facilities so he told people to try the Starbucks up the street. “It was kind of crazy,” he recalled, grinning.

It was just another play for the Shotgun Players, known for their edgy productions, often based on unconventional stagings of plays by familiar playwrights, such as Goethe, Shakespeare, Pinter and Mamet.

Shotgun’s performance of  “Faust, Part One” last month, an adaptation of Goethe by Bay-area playwright Mark Jackson played to packed houses nearly every night and had to be extended for a week.  Shotgun’s subscriptions are up 17 percent compared to last year and they just expanded to a new rehearsal space on Hollis street in Oakland.   Dooley envisions eventually adding another theater in the parking lot across the street, with more seating.

After a modest beginning in the basement of a pizza parlor on Euclid in Berkeley, they have commanded the attention and respect of East Bay audiences for more than 17 years, winning numerous awards including Best Overall Production in 1999, 2001 and 2003 from the Bay Area Critics Circle.  The East Bay Express recently selected them as Best Small Theater Company for 2009.

Dooley, 41, Shotgun’s founder, talks quickly.  He’s originally from Virginia and as he explains the origins of their name, it’s clear he hasn’t lost his southern accent.

“In Virginia and the Carolinas, you don’t ever say it’s just hot,” he said.  “You say it’s hotter than the hinges of hell.”  The players of Dooley’s company broke down stage sets as well as sometimes-inaccessible classical theater with equal energy, so he thought of a Virginia phrase: “break it down like a shotgun.”

Daniel Bruno, a musician and Oakland-based member of Shotgun, recalls his first experience seeing a Shotgun play – Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” Despite the churning dishwasher and the pizza orders blaring out overhead, it was transformative, he said. He compared it to someone who had grown up in the 1960s on the simple episodic homilies of “The Andy Griffith show” stumbling on today’s HBO and the profane, blood-and-sex-filled  sagas of “The Sopranos.”

“I didn’t know people could do theater like this,” said Bruno.  “These were young, energetic people telling real stories that were messy and ugly. It was crazy, it was weird and it cracked my head open.”

In their early years they staged a varied selection of plays, among them, Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Zehra Berkman, a Shotgun actor, compared Dooley to Harold Clurman, the director and founder of the influential Group Theater in New York.  Like Clurman, Dooley is “a huge person, so we all have to keep up with that. He’s full of vitality, non-stop energy.”

Reid Davis, another Shotgun actor who has known Dooley since the mid 1980s said, “he is a theatrical event.”

Davis, who currently teaches performing arts at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, was impressed by Shotgun’s performance of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.”  Soon after, he joined the group. When he showed up in the morning to his first day of rehearsal, however, he found everyone passed out, literally.  There had been a long, boozy party at Dooley’s house the night before and everyone was still asleep.

But apart from the pursuit of recreation, Shotgun’s professionalism was also vivid. “The model of the theater was definitely sort of Chicago Steppenwolf,” Davis said, referring to the theater company made famous by John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. “We live hard, we play hard, we do shows hard.”

Before long, the group was looking to move out of their subterranean hovel in La Val’s, the pizza parlor in Berkeley.  Dooley had aspirations to do a Japanese production of Bunkaru, a traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre.  Besides being cramped, the basement’s seven-foot ceiling was too low, he said.

From 1998 until 2003, the group was nomadic.  They played in 44 different venues, including a world-famous penitentiary – “wherever we could find an empty space,” Dooley said.  Their productions attracted attention from local fire departments for overcrowding and inadequate emergency exits.  Firefighters frequently closed their productions down.

Bruno, the musician from Oakland, recalled doing a dawn performance of Euripedes’ “Iphigenia  in Aulis,” in a park in Berkeley.  Everyone thought they were insane to do such an ultra early-morning performance, he said.

“I brought all my camping gear and cooked pancakes for the staff. We thought, who is going to show up to this?” But around 100 people did, Bruno said.  Additionally, the sound score he and a friend created for the performance won best original score in a dramatic production from the Bay Area Critics Circle.

In 2003, Shotgun found a fixed address in Berkeley at 1901 Ashby Avenue.  It’s a long room that slopes downwards to a modest stage floor.  The theater seats 150 and old wooden church pews fill the aisles.

No longer nomads, they haven’t slowed down. While their original strategy was to produce unknown plays by well-known playwrights, in recent years, Dooley has looked more towards commissioning original contemporary plays.

He shies away from what he calls ‘kitchen sink’ scripts, where family dramas (often involving alcoholism) play out around basins and faucets, preferring scripts that trigger new modes of thinking.

“We want to do plays about changing ideas and challenging notions of ourselves and how we see ourselves in this special city of Berkeley,” Dooley said.  “I want to challenge people about how proud they feel about themselves, [through] plays that explore where theater and dance and music and visual arts and puppets and acrobatics intersect.”

Shotgun received national acclaim last year, following a 2008 run of Jason Craig’s “Beowulf: 1,000 Years of Baggage” in New York – a collaboration with New York-based theater group Banana, Bag and Bodice.  Beowulf won the 2008 Will Glickman Award, a critics prize in the Bay Area.  It also made it onto the San Francisco Chronicle’s top ten Best of 2008 Theater list.

Jason Zinoman, writing in The New York Times in March, described the variation on “Beowulf” as “sophisticated crowd-pleasing entertainment with toe-tapping rock songs, sexy dancing girls, an eight-piece orchestra (including two trombones, an accordion and a saw) and a layered, linear narrative.”

The Player’s next show, an adaptation of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” written by Jon Tracy, will feature beatboxing, a form of vocal percussion, and spoken-word poetry. The Farm runs Aug. 1 – Sept. 13 and will be performed at John Hinkel Park in Berkeley. The first weekend for each Shotgun performance is ‘pay what you can,’ and there’s a suggested donation of $10.

Bruno, the musician, said that the Shotgun Players are mindful of being relevant when choosing new plays – a process that is often collaborative and includes the actors.  “There’s no complacency in this company.  I feel like everyone is always asking the question of, why is this play important and why is this play important now?” he said.

Davis, the performing arts professor, agreed. “When people come to see a Shotgun show they’re going to get a jolt of something,” he said. “It could be electricity, love or nausea, but you’re not going to be bored.”

Lead image: 3 cast members in the Shotgun Players’ upcoming show, The Farm / Photo by Jessica Palopoli / Courtesy of Shotgun Players.


  1. Diane Carlson on July 25, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    They are an amazing local company, and should not be missed. Innovative, vital, scrappy, local, alive, challenging, and energetic, they never feel stale or theatrically precious. Absolutely one of the top theatrical experiences to be had in the Bay Area.

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  3. Alexia Underwood on July 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Hi Diane, thanks for your comment. I heard similar things from a lot of people while researching this story. I’m looking forward to seeing their new show this weekend.

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