When the Oakland Theater Project was founded in 2012, it was known as the Ubuntu Theater Project and had about 20 members. The group’s early work revolved around a summer festival series, Breaking Chains, which ran for several years and showcased about a dozen plays at unconventional venues—churches, parking lots, and various public spaces—around the Bay Area.
A decade later, the seasonal festival has grown to become a year-round production company with a new name and a permanent home in downtown Oakland, where emerging and seasoned actors and directors are given a shot at doing what they love: live theater.
Managing director Colin Mandlin, who founded the company with Michael Moran and William Thomas Hodgson, fondly recalls what it was like to start the scrappy but ambitious theater company, which has since grown to include around 50 members.
“It was a time when events like First Fridays were really starting to grow. There was a pretty established and built-in community of people wanting powerful, artistic, theatrical experiences, and they were willing to do it in interesting ways,” said Mandlin. “We were ready to give it our all and work tireless hours—and many unpaid hours.”
Early on, the company didn’t have a permanent theater space, so productions were held in places not typically regarded as theater venues. The annual Classic Cars West show, the Oakland Aviation Museum, and Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in East Oakland all played host to Ubuntu’s performances.
But in the spring of 2019, Oakland Theater Project moved into the Flax Building in downtown Oakland, where it operates out of a converted loading dock. The space is also home to Flax Art & Design, a dance company called K*Star*Productions, and Artistic Picture Framing.
“We will always want our theater space to be connected to a broader arts community. It was also such a no-brainer for us to have this amazing art supply store in this community of visual artists,” he said. “Because there’s some great cross-collaboration that happens there.”
In 2020, the company changed its name from Ubuntu Theater Project to Oakland Theater Project, out of a desire to put a flag down in the city it calls home. The change was accompanied by discussions amongst the group members about privilege, who gets to use certain words, and their meaning. “Ubuntu” is a Zulu word that roughly translates to “humanity.” The word can also mean “I am, because we are.”
“We talked and thought about what it means to be an American. What it means to be African American, not native to an African continent,” said Mandlin, who is white. “There are all sorts of conversations about the English language and how we are an English-speaking nation because of colonization.”
Mandlin said that after having many conversations with members of the company who are Black and of other races—some opposed the name change, while others welcomed the new name—it was decided that renaming the organization was the best course of action.
After a pause, live performances return
Even at the height of the pandemic in 2021, the team managed to pull off a successful run of drive-in shows and a handful of in-person shows.
“It was awesome. It was wild in some respects because your margins are so thin, and if you don’t predict correctly, you can get a big loss,” he said. “We were trying to take on a whole new way of producing, and we had no idea how much money we would generate.”
Mandlin and the team were grateful to just be producing live theater in a time of uncertainty.
“We were able to serve our community and tried to bring some healing during a time of extreme isolation,” he said. “We have a role in both creating art that says something about the times, but also very much about the interpersonal community-oriented healing and connections.”
Despite the joy that came from those efforts, Mandlin said the pandemic has been crippling for local artists and arts organizations who were already struggling under the rising costs of housing and commercial space. Hotel tax revenues, which fund arts and culture programs in Oakland, plummeted after the pandemic struck in 2020.
“The Oakland Theater Project might not be the only year-round professional theater company open right now [in Oakland] if space had been more affordable previously, or there had been more funds to invest,” he said.
As the 10th anniversary approached, Colin and the team decided to hold the 2022 season live inside the theater, with safeguards in place for members and patrons. Although Alameda County lifted its mask-wearing restriction on Feb. 16, the Oakland Theater Project will continue to require masking at their shows. Proof of vaccination is also currently required by the city of Oakland.
Seating capacity at the theater is currently limited to 40 (the venue at full capacity can hold 99). However, Mandlin hopes to increase the number of seats allowed as the omicron surge decreases in the coming weeks.
“2022 is still gonna be somewhat of a transitional year, but we hope in 2023, and beyond that, we can have a robust body of work and opportunities for all of our company members,” he added.
The 2022 season opens this Friday, Feb. 25, with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, directed by Michael Moran. The show will also be live-streamed. The opening night performance is sold out, but a limited number of tickets are still available for this weekend’s shows. The Tempest will run every Thursday through Sunday until March 13.
As the Oakland Theater project grows, the team is thinking ahead to how it can deepen its roots in the city and continue to help local artists here grow and thrive.
“We see such a need for ourselves as an organization,” he said. “But then also for the community to have an even more established performing space.”
With a new name, a permanent home in downtown Oakland, and a commitment to being an inclusive, diverse, and welcoming organization, Mandlin expects the Oakland Theater Project will be here for years to come.
“We’re committed to the city of Oakland. We want to be a staple of this community and brand ourselves as the theater of this city.”