Her World Is the Stage

Elizabeth McKoy has turned Berkeley Playhouse into a vibrant theater organization that features professional and youth musical productions.


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On McKoy’s list of goals: Berkeley Playhouse is going to start making a serious effort to find donors to help rehabilitate the interior of the 107-year-old Julia Morgan Theater, an elegant structure from 1910 with exposed wooden beams that was originally designed to be a church. “I’ve got to figure out how to engage the community in taking care of this building and make sure that it goes through the next phase of its development,” she said.

McKoy wants to improve the seating sightlines, update technical systems, build a second stage for smaller shows, and generally make the space more hospitable to performers and audiences.

In addition, she wants to provide more financial aid, and she hopes to offer more music and theater arts education in public schools. This year, McKoy convinced Emerson Elementary School in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood to let her send a couple of teaching artists to help students build a show choir with a goal of staging a December music and dance revue.

“We couldn’t say no,” said Emerson teacher Maite Barloga, who found herself drawn recently to the cafeteria by the sounds of some 50 students who had signed up for the workshop, which is led twice weekly by a pianist and a choreographer-dance teacher and sometimes McKoy, who sings and dances as well. “Yesterday they were rehearsing. You could hear their singing all over the school,” Barloga said. “There were lots of smiles.”

One participant was Niara Burnside, 9, a novice thespian who admitted to some stage fright but said she found the class exciting. “I think it’s fun and cool, and it’s nice to do it, and it’s fun, and I like to do it a lot,” she said.

As if that all were not enough, McKoy and Choate were also planning to open a new arts and performance focused cafe in Berkeley in 2018, but they have put that idea on hold because they are so busy. McKoy is also commissioning new musical adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Robin Hood, on the heels of 2016’s premiere of Bridges, an original musical inspired by McKoy’s daughter about the U.S. civil rights movement that was six years in the making.

Recently, someone asked whether McKoy was planning to take some time off.

“I keep saying the meaning is in the doing, and if I stop actively working with people and making a difference, I think I will not feel this zeal and this lust for life that I feel,” she said. “It feels great and it still feels like there is so much work to do.”

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