Her World Is the Stage

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


Berkeley Playhouse Founder Elizabeth McKoy

Photo by Clayton J. Mitchell

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It’s nearly 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night in a rehearsal hall at the historic Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley, and a fleet of young girls is vigorously belting out the song “It’s the Hard Knock Life” in preparation for a Nov. 10 opening of Annie.

The production is to be the second of five professional musicals in this 10th season of the Berkeley Playhouse, a remarkably vibrant organization that offers a steady diet of lavish professional and youth productions, as well as classes, camps, and this year, for the first time, a new, free musical performance program at a public elementary school in Oakland that has no theater arts funding.

“I see this theater thriving, and it feels really good to be a part of a community like this,” said Berkeley Playhouse founder Elizabeth McKoy, as the children’s voices sailed over from across the hall.

McKoy was huddled with her production team watching five women audition for singing and dancing roles in James and the Giant Peach, a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, which McKoy is directing and is set to open April 6.

An actress, singer, and director, McKoy, 53, and her husband, successful internet businessman Tim Choate, have nurtured Berkeley Playhouse since it was an after-school program in their living room, where McKoy once staged performances at the request of her son, who is on the autism spectrum and wanted to do theater in his own home. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” McKoy laughed. “I had never put up shows by kids for kids. I just grabbed all of my friends, and we just did this.”

Today, Berkeley Playhouse is a $2.2 million a year cultural institution with some 20 employees and a roster of about 100 contract teaching artists and consultants. Emphasizing diversity, inclusion, and a family-friendly work environment, the program annually educates 1,200 children and draws 35,000 people to its shows and has hosted future luminaries, notably pop star Zendaya, who performed in the 2007 season.

For McKoy, it’s the continuation of a passion ignited when her own mother organized youth theater performances in the family living room, which was something McKoy’s grandmother also did a generation earlier.

McKoy, now a mother of five children herself, was surrounded by leftist Jewish artists and political activists during her formative years on New York City’s Upper West Side. She went on to act and teach theater in New York and Seattle before moving to Berkeley, where she and Choate took over the nonprofit operating the struggling Julia Morgan Center for the Arts space on College Avenue and got it out of debt. The couple met at University of Pennsylvania, where McKoy had a full scholarship and Choate was at the Wharton School of Business.

For years, they helped run a local affiliate of New York’s Lincoln Center Institute, which brought arts education to school children and teachers. The couple launched the professional side of the company to complement the youth programs in 2007, calling the combined entity the Berkeley Playhouse. That year, Choate, who is board president, sold an online advertising company he co-founded and turned to McKoy and said, “It’s your turn. What do you want to do for you?”

At first, Berkeley Playhouse used another smaller theater, but quickly audiences grew beyond the space. Choate wanted the programming at the Julia Morgan Theater, and he urged McKoy to move performances into the 350-seat venue, which was only intermittently being rented for theater and otherwise housed a preschool and the Berkeley Ballet (which recently moved).

McKoy nervously made the leap to the larger theater, and as the children in her classes grew older, she added more classes, something that Choate promoted with an eye toward the organization’s financial stability. She also expanded the types of shows to target older audiences, and casts have increasingly included professional actors, sometimes from outside the region, as well as youth selected through auditions.

Today, Choate is also CEO of a fast-growing online vacation rental booking website called RedAwning, which he started as a side-project for fun in 2010 and which recently raised $40 million in venture capital.

As much pleasure as he gets from business, however, Choate says the behind-the-scenes work he does for Berkeley Playhouse has become the most meaningful for him. “I didn’t realize how powerful theater was,” he said. “When you see a kid go from shy to soaring on stage, it’s really something. I always watch the faces of the parents.”

Incredibly, Berkeley Playhouse, with the aid of dedicated volunteers, has been able to cover almost its entire budget through class fees, rent, and ticket sales. McKoy, herself, has never taken a salary.

It has not been easy, of course, and many times, especially early on, McKoy felt trapped as she worried about how she would be able to pay her staff. “I know that there are so many people depending on me, and I have felt like I can’t breathe, and I said to Tim, ‘I got to get out. I got to get out,’ ” she said.

The variety and quality of the performances continually improved, nevertheless, said Karen Racanelli, a theatrical producer who for 21 years was general manager of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Racanelli’s two children were in multiple Berkeley Playhouse shows, and she served as a board member. “I watched the nature of the shows get better and more complex and more sophisticated,” Racanelli said. “I was really impressed with what I was seeing.”

Dale Albright, program director for Theatre Bay Area, a nonprofit that supports regional theater from Santa Rosa to San Jose, said Berkeley Playhouse has become “an important place in the whole ecosystem of the Bay Area,” not just for professional actors but also set designers, choreographers, musical directors, and others who make musicals possible. “People will come from quite a distance to work there. They seem to treat people well, work with them well, and compensate them well,” Albright added.

At the same time, children remain central to McKoy, and Berkeley Playhouse regularly stages full youth productions with live bands and paying audiences.

Over the last several years, McKoy’s load has lightened some as Berkeley Playhouse has hired key administrators, including McKoy’s close friend Kimberly Dooley as producing artistic director, as well as a managing director, production manager, casting director, music director, and people to manage youth productions and camps and classes.

“So, we’re in a new phase, and right now, I feel like whoo whoo!,” McKoy said. “Because we’re so healthy financially now, I was able to get myself out of doing so much of the hands-on administration, and I get to do the strategy and vision and direct shows I want to direct.”

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