Flight Deck, Oakland’s Only Black Box Theater, to Close in March

Ragged Wing Ensemble announced Tuesday that Flight Deck, Oakland’s only shared black-box theater, will close early next year in a serious loss for the East Bay’s performing arts landscape. 

Anna Shneiderman, co-founder and executive director of Ragged Wing Ensemble, stood in the 99-seat theater at 1540 Broadway in downtown Oakland, a venue used for performance, rehearsal and administration by 70 artists and organizations annually, and described the building seven years ago. “The roof was caving in,” she said. “You could see through this floor to the dirt underneath.”

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Shneiderman, who’d run Ragged Wing as a nomadic theater troupe with artistic director Amy Sass since 2004, raised $300,000 to create a 4,000-square-foot performing-arts hub within the dilapidated warehouse, immediately attracting resident companies such as Lower Bottom Playaz. “With no marketing, people were banging on the door,” she said. Flight Deck, which Ragged Wing operates, is now booked 50 weeks a year, and since 2014 has quintupled its budget to more than $500,000.

Yet Flight Deck’s critical role in the East Bay theater community belies Ragged Wing’s financial insecurity. Facilities costs are double the rental revenue, Shneiderman said, and ticket prices similarly lag behind production expenses. Ragged Wing raises the shortfall, but even with key institutional support, its several part-time employees remain underpaid and without benefits. With its five-year lease set to lapse, Shneiderman sees little more room to grow.

“The looming lease renewal prompted some soul-searching,” she said. “Is this sustainable?”

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Flight Deck will close following a “ceremonial exit” program March 29, 2020 entitled The Art of Leaving. Ragged Wing, like Ayodele Nzinga’s troupe Lower Bottom Playaz, will resume a nomadic existence; an Oakland beacon and resource to dozens of artists will go dark. Shneiderman wants another entity to take over the lease, but Flight Deck as it's known is done.

“Ragged Wing started Flight Deck because there was nowhere to stage a play in downtown Oakland,” she said. “Unless someone takes over our lease, it could be that way again.”

In either case, Shneiderman now believes the nonprofit arts system is broken beyond repair.

Ayodele Nzinga, seated, is an artist and activist who runs Flight Deck resident company Lower Bottom Playaz.
Ayodele Nzinga, seated, is an artist and activist who runs Flight Deck resident company Lower Bottom Playaz. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Nzinga founded Lower Bottom Playaz, an original Flight Deck resident, 20 years ago to produce original works and canonical black theater. It’s known for staging all of Century Cycle, August Wilson’s epic exploration of the African-American experience, and in September premiered one-woman plays by Nzinga, Cat Brooks and Kharyshi Wiginton. Nzinga is also an activist who helps run a new anti-displacement fund, and one day recently she sat in Flight Deck’s gallery distributing checks. “It feels fantastic,” she said, smiling to note the ironic timing and setting.

Theater in Oakland faces challenges besides the lack of venues. San Francisco companies tend to charge more at the door, and city government exponentially outspends Oakland in art grants; in Oakland’s most recent budget process, arts funding even dipped. Berkeley has several venues with resident companies supported by a wealthier, better-established audience. “We’re courting a different demographic,” Nzinga said. “We have a pricing scale, and we pass a hat at the end of each show—the joke is you have to pay at the door and then pay to leave.”

Flight Deck’s monthly overhead, according to Shneiderman, is $20,000-$25,000. Rental rates, though subsidized by fundraising, make it difficult to fairly compensate performers while offering affordable tickets. TheatreFIRST, at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theater, this year replaced stipends with an hourly rate. Ragged Wing is instituting a similar policy in order to “prioritize people over space,” Shneiderman said. “Why commit all this money to rent and not pay our people right?”

For companies such as Ragged Wing and Lower Bottom Playaz, reducing overhead is necessary to offer a living wage. Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre, a former resident company at Flight Deck, earlier this year moved its office and rehearsal space to the Flax Building, where Ubuntu Theater Project also operates. Nzinga similarly foresees a roving future—anchored in Oakland, performing in surrounding cities—for Lower Bottom Playaz.

“Maybe we need to be nimble enough again to perform in homeless shelters and halfway houses like when we started out, or outdoors in Frank Ogawa Plaza,” Nzinga said.

Props and posters rest in Flight Deck's office mezzanine.
Props and posters rest in Flight Deck's office mezzanine. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Earlier this month Shneiderman spoke at a “social impact” business conference in Berkeley about “endemic problems in the nonprofit arts sector,” describing the struggles of Flight Deck and Ragged Wing as systemic problems of an industry beholden to philanthropic largesse.

Institutional funders want to support projects with marquee visibility instead of humdrum operating costs, and wages for staff suffer, she explained. Organizations compete against each other for grants, yielding programming tailored to the vision of a few private foundations. Nonprofits with too little or too much money alienate funders, discouraging growth. And few audience members realize this constant hustle effectively subsidizes the price of their tickets.

Part of the problem is the city’s cost-of-living outpacing public and private arts funding. Another is development: Cranes and new luxury housing in downtown Oakland make the neighborhood’s art spaces look like placeholders. Highbridge Capital Management, a hedge fund subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase, bought the Flight Deck building two years ago as part of a rush on commercial real-estate in the area. It’s the only single-story structure on the block.

Posters for past productions hang framed in the Flight Deck hallway.
Posters for past productions hang framed in the Flight Deck hallway. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

But even an abundance of grants and a longer-term lease on friendly terms wouldn’t address the underlying issue, Shneiderman believes. Relying on wealthy individual donors bends programming to a narrow demographic. “It begs the question of who’s being served,” she said. The arts nonprofit system entrenches instead of disperses social and economic standing, and donors receive tax advantages and burnished names without “rebalancing wealth or power in any significant way,” Shneiderman said, calling the model a form of “extractive capitalism.”

For Shneiderman, this critique is the prelude to a pitch for what she’s calling the “Oakland Cultural Space Cooperative,” a network of extant spaces for rehearsal and performance with a centralized booking portal. She’s preparing to begin a year-long design process—supported by local and state philanthropies—in collaboration with several other organizations. “We want it to also have a pathway to ownership,” she added.

Before then, Ragged Wing Ensemble will present The Art of Leaving, its final program at Flight Deck, on March 29, 2020. Shneiderman describes it as a “multi-layered, participatory project” to gather thoughts on leaving from attendees, celebrate resiliency and culminate with a raucous march along Broadway. Like Nzinga with Lower Bottom Playaz, Shneiderman anticipates Ragged Wing returning to presenting compact, tourable productions in nontraditional venues such as homes and outdoor spaces.

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“It’s sad,” she said. “But it’s precipitating something new.”

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