Berkeley Rep Builds a Theatrical Experience Through Sound With 'Place/Settings'

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Contributing writer to 'Place/Settings,' Eisa Davis.
Contributing writer to 'Place/Settings,' Eisa Davis. (Dennis J. Photography)

Over the past year without live performances and theatre, venues throughout the Bay Area have been forced to pivot to creating virtual programming throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. And while streamed theatre can be a hit-or-miss, as Berkeley Rep artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer recently told the Berkeleyside, “sound can create an entire world.”

That's the premise of Place/Settings, a new series from Berkeley Rep and the latest example of a Bay Area theater company pivoting to digital offerings. Unlike many recent theatre productions, Place/Settings isn’t a streamed recording of a play, but an audio-only, 10-episode podcast series that takes listeners to different key locations around Berkeley.

The stories of Place/Settings come courtesy of 10 different writers, all with strong ties to the city—some stories are based on true events, some are fictional, and some fall in between. Whether read by the author or a voice actor, the stories utilize sound design and narration styles to build an entirely sonic theatrical experience. All are personal and unique, each with its own stylistic flair.

Richard Montoya, a contributing writer to Berkeley Rep's 'Place/Settings.'
Richard Montoya, a contributing writer to Berkeley Rep's 'Place/Settings.' (Jenny Graham)

Upon listening to a cross-section of episodes, I found Place/Settings to be an artistically distinctive and heartwarming tribute to one of the most exceptional cities in the Bay. Although I grew up in Oakland, I spent a good deal of my childhood visiting the neighboring city of Berkeley. Many of the featured writers of Place/Settings grew up in neighboring cities as well, like Daniel Handler, whose episode tells the story of visiting Berkeley from his hometown of San Francisco, or Kamala Parks, who moved to Berkeley from her mother’s house in San Jose.

Handler, better known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, contributes a story from his time growing up in San Francisco, when he viewed Berkeley as a formidable, fascinating place. He describes one real-life journey to the “glamorous” city in “The Black Mass Sonata.” Read by Lance Gardner, the episode puts the listener in the shoes of a teenage Handler during a lonely period of his life as he aimlessly wanders alone along Bancroft Way before finding himself in the Musical Offering Cafe.


Handler’s descriptions of trepidation at entering the shops and restaurants he’d deemed “too cool” for him brought me back to the memory of an uncomfortable period of my own adolescence: just barely old enough to venture out on my own, but not yet old enough to have a group of friends to make the experience less daunting. And yet in that cafe, the lost Handler finds clarity as he eats a cup of soup and discovers a sonata playing in the cafe that he does not yet know will snap him out of a bout of amnesia just a few years later.

Contributing writer Kamala Parks (Frank Piegaro)
Kamala Parks, a contributing writer to Berkeley Rep's 'Place/Settings.' (Frank Piegaro)

In “The Third Sphere,” drummer, 924 Gilman founder, and BART planner Kamala Parks tells her story of grappling with her parents’ divorce in early adolescence. In Parks’ story, narrated by Denmo Ibrahim, the North Berkeley BART station serves as the backdrop for her first strides into independence after she moves in with her father to escape the jealous abuse of her temperamental brother.

The city of Berkeley also serves as the site for Parks’ encounters with the consequences of California’s Prop. 13, as slashed education funding forces her into a remedial class full of rowdy students that she skips school to avoid. As a lifelong Oakland public school student and recent high school graduate, I found her descriptions of classroom dynamics entertaining and comfortingly familiar; although my middle school years came decades after hers, our experiences echo one another.

Tilden Regional Park makes its perhaps-inevitable appearance in Philip Kan Gotanda’s “night fishing,” an eerie tale of an old fisherman who frequents Jewel Lake. Read by Steven Anthony Jones and BD Wong, the theatrical storytelling and masterful sound design of this episode construct an ominous scene around the listener, building up to a cliffhanger ending. In contrast to the others that I listened to, this episode feels more like a horror movie-turned-audiobook than a personal narrative, demonstrating the versatility of the series and the distinctions between the styles of the different writers.

Of all the episodes I sampled, “night fishing” perhaps best exemplifies the purpose of Place/Settings in its immersiveness, creating its own world through sound, just as Pfaelzer describes, and evoking the mystic and unmistakably magical energy of Berkeley. After living and working remotely from the East Coast for the past month, it brought me back home, even if just for a moment—and therein lies Place/Settings’ success.

All 10 episodes of 'Place/Settings' are available now. Details here.