Drama teacher Jessa Berkner loves a challenge. When she first came to Oakland Tech High School, the spacious auditorium was being used for storage and the performing arts had all but disappeared. In her seven years at the school, things have certainly changed.
Now the school boasts a busy art, dance and music program, and Berkner has formed the Oakland Theater Arts Initiative to encourage art programs at other area institutions. In 2010, Oakland Tech’s theater program won an American High School Theatre Festival award and was listed as one of the top 50 high school drama departments in the United States. That same year, Berkner and her students traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to perform their production of “Hamlet, Blood in the Brain” at the prestigious Fringe Festival. The adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by local playwright Naomi Lizuka relocates the classic tragedy to the drug-ravaged world of 1989 Oakland.
Currently, the professional actress and teacher finds herself consumed with another challenging project — rehearsing Mary Zimmerman’s modern adaptation of “Metamorphoses.” Zimmerman uses Ovid’s epic poem as the basis for her stage adaptation, which adds a contemporary feel to the classical myths and legends with their unifying theme of transformation.
“I just love Mary Zimmerman’s work,” Berkner said. “I was looking for a show that speaks to where students are today, all the issues they have to deal with, and all the changes and growth they go through.
“This is also an ensemble piece, so I can give a voice to many actors,” Berkner said. She encourages her actors to “have each other’s back” in order to create a safe environment in which to take risks.
Berkner and choreographer Ena Dallas have used their own creative initiative to adapt Zimmerman’s script for their unique group of performers.
“We haven’t changed any of the language, but we’ve used the student’s individual skill sets to bring life to the characters,” Berkner said. To that end, the god Hades is a rock star showcasing guitarist Sasha Petterson’s musical abilities and several students perform acrobatic moves during the show.
“Since its based on mythology, the script is very lyrical,” Dallas said. “Postures and gestures say as much as the narration, so we’ve added very stylized movement for the gods and also utilized the talents of the students in my acrobatics class.”
Dallas, formerly a professional trapeze artist, taught Chinese acrobatics and aerial arts at San Francisco’s School of Circus Arts for 15 years.