(NOTE 1: On the 4th of February 2020, I pitched to the East Bay Express [for which I’d written before] a story covering the history of The Flight Deck in Oakland, which had recently announced its closure. I made said pitch to acting Editor-in-Chief Stephen Buel [yes, that Stephen Buel the racist fucker behind this and this], who accepted, set a fee, and assured me that the story would appear in “the March 18 or March 25 issue”.
I spent the next month researching the venue and interviewing its proprietors for the completed story below – which, along with an invoice, I sent to Buel on 19 March, assured by him that it would appear in the issue on the 25th. It was not. Since the 19th, neither Buel nor anyone else at the Express has responded to my messages and I still haven’t been paid. Buel still works at the Express as a “Director of Strategic Initiatives”, as of this writing.
I figured it’d be a shame to let my work go to waste. [Plus, I’m trying to keep busy as much as possible during COVID-19 lockdown.] So, here it is, for all to see. Enjoy!
And motherfuck Stephen Buel. You still owe me money, you son-of-a-bitch.)
(NOTE 2: The story ends on something of a cliffhanger because the fate of the The Flight Deck was unknown at the time. As such, I’ve added an update at the bottom for the outcome announced August 2020.)
Proposed tagline: “With Oakland’s only black box theatre facing an uncertain future, diverse independent theatre is dealt another major blow.”
There’s an odd sense of serendipity to Amy Sass’s recollection. “Back in 2013, we did Time Sensitive,” she says. “And then in 2014, we had a lease on the space.”
The show, which she wrote and directed, was to be the last show in which Ragged Wing Ensemble – the theatre company she’d co-founded with Anna Shneiderman and Keith Cory Davis – would live the “nomadic” existence; suffering the headaches of negotiating with different venues for each show. By 2019, they’d become the proprietors of The Flight Deck, the last black box in Oakland.
After years of struggling financially, they hoped remounting a past success would help ease the burden. The show was Time Sensitive. It would be Ragged Wing’s last proper show in the space.
It’s a major blow to Oakland’s theatre community, which has not only struggled with procuring affordable performances spaces (Ubuntu Theater performs out of the Oakland FLAX Art & Design store), but has also struggled with defining itself outside of SF proper. Ever since TheatreF1RST pulled up stakes and moved to Berkeley, Oakland had been without a black box theatre. After bouncing around for nearly a decade, the members of Ragged Wing had noticed the void.
“We were like, ‘wouldn’t it just be great to be able to perform in Downtown Oakland?’”, recalls Shneiderman. She’d already been working at the Envision Academy when she saw a sign in the window of 1540 Broadway. Even then, the Ensemble knew that getting performers and audiences to The Town would be a tough sell. They took inspiration from SF’s Tenderloin, which not only had the EXIT Theatre and CounterPulse, but would also soon have PianoFight (with whose founders Ragged Wing traded notes).
“The Tenderloin is the theatre district in San Francisco,” says Shneiderman. “We were just like, ‘well, maybe the audience we’re trying to attract is not people who are gonna go to Berkeley Rep. It’s probably gonna be a bit younger. It’s probably gonna be a bit not-as-white’.”
The Flight Deck opened for business in 2014, serving as Ragged Wing’s base of operations upstairs, with a 1750-sq-ft performance space (and adjacent 810-sq-ft rehearsal space) below. Like PianoFight, The Deck was within walking distance of a BART Station (19th St.), making it an attractive prospect for theatre artists on both sides of The Bridge.
SF sketch troupe Killing My Lobster was one such company drawn to the Deck. “[I]t was becoming clear that a large number of KML artists and audience members now live in the East Bay and we wanted to go to them, instead of them having to come to us,” says KML Artistic Director Allison Page, via email. “This was easier said than done, as there aren’t a lot of venues in the East Bay that are well suited to our needs, and specifically in Oakland, there were even fewer options. [..] Flight Deck was the perfect size for us, perfect vibe for our audiences, and a great location not far from public transit.”
Ayodele Nzingha – whose Oakland-based Lower Bottom Playaz spent most of their previous 13 seasons performing outdoors – also found the location appealing to a wider audience within The Town. “It helped us grow our mainstream audience,” she says. “Perhaps people were afraid to cross East 14th St. to come into the Lower Bottoms to see theatre. [Residence at The Flight Deck] certainly helped to ‘complexify’ the people who came to see our show. From a logistical point-of-view, it’s more convenient to live inside than outside.”
Amongst the shows put by these companies were KML’s Vicious Cycle: The Musical (spun off from the menstruation podcast of the same name) and the Lower Bottom Playaz’ full staging of August Wilson’s entire “Pittsburgh Cycle”. Other notable productions included the Aluminous Collective’s staging of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Ubuntu Theater’s production of Hamlet, and annual productions by resident company Gritty City Rep. All of these shows primarily cast people of color and leaned heavily toward gender parity, as did the audiences who came to see them. It seemed as if the venue had found its younger, not-as-white audience.
And yet, while the audiences were there, the need to maintain low prices in the wake of mounting overhead eventually took its toll. As Downtown Oakland began to clean up and attract more out-of-town interests, prices began to rise. Plans to integrate the Flight Deck with local businesses fell through (a farm-to-table restaurant meant to open next door never materialized) and the company never caught the sort of deep-pocket underwriters that could sustain it long-term. Eventually, Ragged Wing went from doing four annual shows in 2014 to only three in 2015 to none in 2016. The company that had spent its nomadic days hoping their budget would cover basic theatre resources was now finding its own theatre draining its time and resources.
“The burden of running a venue while doing less and less was becoming untenable,” says Shneiderman. “We started this to do our own work and to be in service to the community. But over time, Ragged Wing needed to stop running a venue in order to focus on its own artistic work.” In 2019, during Time Sensitive’s revival, it was clear to Sass and Shneiderman that the Flight Deck wouldn’t last for much longer. On November 19, the venue’s official website released a statement announcing that they would not be renewing their lease.
For Ayodele Nzingha, who proudly calls Oakland a “cultural district”, the closure of institutions like the Flight Deck isn’t a sign of a lack of interest so much as a lack of action. “People are getting ‘woke’ too late,” she says. “People want to dance, but they get to the party after the dance has packed up and gone home.”
(At press time, plans for Ragged Wing to transfer the lease to another entity have been placed on hold due to disruption by COVID-19 concerns. Also delayed was the company’s good-bye show, The Art of Leaving, originally scheduled for March 29.)
During my interview with Shneiderman, she alluded to a Next City article suggesting the very model of theatre companies owning venues may be passé. It should then come as no surprise that the Ensemble have decided to return to their nomadic routes.
Although the future of the venue and Oakland theatre are still uncertain, the creators of the Flight Deck have few regrets about the space they created. All but one. “I really wanted to have a marquee!” says Amy Sass. “We were really trying to get money together to build a marquee because so many people would pass by and not know what the space was. How do you draw in folks who sometimes see theatre, sometimes see music, but don’t really know what that space is?
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and professional arts critic. You can find him online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.
(UPDATE – August 2020: On the 17th of August, it was announced that independent SF venue PianoFight would expand to a second location in Oakland by taking over ownership and operation of The Flight Deck. I detail the relationship between the above article. Furthermore, I wrote about PianoFight for the SF Examiner shortly after completing the above article.
The story of The Flight Deck has… not an “ending”, but a conclusion.
I still haven’t been paid by Stephen Buel and the East Bay Express.)