Approaching her 10 year college reunion at Mills, Elizabeth Carter is proud-with good reason. Unabashedly positive and exuberant, she puts her passion for theater and people into building a reputable company in her adopted city of Oakland. Tall, shapely and thirty-something, Carter has a contagious smile, wildly curly hair and loves to talk, especially about the magic of the stage.
As managing director of Oakland Public Theater, or OPT, now artist-in-residence on Mills campus for its second year, she has built a non-profit company that delivers on its mission to produce “theater that entertains, educates and celebrates our whole community.”
An alumna of Mills, she graduated with a degree in Dramatic Arts in 1992. “It was the best possible place for me at the time,” she said. “I am a big Mills fan.” Carter said she is thrilled at the opportunity to combine her love of theater with her love for her alma mater.
Carter joined OPT to help founder and artistic director Norman Gee, her longtime friend and peer. As time went on, however, she assumed more and more responsibility. “It didn’t take long before she slotted herself in as managing director,” said Gee.
Carter also remembers this time: “I realized it was making my life so much better. I was doing something really important and empowering,” she said. “And I realized I was really good at it.”
Looking for a place to plant the theater company, both Gee and Carter wanted a home in Oakland partly to prove that Oakland’s reputation for producing mediocre theater was undeserved. “People feel they must go to San Francisco or Berkeley to see good theater,” Carter said. She was also attracted to the opportunity to produce theater for a diverse community. “I want the audience to feel that they own the show,” said Gee who says for that to happen the stage must represent the audience.
When Carter and Gee were working to set up shop in Oakland, they approached Mills for assistance, and found the school a willing partner. Mills provides Lisser Hall as a rehearsal and performance space to the group. In return, OPT provides opportunities for students to get involved with professional actors, performing sophisticated material.
Volunteers from the East Oakland community, Mills students, and notable figures provide support. “If it were just the two of us [Norman and I], it would be a really small vision,” said Carter. “People soon find out why OPT feels like family.”
Involvement of the local community is a primary goal of Carter’s. “Elizabeth has a love for the Laurel,” said Gee.
Thanks to her 10 years experience working in the East Bay, Carter has many connections. “We get a lot of support because nobody else is doing what we’re doing,” she said, “with this level of thoughtful, diverse, productions.”
As far as performance goes, OPT is definitely doing something different. They produce plays that other companies don’t. Carter said they often look for work “either written by women or with strong female characters,” and Carter contends that some of the most exciting work is being done by female playwrights.
The theater’s performances are sometimes interactive. For one Mother’s Day, audience members were asked to share a story about their mothers or motherhood. One by one, people read stories from strips of paper, often with their families close by, listening. Afterwards, people in the audience mingled with the cast to comment on the statements made. For Carter, this is what theater is intended to do. “I want all events to encourage people to come up and say hello-to bridge relationships.”
When choosing what works to perform, Carter places primary importance on their relevance to OPT’s audience. She said her intention is to “speak on stage in a way that represents the world where I live-that doesn’t pretend that we aren’t a piece of history or the future.”
Carter is careful not to categorize Oakland Public Theater Company as a group which only tells the stories of marginalized people. “A lot of people think we’re a black company,” said Gee, although he maintains that is not the case.
Carter and Gee agree that OPT has something to offer everyone. “I’m not interested in being a mouthpiece for an issue or cause, yet we want to speak something true and important,” said Carter. “Theater is about communicating ideas that are being brought up in the world.”
The Oakland Public Theater’s busy schedule doesn’t slow Carter down; she seems to be enjoying every minute of the theater’s success. “It has been a lot of hard work trying to build something that will last longer than us,” she said. Of all the challenges that Carter has taken on, she said, “The most exciting thing has been running this company.” Gee is also happy with their working relationship; “The fact that she still gets excited about what we’re doing is really thrilling,” he said.