Cal Performances adds a new venue for its Berkeley Talks series
By Lou Fancher
Five months into the first season of an ambitious new lecture series known as "Berkeley Talks," presenter Cal Performances is unafraid to open its artistic jaws even wider.
Having hosted iconic artists/thinkers Art Spiegelman, David Sedaris and Yo-Yo Ma at Zellerbach Hall last fall, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks invited best-selling author Michael Ondaatje to join him in a Berkeley Talks conversation on Feb. 13 at the series' newest venue, Memorial Stadium's stunning room-with-a-killer-view, the University Club.
Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Matias Tarnopolsky said their first-ever event at the club was part of a pilot program aimed at achieving Dirks' goal to expand the cultural dialogue on campus.
"It's a new venue with the most spectacular views of the Bay Area," Tarnopolsky said. "We think it could be a wonderful space for jazz-club style events, or more informal talk and lectures."
Brazilian vocalist and pianist Clarice Assad is scheduled for Feb. 21 and Tarnopolsky said Berkeley Talks will "continue to expand and thrive" at various venues.
The setting -- far more intimate than Zellerbach's vast proscenium stage -- offers a dazzling distraction performers will need to contend with: The sprawling nighttime lights of the Bay, laid out like a shimmering blanket to the right of the small, raised stage. On Friday night, strategic lighting and 200 chairs arranged to retain the central focus helped, but sight lines might have been better served with a circular arrangement.
With Assad's upcoming performance requiring a piano (the freight elevator could not accommodate a grand piano), a baby grand was engineered into the elevator with "considerable effort," according to Tarnopolsky. Anticipating adjustments needed for future presentations, Cal Performances is considering bringing live-streaming and recording capabilities to the new location.
Parking, always an issue in Berkeley, has been improved by the recent opening of the 450-space Memorial Parking structure. The club's bar, which offers drinks and hors d'oeuvres, is located far enough from the performers to be a welcome feature without detracting from the experience.
Ondaatje is arguably the perfect guest to inaugurate the move to a new space, given his literal mobility (a fondness for travel) and literary flexibility that has him writing in both what he called "marathon" prose form and precise, economical poetry.
Born in Sri Lanka, educated in England, living in Canada since 1962 and roaming the world to collect stories, his writing is characterized by shifting perspectives, collage-like narratives, frank and up-close portrayals, and stylistic innovations challenging traditional definitions of contemporary literature.
He is best known for the Booker Prize-winning novel "The English Patient" (1992), which was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996.
After a quick ramble through his career highlights, the evening blended readings of Ondaatje's novels and poems with Dirk's probing questions about the role of memory, endings, structure and other elements in Ondaatje's work.
"Writing is a place to live," Ondaatje said, later adding what seemed to be an addendum; "Writing is archaeology."
The 71-year-old novelist said he starts with a simple idea, not a grand plan. A story about a boy on a ship becomes a deep exploration of how a person lands in a foreign country and discovers a sense of place.
A "small sliver" of Ondaatje's life or a "minute character" he's writing about will blossom into what he described as "tall stories," not unlike folk tales in which reality explodes delightfully into inventive, imaginative exaggeration.
Although Ondaatje attributed some of his writing to "subliminal" mental processes, he said extensive research, "flailing around for three years without even knowing who the patient would be" while writing "The English Patient," and a fondness for jazz music are all aspects of his writing experience.
Asked how he plots the characters in his books, Ondaatje said he can't predict their development, "but I can always go back and rewrite."