It began with 10 actors and a bucket of black paint.
Over the past 22 years, cheeky impresario Patrick Dooley has steered the Shotgun Players from the basement of a pizzeria to the front ranks of the Bay Area theater scene.
The brash Berkeley company is now embarking on the completion of Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia." Even Dooley, who always charges ahead with both barrels blazing, can't believe how far Shotgun has come since the early days. What began in 1992 in the basement of La Val's is now a company formidable enough to pull off the three-play theatrical marathon that is Stoppard's magnum opus.
"It's overwhelming and awesome," Dooley said during a break in rehearsals. "If I stop to think about it, my head explodes.
A sprawling nine-hour soap opera steeped in 19th century Russian history, "Coast of Utopia" represents the culmination of years of work and a sign that Shotgun has come of age. With Dooley at the helm, "Voyage," "Shipwreck" and "Salvage" run in repertory through April 27.
"This kind of work is right in our wheelhouse," said the longtime Berkeley resident, exuding the blend of chutzpah and ambition that has become Shotgun's trademark. "Intellectually stimulating, endlessly imaginative, emotionally complex. It's a (expletive) feast."
While Dooley no longer runs the company on a shoestring (for years he stashed all the box office dough in his sock drawer), the troupe has always reflected his gutsy personality.
"When you enter Shotgun you are definitely in Patrick's place. It's welcoming, the work on stage is fresh and interesting, and the ultimate vibe is feisty and vital," said Tom Ross, artistic director of Berkeley's Aurora Theatre. "He has a folksy, slightly devilish charisma. ... But underneath he is an extremely passionate, probing and strategic leader."
"Patrick is adorable," agreed Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Rep. "It is just not even possible to resist his charms. He's got that great twinkle in his eye that makes you always feel as though you are in on his joke."
The son of a teacher and a civil engineer, the 46-year-old grew up in small-town Virginia. When he made a pit stop in Berkeley on a road trip to Seattle in the '90s, he found his destiny. Soon he was pumping espresso by day and by night founding Shotgun, then a scrappy little startup tucked under La Val's pizzeria. A magnetic fellow with a gift for talking others into being as committed as he is, he looks back on the beer and pizza era fondly. As he once wrote: "On a bad night we were a bunch of friends butchering the Bard in the basement. On a good night we were brilliant."
Berkeley turned out to be the perfect home for his rambunctious brand of theater.
"Our audience is made up of many of the greatest scientists, computer engineers, cooks, urban gardeners, authors, environmentalists in the country, if not the world," said Dooley, who plays the violin and does yoga to wind down. "They want their experience at the theater to reflect the complexity and thoughtfulness of their daily work. Their desire inspires and challenges us to reach for that brass ring."
Along the way, he got married to fellow theater maven Kimberly and had three daughters. Over the years, Shotgun grew from a bare bones troupe to a major theatrical player. In 2004, the company moved to the Ashby Stage, a hip 120-seat venue converted from a church. It's a hectic, 24/7 gig that requires Dooley to pivot from artist to producer to administrator on a daily basis.
"My work feeds me," he said. "I'm at my most joyful when I'm connecting to other people, whether it's making pancakes with my girls or rehearsing with the actors on stage."
Certainly Dooley's vision still has its edge. The company thrives on breaking new ground. In 2007, Shotgun became the first solar-powered theater in the nation. He has also held the line on ticket prices.
"My mandate is to make theater accessible," he said. "My rule of thumb is if 20-something me couldn't afford it, then it costs too much."
Few theaters attack new work with as much fire as Shotgun. Over the years the troupe has electrified critics and audiences alike with hits such as Mark Jackson's "Death of Meyerhold," Liz Duffy Adams' "Dog Act," Jason Craig and Dave Malloy's "Beowulf" and Linda McLean's "Strangers, Babies."
To be sure, Dooley believes theater is more than entertainment. Looking ahead, he hopes to increase Shotgun's impact by building a bigger venue, giving emerging artists a leg up and working with local students. It's all part of his "manifesto" for the future.
"I don't want to distract people. I don't want to help them forget their lives," he said. "I want to remind them that they are human and they are part of a community and we are all connected."
Written by Tom Stoppard, directed by Patrick Dooley
When: March 20-April 27
Where: Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
Tickets: $8-$125, 510-841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org
Man with a vision
Who: Patrick Dooley
of Shotgun Players
Current project: Directing Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia"
Quote: "Our audience is made up of many of the greatest scientists, computer engineers, cooks, urban gardeners, authors, environmentalists in the country, if not the world. They want their experience at the theater to reflect the complexity and thoughtfulness of their daily work. Their desire inspires and challenges us to reach for that brass ring."