What is The High Dive?

Two years ago, Megan and I bought a house up on the ridge of the Oakland Hills.   The house was nice enough, a midcentury modern with big windows and enough space for our family of three.  But there were two things in particular that made this the home for us.  One, the backyard opened up to a large meadow on the edge of Redwood Park.  And two, there was a dark & dusty garage with a high ceiling.  When I first laid eyes on this garage a single thought flashed through my mind.

Man cave.

But not really a man cave.  More of a multipurpose space for theatre, music, and yes, drinking beer and watching sports.   We are all born with an acre of loneliness, and our own unique way of tending that acre.  Some folks travel, others take up gardening.  I like to throw parties.  Psychoanalyze it all you want.  Gatsby had the same problem.  And so did the Buddha, when you think about it.  It can’t help but feed your ego to be the host.  But also, people need joy, especially these days.  And what better way than by sharing the magic of live performance in an intimate setting?  Because that’s how humans used to connect in the good ol’ days before refrigerators and iPhones.   Back when we gathered around the fire.  At least, these are the arguments I used with Megan to explain why we couldn’t use our new garage for storing earthquake supplies and suitcases.  Because we can create a space for people to discover and express their higher selves.  What I didn’t mention to her was how I also wanted to install a hi-def TV so I could watch football with my buddies.

But how do you build such a thing?

Fortunately for us, Megan and I were playing in a rock n’ roll band with a tall & enigmatic bass player (aren’t they all?) named Steve Ekstrand, who works as a design & build contractor.   Now Steve. being a tall & enigmatic bass player, is an unusually creative fellow.   The next thing we knew, he had built a loft accessible by a diving board ladder, a bar big enough to seat a half-dozen 49er fans, and a couch made out of Volkswagen parts.

I hung stage lights and a mirror ball from the large beam that bisects the garage, and installed some stage curtains to cover the garage door, and voilà, we were ready to host our first show.

It was during this time that I was beginning to get a lot of work directing one-person shows.  Like I said, we all have our own way of tending our acre of loneliness.  But who knew that solo performance would become the third most popular activity in the Bay Area (after competitive bicycling and urban farming)?   And this is a good thing, because there are 3 things I know to be true about the art form:

1) It is demanding work that can’t help but make you a better person if you stick with it.

2) Solo performers are remarkably supportive of each other, and they like to have fun together.

3) If enough people rehearse & perform in our garage, we can write it off on our taxes.

Our first evening of performance featured new work from three of my clients: Laura Wiley, Laure Guerin, and Echo Shaman.  A month later I hosted another evening of work featuring clients Howard Petrick and David Jacobson.  And now, a little over two years later, we have hosted a total of 12 evenings of solo performance work.

Here are the members of the Wool Street Gang, a group of talented solo performers.  I’ve had the pleasure of directing 5 of the 6 members.  In this photo they are on the stage of The High Dive celebrating that evening’s outstanding performances by comrades David Caggiano and David Jacobson.

And here is Elaine Magree getting ready for her summer 2012 fringe tour.  I love what she wrote to me after her High Dive performance this past summer: “Thank you for the fabulous experience.  Oh the exhilaration of the high dive!!!”

The High Dive comfortably seats 40 or so people on cushions, folding chairs, and bar stools.  A few people can even climb the high dive ladder to watch from the “balcony seats” atop the loft.  Most shows are “sold out” affairs, with a boisterous mix of friends, fellow performers, and neighbors.  I can’t say enough nice things about the neighbors who live on our quiet and woodsy street.  Jesper Jurcenoks, the Danish programmer, has developed quite a reputation among our performers for giving extensive & helpful feedback after each show.  And you can count on Karen Ray Gibson and/or Holly Kambeitz to bring a plate of home baked brownies.   There tends to be wine flowing, and some nights we are blessed with a moonrise over the meadow.  By the end of the evening there’s always enough money in our donation jar to send our performers home with a fistful of twenties.

Performances are only part of what goes on at The High Dive.   Pretty much every day I meet with at least one client.  Victoria Doggett, David Kleinberg, Angela Neff, Kurt Bodden, Wayne Harris, Garen Patterson, Annette Roman, and many others have honed their shows under the bright lights of The High Dive.  I rehearse there myself, with my own director Rebecca Fisher, who comes up to The High Dive at least once a week.  It’s a different vibe than working at a theatre in the city.  Up here, birds chirp; down there, horns honk.  Both have their value to the artist, of course.  I’m not saying The High Dive is better, I’m just saying it’s a nice change of pace.  And really, more than anything, that’s what I am going for with everything I do here at The High Dive: a change of pace from what tends to be.

There’s a lot else going on at The High Dive.  It’s where our band rehearses, and where my wife hosts various school functions and women’s group meetings.  We’ve had talent shows, Halloween open houses, and best of all, football playoff parties.  Solo performer and Steelers’ fan Pidge Meade has shown up two years in a row wearing a Jerome Bettis jersey and waving her “Terrible Towel”…she’s hard core!  Our band has even played a couple concerts.  That good looking guy with the microphone is Steve Ekstrand, the tall & enigmatic bass player who built The High Dive.

And many of you might recognize Wayne Harris, creator and star of Tyrone “Short Leg” Johnson and Some White Boys.  I’m not going to say that “Tyrone” got his start at The High Dive.  But I’m not going to say he didn’t.
So why do we call it “The High Dive”?  Well, for starters, there’s the high dive ladder that contractor Steve found at Urban Ore (the hip Berkeley junk yard).

And we like to think we are the “highest” bar in Oakland, way atop the hills, 1420 feet above sea level, with views of the bay & city to the west, and the park and Mount Diablo to the east.

But most importantly, we call it The High Dive because it is the perfect metaphor for what we do as performers and writers.  The creative leap into the unknown.  Like the fool stepping off the cliff on that Tarot card.

And the courage it takes to make that leap over and over as we rework and hone our material.  Our willingness to descend into the depths, and the resilience to ascend yet again.  Over and over.  Learning to fall and fly.  And how we take the ultimate leap of faith when we share our work with an audience.

The High Dive is still evolving.  Every couple months there’s some new feature.  Andy Robbins, landscape contractor and performer, built the adjoining patio and fire pit where our audiences gather during intermission.  Shawna Peterson built the custom neon sign that hangs above the stage.  We bought a movie theatre popcorn popper.  And we now have a featured visual artist of the month.   Currently on display are Echo Shaman’s abstract acrylics, and next month it will be Melinda Stelzer’s surreal portraits of rabbits.  Solo performer Victoria Doggett is creating an original mosaic to be permanently installed near the entrance.  It’s a space where many people participate, each in their own way.

Here’s my wife Megan singing her favorite blues song “My Man Don’t Care ‘Bout Storage.”

And now it’s grown to the point where none other than solo performance luminary Charlie Varon has asked to perform at The High Dive, which is quite an honor. Charlie is the creator and performer of the long-running hit shows Rush Limbaugh in Night School, The People’s Violin, and Rabbi Sam. He will perform brand new material at The High Dive on Saturday, October 27th.  Also on the bill will be Rebecca Fisher and Garen Patterson.

Who knows who else will eventually perform at The High Dive?  My friend Sophie O’Shaughnessy is convinced that we can get Jimmy Cliff to play The High Dive.  Hey, if anyone can make that happen, it’s Sophie, which is why I have put her on The High Dive advisory board along with our tall & enigmatic bass player and a couple other big dreamin’ friends.  Because ultimately The High Dive is a state of mind.  A willingness to see all sorts of possibilities in something as humble as a garage.

 If you would like to attend the “Charlie Varon and Friends” show on October 27th shoot me an email.  Limit 2 seats per reservation (while supplies last).