Our hometown theater proves it’s ready for the big leagues—over and over again.
The Big Apple is watching. Berkeley Repertory Theatre has been a cornerstone of the Bay Area’s theatrical landscape since 1968, but in the last few years it’s as if New York has suddenly discovered the East Bay’s foremost regional theater. The New York Times critic even flies out to Berkeley occasionally to review a world premiere. And not without reason. In the last 14 years, 14 Berkeley Rep productions have made it to New York, and five have recently landed on Broadway.
“The reaction that I get from an audience in Berkeley is probably a closer indicator of the reaction we’ll get from an audience in New York than any other city I know,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, who was recently at the Rep directing Compulsion. “You have an extremely smart, very culturally sophisticated, experimental minded and innovative audience that’s also politically progressive. So if a show works in Berkeley, I’ve got a pretty good sense it’ll work in New York.”
On a Friday evening in late October, you could feel the whole place abuzz with creative excitement as the courtyard between the Rep’s two stages filled with sold-out crowds at intermission. The small Thrust Stage was showing Compulsion, Rinne Groff’s tense play about the legal tussle over The Diary of Anne Frank. In a production co-commissioned by the Public, the Yale Repertory Theatre, and Berkeley Rep, Broadway and screen star Mandy Patinkin co-starred with eerie Anne Frank puppets. Meanwhile, an opening-day audience in the larger Roda Theatre next door was finishing up an exhausting marathon viewing of The Great Game, a highly anticipated seven-hour cycle of short plays by different writers, imported from London’s Tricycle Theatre, that covers 150 years of Afghanistan history. The intense performances and issues tackled in both productions gave the crowd plenty to talk about.
Tony Taccone, the Rep’s artistic director since 1997, fully appreciates the role such audiences play in the Rep’s unusual success. “It’s Berkeley, it’s the Bay Area, and it’s a place where people come to think a little bit outside the box,” the 59-year-old director says. “The audience is more open.” In fact, Taccone is a box-transcending pilgrim in his own right—a Queens native, he came to Berkeley in the 1970s to pursue a Ph.D. in directing.
“That’s a pretty rare thing, that a theater of our size is going to be creating the kind of body of work that we are,” adds Taccone. “It’s just not common.”
The same creative energy that draws people to Berkeley also leads them to create dazzling work well worth the attention of the rest of the country. But the recent rash of exports isn’t simply a sign that the nation is suddenly catching a clue. Instead, it’s the result of different connections the theater’s been building for years, all now bearing fruit. No two of the five plays Berkeley Rep has sent to the Great White Way have taken the same path.
Revised from a previous off-Broadway hit in a Berkeley Rep workshop, Sarah Jones’s one-woman show, Bridge & Tunnel, opened on Broadway in 2006, where it won a special Tony Award. When the piece first went to Broadway, recalls Taccone, “it felt like it was a pretty big risk for a lot of folks. [Jones] was unknown [and] it was really a downtown crowd. People were saying, ‘Will it attract an audience?”
“These things have to work,” Taccone continues. “They have to either generate some income or some energy and excitement artistically or some buzz.” As for Bridge & Tunnel—yes, “it worked.”
Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking was another pre-existing solo show reworked by Taccone at the Rep. Bay Area commercial producer Jonathan Reinis took Fisher’s autobiographical monologue about her celebrity parents’ marriages and her own struggles with substance abuse on a six-city U.S. tour before its Broadway run at Studio 54. Passing Strange, a rock musical by the one-named Stew, former bandleader of The Negro Problem, was a co-production with the Public Theater. After a successful run at the Public, it moved to Broadway in 2008. A chronicle of a young African-American rock musician’s travels, the play won a Tony Award for best book of a musical, and Spike Lee filmed the last few Broadway performances, transforming them into a 2009 feature film.
The punk rock opera, American Idiot, based on Green Day’s hit album of the same name, was a shoo-in to head to the Great White Way if last year’s Berkeley world premiere proved a success. Directed by Michael Mayer and co-produced by Amadeus star Tom Hulce, both Tony winners for the Broadway hit, Spring Awakening, the nihilistic celebration of misspent youth was a mammoth production that broke all box office records for the Rep. The show opened on Broadway this April to enthusiastic reviews; it’s still going strong.
Berkeley Rep’s 2009 world premiere production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) went to Broadway simply because folks from Lincoln Center Theater saw the comedy about the Victorian-era invention of the ubiquitous bedroom toy—and wanted it. And in 2007, Rep associate artistic director Les Waters had an extended off-Broadway run with Ruhl’s Eurydice, a reprise of the Rep’s acclaimed 2004 West Coast premiere that took the audience on a bittersweet trip to Hades in an elevator full of rain.
“We take a lot of pride and excitement about moving our shows to other venues, but it’s also not something that drives the organization,” Taccone explains in his brisk, no-nonsense tone. “I mean, there’s no question that the focus of the organization has been both expanded and challenged. We have more balls in the air. But we don’t set out to make a season saying, ‘These shows are going to New York.’ We just keep coming back to the same ideal, which is ‘Let’s make the work really good here for our audience.’ And then if it’s good enough [to go elsewhere], fine.”
Another feather in the Rep’s cap is the large Roda Theatre, built in 2001 next door to the intimate Thrust Stage on Addison Street that’s been the company’s home since 1980. The Roda’s large proscenium stage and state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems allow the Rep to build productions that don’t require much tweaking to transfer to larger theaters.
“That was consciously done on our part,” Taccone says. “We didn’t say, ‘We’re building a Broadway stage,’ because there’s only 600 seats, and that’s not a Broadway house. A small Broadway house is like 1,000 seats. But you don’t build a stage like that without considering the possibility.”
Several Berkeley Rep shows have gone on to off-Broadway runs, among them two monologues by chameleon-like hip-hop theater artist Danny Hoch, and Ballad of Yachiyo, Philip Kan Gotanda’s lyrical play about Japanese workers at a Hawaiian sugar plantation. The latest is Lisa Kron’s play, In the Wake, which opened last month at the Public after playing Los Angeles’s Center Theatre and Berkeley Rep. Compulsion, too, will go on to the Public in January.
The Public Theater connection is as vital as it is personal. Throughout the 1980s, Taccone was artistic director at San Francisco’s late Eureka Theatre Company, while Eustis served as resident director and dramaturge. In 1988, Taccone left Eureka to become associate artistic director at Berkeley Rep. His boss was then-artistic director, Sharon Ott, who significantly upped the ante for the Rep in the 1980s and ’90s with a strong emphasis on new and challenging work, from the Japanese drama/Greek tragedy mashup, Kabuki Medea, to the electrifying multimedia rock battles of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime. Ott left in 1997, the same year Berkeley Rep won a Tony Award for outstanding regional theater. Taccone—Ott’s successor—has been raising the bar ever since with adventurous work, introducing the Bay Area to startling new voices. Meanwhile, Eustis, now 52, made his long, circuitous way to the Public.
“Obviously, Oskar at the Public is a huge deal,” Taccone says. “I mean, this is a very close colleague of mine, a close friend, who thinks a lot about the work in the same way that I do. So we find ourselves being interested in a lot of the same things.” After kicking off their collaboration with Passing Strange, the Public picked up Danny Hoch’s Taking Over from the Rep, and the two companies co-commissioned Compulsion. They’re currently working on their next co-commission—a new musical by Stew.
Other Rep shows have traveled even farther than the East Coast. Taccone’s staging of David Edgar’s Continental Divide played Birmingham Repertory Theatre and London’s Barbican Theatre in 2004. And this September, Tiny Kushner, a collection of Tony Kushner’s short plays, directed by Taccone, played London’s Tricycle Theatre after a run at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theatre. Meanwhile, the Rep and the Guthrie brought the Tricycle’s three-part cycle of short plays about Afghanistan, The Great Game: Afghanistan, to their respective stateside theaters this fall.
The exchange, says Nicolas Kent, artistic director of London’s Tricycle, “started with us wanting to take The Great Game to America, because obviously Afghanistan policy is as much an American preoccupation as it is a British one.” But also, he says, “I’d been talking to Tony Kushner for many years about doing a play—at one point we even talked to him about writing a play for The Great Game—and it seemed a good idea to enhance the relationship between our two theaters.”
Kent’s trip to Berkeley to check out Tiny Kushner was his first since the early ‘70s, but he’d kept an eye on what the theater was doing from afar. “I knew Berkeley Rep’s work because they’d done a lot of work by David Edgar, one of whose plays is in The Great Game,” the 65-year-old director recalls in a reserved, patient voice via telephone from Minneapolis. “I’d met Tony Taccone some years ago at the Tricycle.”
The reputation and relationships Berkeley Rep has built over the years attract an impressive array of playwrights to premiere work at the theater, such as Edgar, Hoch, Kushner, Ruhl, Charles Mee, and The Laramie Project head writer Leigh Fondakowski. Taccone and Kushner have a particularly long history together, going back to 1990, when the Eureka commissioned Angels in America. Taccone codirected Angels’ world premiere and later helmed several of Kushner’s plays at Berkeley Rep, including Slavs! and Homebody/Kabul. Brundibar, Kushner and Maurice Sendak’s adaptation of a children’s opera first staged in a World War II concentration camp, went on to a sold-out off-Broadway run.
The theater’s notable exports are just one side of the ongoing artistic conversation it’s been having for years with like-minded companies across the country. When Berkeley Rep brings in a show from elsewhere, it’s hard to grumble because the imports are so well chosen. Dazzlingly inventive artists such as Chicago’s Mary Zimmerman (creator of Metamorphoses, a mesmerizing mix of Greek myths staged in a pool of water) and Minneapolis’s now-closed Theatre de la Jeune Lune (of theater-opera hybrids Figaro and Don Juan Giovanni) became frequent visitors over the years, and Zimmerman is back this month reprising her 2008 hit, The Arabian Nights.
While cross-pollination energizes theaters and audiences on both sides of the exchange, Taccone readily admits that co-production also stems from economic necessity. “Often people can’t really afford to do the work on their own, and everybody wants to do shows of some scope and some size,” he says. “So there’s a lot more sharing of shows.” All well and good—but, Taccone says, “it’s also kind of a drag because there’s less work for actors. Somebody in some city is not working as much.”
The Rep has been adept at availing itself of the star-studded talent pool living in the Bay Area. Past premieres have included work by prominent local artists such as San Francisco’s Anne Galjour, Geoff Hoyle, and Philip Kan Gotanda, and Oakland’s Maxine Hong Kingston. American Idiot was adapted from the album of the same name by East Bay punk phenomenon, Green Day. Broadway legend Rita Moreno, a Berkeley resident who starred in Berkeley Rep’s 2004 Master Class and 2006 The Glass Menagerie, will return in May for an autobiographical show, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, written by Taccone. Oakland-based movie star Delroy Lindo directed 2006’s Blue Door and 2008’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone for Berkeley Rep. Marin County’s Robin Williams just did a surprise three-show run in October. And right now the Rep is playing The Composer Is Dead by fiendish children’s author Lemony Snicket, otherwise known as San Franciscan Daniel Handler.
All this first-class talent is attracted to Berkeley Rep for the same reasons that big-sister theaters across the country are taking notice. “Offhand, I can’t think of another regional theater that has two artists of the stature of Tony and Les attached to it,” Eustis says. “Les is really one of the absolute premier directors of new plays in the United States, without question. And Tony, in addition to his other work, has developed this fabulous sideline of solo performers, with Sarah Jones and Danny Hoch and Carrie Fisher, for God’s sake. So you have those two great artistic personalities, and that’s going to attract the attention of the rest of us.”
Ultimately, like any regional theater, Berkeley Rep is making local theater for local audiences, and Bay Area theatergoers eagerly anticipate what the company will come up with next. But sometimes it’s easier to see the big picture from far away than up close.
Sam Hurwitt is the interim editor-in-chief of Theatre Bay Area magazine. A regular contributor to The Monthly, he also reviews theater for the Marin Independent Journal and on his blog, theidiolect.com.