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State of the Arts

Diablo sits down with the artistic directors of the East Bay’s top companies to check the pulse of our performing arts scene.


Jonathan Moscone » California Shakespeare Theater

Mike Thompson

The curtain’s set to rise on an exciting performing arts season: California Shakespeare Theater celebrates its 10th year under Jonathan Moscone; the Lesher Center for the Arts marks its 20th anniversary with an exciting season from Michael Butler; and Tony Taccone continues to produce intriguing programs after American Idiot, the seventh Broadway show developed at Berkeley Rep, won two Tony Awards. We brought the three artistic directors together to discuss the state of East Bay arts.

Have audiences in the East Bay changed over the years? Do they expect a wider range of plays and more challenging subjects than they once did?

Tony Taccone: I did two shows in a row in 2001 that tanked. It was a cornucopia of failure. There was a lot of pressure on Berkeley Rep, Tony Taccone » Berkeley Repertory Theatreeconomically and almost emotionally. Then, our board president came up to me, in private, and said just one sentence: “We pay you to take risks—keep taking them.” That ended up being kind of an epiphany. I would definitely say, since then, we have not looked back.

Jonathan Moscone: I lucked out from the beginning. The theater had been artistically rudderless for about four or five years. When I came into the interview process, I had a more politically brazen point of view. I threw it out to the room: “If you’re interested in getting rid of all the trappings that have been laid on this particular subgenre of Shakespeare festivals and make theater, I’d be interested. Let’s start by getting really great directors.”

Michael Butler: It was clear to me from the beginning what our audiences didn’t want. I felt they were a little beat up and they wanted some joy back in the theater-going experience. I said, “OK, I’m going to do theater people want to see. And, I’m going to throw a lot of art into how
we do it.”

How do you lead your audience in new directions?

Jonathan Moscone: This is a pretty smart part of the world. But there is always a fear of the audience not getting something. So for me, it’s all about interpretation, about inviting a variety of interpretations of works that people think are supposed to be done just one way.

Tony Taccone: We cultivate. We lead the audience. That’s my approach. But we have to give the audience as many tools as possible to understand and appreciate, and to invite them in. Because I don’t want to be an elitist. I don’t want to educate people on a pedagogical level, just stimulate and excite and engage them.

What’s exciting about this season?

Michael Butler » Center Repertory CompanyMichael Butler: I’m really excited about Dracula because it’s a good example of where we are now. It’s a very familiar title, a very familiar idea, but done differently. Very open and surrealistic—no rooms of bookcases and cobwebs. And, in the second stage, what we call Off-Center, we’re doing a new musical, Becoming Britney. It was a New York Fringe Festival hit. It’s a delightful, cheeky show about Britney Spears trapped in a musical about her life.

Tony Taccone: We’re part of a tour of this piece called The Great Game, a 12-play cycle about Afghanistan. It’s a mara-
thon day: You start at 11 o’clock in the morning and end at about 10 o’clock at night. Basically, Nicolas Kent of the Tricycle Theatre was watching television one night and he was sick of talking heads talking about Afghanistan. He thought, What would it be like if my friends responded to Afghanistan in an artistic way? Because it’s the major issue of our time. Then, we’re going to do The Composer Is Dead, a Lemony Snicket project. It’s got a puppet theater about 35 feet wide and a movie we’ve filmed backstage with Geoff Hoyle.

Jonathan Moscone: We have two Shakespeares back-to-back, and we found some ideas for an architecture that works for both of them. Macbeth became an insane asylum nightmare. Eight people doing everything. The ghosts are anybody at any given time. There’s no difference between the real and the unreal. I’m doing Much Ado About Nothing right after that. I want to create a genuinely romantic comedy.

You’ve obviously survived the economic downturn, but how do things look now?

Jonathan Moscone: Actually, more large theaters were susceptible to the changes in the economy. We don’t have an enormous overhead, so we have been able to do more with fewer people. We don’t have an endowment, so we didn’t lose anything in the stock market. Audiences don’t seem to be the issue. I don’t mean to sound braggish, but actually, we’re in much better shape than we’ve ever been.

Michael Butler: Our administration is ridiculously lean, and that’s allowed us to be flexible. I’m the only truly full-time employee of Center Rep. We’re a city program, so we don’t really have a cash-flow problem, and that’s tremendously helpful in hard times. A city supporting a theater company—that’s pretty remarkable. And the fact that we’re doing audience-friendly stuff, for the most part. That’s all made the recession not that big of an issue for us.

Tony Taccone: The recession has had a real impact. Berkeley Rep’s doing well. But we anticipated—rightly so—when the storm clouds were appearing on the horizon and were pretty proactive about cutting back. We were ahead of the curve on coproductions as a way to generate income. There’s obviously been a culmination with American Idiot. That’s the first show we’ve sent to Broadway where the word we has been used. … My biggest thing is, as Jonathan mentioned earlier, keeping people surprised. Keeping ourselves interested and surprised, keeping our audiences interested and surprised.

The Fall Seasons

California Shakespeare Theater
» calshakes.org.
Macbeth, through September 12.Becoming Britney, Courtesy of Dixie Sheridan
Much Ado About Nothing, September 22–October 17.

Center REP
» centerrep.org.
She Loves Me, September 2–October 10.
Dracula, October 22–November 20.
Becoming Britney, October 28–November 14.

Berkeley Rep
» berkeleyrep.org.
Compulsion, September 10–October 24.
The Great Game: Afghanistan, October 22–November 7.
Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead,
November 26–January 15.

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