Jon Tracy’s Odyssey

How a theatrical late bloomer is taking the stage world by storm.

Jon Tracy. Credits: Joseph Schell

Jon Tracy’s face is a study in self-possession. Last Tuesday, the 34-year-old playwright sat at Urban Blend Cafe thumbing through a huge copy of Homer’s Iliad. He’d marked the pages with red and blue plastic tabs. Tracy plans to adapt the text for a new Shotgun Players production next year, the first part of which will premiere in August. It’s the type of project for which he’s become well-known in Bay Area theater circles. Tracy began making his mark only in the last year or so with high-concept versions of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Sophocles’ Antigone, and — most recently — L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. He left high school in tenth grade and insists he’s not an avid reader, and yet he’s built a career by reimagining the literary canon.

The East Bay theater scene is smaller and scrappier than that of San Francisco, but there’s a huge upside to living here, especially for a homegrown writer-director like Tracy, who doesn’t belong to any particular theater-world dynasty. As local companies struggle to fill seats and attract season subscribers, they’re also trying to raise the profile of Bay Area theater at large. A lot of the onus falls on writer-directors like Mark Jackson, Melissa Hillman, Patrick Dooley, Joy Carlin, and, now, Tracy — people who wring the juice out of old, classical material and present it to contemporary audiences in a new and interesting way.

Tracy’s career took off only recently with a spate of hip, self-consciously ironic new plays, most of them based loosely on great books. Roughly a year ago, he pitched his first successful idea to Shotgun Players’ artistic director Patrick Dooley: a stripped-down, deconstructed version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the actors would all speak in rhythmic cadence over a drum-and-beatbox soundscape. “Instead of someone in a pig costume, you would just have someone in nothing but the word ‘pig’ strapped across them,” Tracy said. His girlfriend, scenographer Nina Ball, helped develop primeval costumes and set pieces that would bring the ideas together. Tracy tried to market the whole thing as a “cadence opera,” but that sounded too think-piecey to Dooley, who instead packaged it as a “hip-hop” version of Orwell. Tracy was wary, but critics loved it.

His next piece, an updated version of Antigone called See How We Are, centered on a family of overprivileged layabouts who ruled over modern Thebes. Tracy used an all-white set and white costumes to represent their fascist regime. Each night the crew doused it in fake blood, then bleached everything out after the audience went home. Produced by Impact Theater, the play was a lot headier than The Farm, and garnered scant press attention. Still, Tracy was on a roll. When he unleashed an equally concept-driven version of The Wizard of Oz three weeks later, he already had a reputation to uphold: His directors’ notes — written for an audience of mothers and children — referenced William Ball, semiotics, and neo-futurism, describing Dorothy as a “conflicted soul.” The production, which runs through December 6, includes more than one nod to Pink Floyd.

Tracy seems like an unlikely candidate to reimagine the great books since he never received an advanced degree. Raised in Vallejo, he spent his childhood making home movies with titles like Creepy House on the Hill, and acted in the Vallejo Youth Conservatory. He had friends who also enjoyed playing with video cameras and entering their own elaborate fantasy world. For an actor, though, Tracy was remarkably shy and soft-spoken. He didn’t fit in at high school. At age fifteen, he dropped out and went on independent study.

From there, Tracy followed an alternate route, enrolling in an acting program at Solano College only to discover that he hated acting. “The acting process just doesn’t jive well with my temperament,” he said. “It really just brings out my insecurities. … When you’re trying to examine a character you have to examine yourself, and sometimes you don’t like what you see.” The stage requires a certain level of exhibitionism that Tracy doesn’t have. He’s got a tortuous way of describing himself. In photographs, Tracy tends to pull his cap low over his eyes. Nonetheless, he really enjoys being the man behind the curtain, creating a make-believe world for other people to inhabit. He says he processes everything visually. He discovered this predilection early in life and began cultivating it toward the end of his fourth semester at community college.

In the 1990s, Tracy and two friends founded Darkroom Productions in Vallejo. It began as a bunch of teens running around with a camcorder and trying to create their own spinoffs of Tim Burton’s Batman. That evolved into a full-fledged operation with a stage and enough capital to mount real plays, six of which Tracy directed. “It’s strange because Vallejo doesn’t necessarily have the world’s perfect audience for new work,” said Tracy, who now lives in Oakland. (Indeed, Theater Bay Area editor Karen McKevitt rang the alarm bells in a review of Darkroom’s 2005 production of Trainspotting, under Tracy’s artistic directorship. She said she was shocked to see against-the-grain theater staged so far from the city’s metropolitan core.) “Down here, people are putting larger amounts of money into things so they have a larger say in what you’re doing,” Tracy said. “So it’s nice to have a little home up north where you can play around a little bit.” But the exigencies of personal finance eventually forced him to move on.

By his early twenties, Tracy had decided to do no other work but theater. “The double-edged sword of it is then you have to take every job that comes your way,” he said, adding that the problem with taking lousy work is that you become known for it. So he vowed not to take on projects that didn’t fall in line with his goals. Gradually, this approach paid off, but what really helped was rubbing elbows with director Joy Carlin, who hired Tracy as an assistant director for the Alice Waters-inspired musical, Fanny at Chez Panisse. It didn’t really get off the ground, but it did help Tracy get into the right inner-circle. In 2008, he did the lighting for Shotgun’s production of Macbeth, which allowed him to corner Dooley and set the Animal Farm idea in motion.

At this point, Tracy manages to eke out a living from theater work, albeit a meager one. He serves as the director of artistic development at San Francisco Playhouse and is currently working on several projects for 2010 — including the Iliad redux, which is called The Salt Plays, and a production of Sara Ruhl’s play Eurydice with Napa Valley College. Like any working artist, he’s constantly on the grind, casting about for ideas and dredging up old ones. He often works under tight deadlines — Tracy wrote The Farm in three weeks during a family vacation in Italy. He’s not above using Cliffs Notes as secondary source material.

But it’s a constant struggle. He’s locked himself into a medium in which you can be the best in the world at what you do and still starve. A career in theater is nearly as perilous as a career in poetry or abstract painting. And whether they want to admit it or not, most small companies are still trying to stave off death: One flawed production could make a mid-level operation go bust, which is why they’re seldom willing to take a chance on new directors. Amid all those challenges, Tracy appears to be thriving. “I’m not trying to say I’ve somehow sculpted a career that’s going to get me a nice car and house,” he said. “But it seems to be enough foundation that it can build off itself. That is what I hope.”