.The Future of Performing Arts in Berkeley

Questions loom as the artistic directors of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Cal Performances, and Aurora Theatre Company make their exits.

Bidding farewell to three major artistic directors in the same season, Berkeley’s performance scene faces an unknown but possibly more diverse future.

As 2018 draws to a close, three major East Bay arts institutions are preparing for more than just the usual new season fanfare for 2019; they’re preparing themselves for new leadership in a year that could signal either a radical transformation for the local arts scene or a cementing of the status quo. These three companies — Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Cal Performances, and Aurora Theatre Company — each fill a particular niche in the East Bay’s performance landscape and wield considerable influence within it. And all three are actively searching for new artistic directors, in an era where national attention is being placed on efforts to diversify the leadership of our major arts institutions, from American Theatre Magazine to The New York Times.

In January 2017, Tony Taccone of Berkeley Rep became the first to announce to departure. He will step down Aug. 31, 2019, after Berkeley Rep’s 50th season, his 22nd as its artistic director. Among the many collaborative relationships that Berkeley Rep has cultivated over the years, several will feature prominently in his final season, including Mary Zimmerman with a reprise staging of her award-winning Metamorphoses and John Leguizamo with a new musical comedy, co-scribed by Taccone, entitled Kiss My Aztec!

Over at Cal Performances, Executive and Artistic Director Matías Tarnopolsky has already departed to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra, leaving S. Shariq Yosufzai as interim executive director and Rob Bailis as interim artistic director pending a nationwide search for a permanent replacement. And Tom Ross, who has led the Aurora Theatre for 15 years (with 27 years total on staff), will step down as of July 2019. His last show directing as artistic director will be this November’s production of Everything Is Illuminated, adapted from the work of Jonathan Safran Foer, by Simon Block.

While all three have proven themselves to be creative and adaptive leaders with a penchant for championing new and transcendent works for their appreciative core audiences, all three also depart their organizations during burgeoning awareness of the predominantly white, male face of leadership in regional and resident theatres. Not to downplay the diversity that the outgoing directors have brought to their respective positions — Taccone has Puerto Rican heritage, Tarnopolsky was born in Argentina and raised in London, Ross is a gay man — but by actively recruiting from underrepresented communities during the hiring process, this could be a time where the Berkeley arts scene shows itself to be ahead of the national curve in positioning diversity as worthy criteria.

Berkeley Rep, having had the most lead time, has amassed a pool of “over 160 candidates” in the past year, according to managing director Susan Medak. Using consulting firm Albert Hall & Associates, whose long list of past clients includes the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the California Shakespeare Theater, and Freight & Salvage, the far-ranging candidate pool included women and people of color at “every stage of their careers.” Citing UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ’s recent back-to-school welcome speech, in which she emphasized the importance of diversity in recruitment and retention in regards to the student body, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs Dan Mogulof emphasized the importance of “diverse candidate pools” while moving forward in their search for Cal Performances leadership. (It’s also assisted by a consulting company, Catherine French Group of Washington D.C.) Lastly, Aurora Theatre’s less high-profile search does include diversity-specific language when describing the theatre’s mission and values — verbiage that could help attract candidates from those name-checked “culturally diverse and gender representative” communities, as written in Aurora’s job posting.

As of this time, all three organizations are still conducting their searches, and the results of their individual hiring processes probably won’t be announced until 2019. What isn’t in doubt is the fact that whomever is chosen to lead these organizations will set the tone and tenure for the Berkeley arts scene for years, possibly decades, to come.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misidentified the source of Berkeley Rep’s candidate pool number.


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