It’s been an extraordinary year for Tony Taccone. He directed Tony Kushner’s acclaimed adaptation of the World War II-era children’s opera Brundibar, which opened a sold-out run in April at the New Victory Theater in Times Square—just two blocks away from Taccone’s other hit show, Sarah Jones’s Bridge & Tunnel, which garnered its protean writer and star a special Tony Award in June. Meanwhile, back home, where Taccone is in his 10th year as artistic director of California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, he carved out the time to direct the world premiere of Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell. That production, which earned rave reviews for the Chicano trio of performance artists, will move to La Jolla Playhouse this month. One could see this string of accomplishments as inevitable, given the quality of the artists who seek out Taccone’s talent, or as the hard-earned culmination of a career as one of American theatre’s most versatile and generous collaborators.
Taccone turned 55 on July 4 but manages to look like a slightly manic 40. Small and wiry, Taccone has a kid’s restless physical energy. And then there’s the laugh, which is explosive and infectious. It’s his signature, and he’s magnanimous with it, bestowing it like confetti upon anyone near him. Speaking as one of the actors he’s directed, I think of that laugh as Taccone’s secret weapon. It turns us all into his comic conspirators. We’re all in on the same joke—which is to say, life. Everyone I’ve talked to mentions how much laughter there is in his rehearsals, no matter what the play is.
And everyone talks about what a good friend he is. This is no surprise to me; I’ve known him since the beginning of our careers in the early ‘80s. We met when he was the artistic director of the Eureka Theatre, which, however modest in scale—the company performed in a converted warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District—was, I was not alone in thinking, easily the most interesting theatre in the country at the time. It was run as a cooperative, with an artistic ensemble made up of seven members, and the sensibility was frankly progressive and eclectic. The great British playwrights of the Thatcher Era, David Edgar and Caryl Churchill in particular, made up a sizable portion of the fare, though writers like Dario Fo and Brecht received their due as well. New American works were actively sought out. Oskar Eustis, who now runs New York City’s Public Theater, was the startlingly brilliant dramaturg who had a gift for luring provocative talent with the strategic use of meager commission money. Playwrights like me felt lucky to get a chance to write for the Eureka simply because the company would receive our work with such intelligence and passion.
The most successful commission the Eureka ever made was given to a then relatively obscure playwright who needed a bit of encouragement to write what he thought at the time would be a short chamber piece about Mormons and Roy Cohn, and which, years later, became the epoch-making Angels in America. Tony Taccone’s profound connection with its author, Tony Kushner, has lasted through the tidal wave of both men’s careers.
One of Taccone’s salient features is his loyalty. Even geographically, he’s stayed put, which is an unusual thing for a person of the theatre. He’s lived in the Bay Area since graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley, and his professional life has been spent leading two of its institutions—the Eureka for seven years (1981-88) and then Berkeley Rep, first as the associate artistic director under Sharon Ott (1988-97), then as its artistic director.
His friendships tend to be born of artistic collaboration and last throughout careers. One of his longest-standing collaborators is Geoff Hoyle, who started as a new-vaudeville clown with the Pickle Family Circus, a beloved Bay Area institution born around the same time as the Eureka. Hoyle asked Taccone to help him when he decided to generate a solo show based on scripted material. Five solo shows and more than 20 years later, they’re still friends, still collaborators. Hoyle says, “I think of Tony as a creative midwife. He knows he can’t do it for you, or won’t. But he makes it happen.”
Indeed, Taccone’s skill as a theatrical midwife is legendary. “I know it has a lot to do with emptying a lot of bedpans and a lot to do with encouragement,” he ventures. His unusual ability to develop new work is particularly strong with artists who aren’t conventional playwrights. Taccone was blown away by Sarah Jones in her early days as a solo performer and opened his theatre to her, directing an updated version of her Surface Transit there in 2003. On the day before they were about to start rehearsals for a remount of the show at the Culture Project in New York, Jones called him to say she’d realized it wasn’t working and wanted to scrap it. Rather than panicking, Taccone asked what she might like to do instead. Over the phone, Jones did roughly a half hour’s worth of material based on new characters she was exploring, then told him she’d understand if he chose to bail on the whole project. “I said, ‘Sarah, it’s you, I’m coming,’” Taccone recalls. They worked at a ferocious pace and premiered Bridge & Tunnel at the Culture Project a few weeks later. The show garnered remarkable support and acclaim. After the artistic team (which includes Jones’s husband, Steve Colman) did further tweaking, using the Berkeley audience as their testing ground, the show found its way to Broadway, where it finally closed last month.
“Every now and then,” Taccone avows, “I’ve had the experience of reading something or seeing a performer and thinking, ‘My God, if I could do anything for that artist, I should. That artist is just too talented.’” The range of talent he responds to is strikingly wide, but he’s generally attracted to unique and idiosyncratic perspectives. Taccone’s production of David Edgar’s ambitious, two-play work about the consequences of U.S. sociopolitical polarization, Continental Divide, which traveled all over the country and abroad to England, was a product of several years of collaboration. That intricately crafted piece bears little apparent similarity to Taccone’s work with Culture Clash, who made the sprawling and hilarious Zorro in Hell with him this year, but the director speaks of the two projects with the same brio. The one thing the artists he has repeatedly worked with have in common is an absolute tenacity, an inability to walk away from the work until they’ve met their own terrifically high standards. “When people want to leave early, I flip out. If the question of ‘Why isn’t this working?’ isn’t an interesting question when it comes up, and it does come up—if you won’t stick around to keep working—I don’t know, I have no patience for that.”
It’s not surprising, given his dedication to supporting artists, that Taccone has an immensely ambitious project in the pipeline that has not yet reached its public phase but which entails the commissioning by Berkeley Rep of 30 to 70 new plays over the next 10 years. “Until it’s a line item in the budget,” he says, “it’s just talk and good intentions. Every theatre in America talks about risk. It’s on every brochure. Everybody wants to say they take risks, and nobody wants to live with what happens if you actually take them. I say to our audience, ‘I don’t love everything we do, but I respect everything we do. This theatre is big enough, confident enough and responsible enough to deal with ideas and feelings that challenge us all.’ We have to keep raising the bar, getting past our fear and taking risks. Pursuing the creative truth is not just the cornerstone of progressive art—it’s the cornerstone of democracy.”
Taccone and I spent a day together in Berkeley in early July. It was the Sunday that one of the longest running shows in Berkeley Rep’s history, The Glass Menagerie, directed by Les Waters, closed in triumph after two extensions. We had a lot of history to discuss, much of it shared. Aside from playing the part of the Angel in sundry workshops, readings and ultimately productions of Angels in America, through its Broadway run, I’ve appeared in many plays at Taccone’s theatres, most recently as Mrs. Alving in Berkeley Rep’s 2004 production of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Taccone has also produced my work as a playwright. We’re currently in the early stages of developing my new version of Antigone, which Waters will direct.
ELLEN MCLAUGHLIN: You’ve been an artistic director since you were in your twenties.
TONY TACCONE: Which is illegal in most states.
And the Eureka, the theatre you were running, was this nearly mythic institution, in retrospect. I mean, look at the theatre artists who started there—Robert Woodruff, Richard E.T. White, you and Oskar Eustis…Sam Shepard worked there…
It was a very fertile crescent.
Why was that? Did it have something to do with the Bay Area culture at the time? When you think about what was going on—the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Pickle Family Circus, the blossoming of the performance art scene, Paul Dresher, George Coates, Rinde Eckert…
Oh, it was a phenomenal time. We were so lucky. There were other places in the United States with similar sensibilities, but the Bay Area became a kind of safe home for what one might call “the other”—people who wanted to live and think and breathe outside the mainstream culture. It was an ethos celebrated in the ’60s, but it predates that as well. From the gay community to entrepreneurial capitalists, San Francisco has long been identified as a place where risks can be taken, where people are unafraid to experiment with the very fabric of their lives. While we sometimes suffer nationally from our reputation of being kooks and weirdoes, we also enjoy the enormous benefits of living in an environment that is striving towards openness and attempting to be politically progressive. Berkeley Rep has championed that openness, that celebration of alternative thinking, of “the other.” We literally sell that idea to our audience: that they are part of an ongoing experiment to think differently, to be unafraid of new ideas and emotions.
When the Eureka was in crisis and was fracturing, due to controversy about how to professionalize, several people, most prominently Oskar Eustis, went to the board and advocated for you as a candidate for artistic director. And you got the job. What were people seeing in you?
On a good day (and there are lots of bad days) the thing that makes me a decent artistic director is that I’m fairly generous. I like people a lot and I enjoy other people’s success. I’m either stupid or cocky enough to have confidence in my own ability, so I don’t get overly threatened by the success of my colleagues. I have to say, however, that during my years at the Eureka it felt easier to be generous: The spirit of communality, of sharing, of supporting each other, was part of an ongoing exchange in all of my relationships. The political climate encouraged us to be both critical and, frankly, loving (now how out of date does that sound?). The current culture, focused as it is on individual achievement, money and fame, emphasizes competition and love of ego over other values. The pressure to abandon one’s spirit of generosity has become more intense. Of course, this is all probably just a function of the fact that I’m an old fart.
How have you dealt with that pressure yourself?
Erratically, at best. The issue first came up at the Eureka when Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine became an enormous hit, and it became clear that some people in the company were going to benefit, economically and exposure-wise, more than others. A crisis occurred and we began asking lots of hard questions: What is the value of individual effort? What is the collective owed? In a culture increasingly desirous of rewarding individuals, how does the group maintain its identity, its integrity, its solidarity? How do we deal with the fractures of success?
We were coming from a place of being “cultural workers” and becoming “artists with careers.” Before that time, in fact, “career” was a dirty word (laughs). A résumé was a pathetic, bourgeois advertisement of one’s ego that one should fiercely reject. Then the whole thing flipped. Ronald Reagan got elected (which just completely and utterly shocked me), and Reaganism as a worldview began to influence and then dominate the popular vocabulary in terms of how we were describing our lives. Ironically, at the same time that Angels in America was triumphing, right-wing thinking was permeating the entire culture. And, of course, the same issues that we dealt with during Cloud Nine came into greater focus during Angels. I remember Oskar saying something so smart: “The more money that is involved in a project, the more the values of the dominant culture come into play.” Truer words were never spoken.
So there’s a certain poignancy when you think back on your years at the Eureka?
Berkeley Rep has a great staff whom I love to death, but I’ve never felt so close to my fellow artists as I did at the Eureka, and that’s why it’s the most important theatre in my life.
Were there models for the collective aesthetic?
There were some. Joint Stock in England. Oskar had some experiences with his own company in Germany; Richard Seyd was influenced by Red Ladder. We talked about those companies quite a bit and then tried to envision a theatre that internally reflected the values we were expressing on stage. We were trying to marry theory with practice.
And we came up with some great structures. You take, for example, our approach to casting. After the plays were selected, everyone made a wish list, directors and actors alike. We would then go around the room and everybody would say in front of everybody else what they wanted. And the most amazing thing happened: The act of seeing, hearing and feeling what everyone wanted created this atmosphere that brought out everyone’s best side—one might even say “the angels of our better nature.” It became as much about generosity as it did about what you wanted—and not in a falsely modest way but in a way that was liberating. And you know what? Basically everyone pretty much got what they wanted. It was a truly great process, and I’ve never seen anything like it since.
What happened? Why did the Eureka and theatres like it have to fold?
Well, one thing that happened was the collapse of the midsize house. In seven years, the Eureka had grown from a budget of $60,000 to $780,000. We had a subscriber base of 2,400 and had found a new building. We were a vibrant organization. But even so, we needed $1.3 million a year to sustain our company full time. We were all getting older—you hit 30 and teeth start hurting; your car breaks down and your mother’s in the hospital, and there are real economic issues that come into play. And in my lofty position as artistic director, I could see we were headed for a crash. And I made the assessment, rightly or wrongly, that we were not going to make it over the next hump. Our political aesthetic was becoming a limitation rather than an advantage. The marketplace, the culture—those million-and-one impulses that collude and collide to make up an historical environment—were more and more moving against the motion of our little company. So I started to grapple with the idea of leaving. For three months I would literally wake up in a sweat every night, thinking, “How can I possibly leave this theatre? These are my best friends.” I finally came in and announced, “I have to go.” It was 1988. The end of an era for me.
So you went to Berkeley Rep. And the next major era began around the same time, just as Angels was taking off, culminating in the premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, which you directed with Oskar Eustis. It was hugely successful and then went on to Broadway, but neither of you went with it. You’ve talked about how that play and the production triggered immense changes in your life, some of which were obviously good in terms of your career. But it also precipitated a real crisis. Why was that?
Well, the process that had begun during Cloud Nine was exploded by Angels. When a phenomenon like Angels happens, everyone feels that they own a piece of it, or it owns a piece of you. First of all, it was an astounding play, and filled us all, everyone who worked on it, with a kind of rarefied energy that made us feel completely and utterly alive. Tony had written this unbelievably beautiful, funny, brilliant, important thing, which was moving to take its place in history with a velocity that swept us all up. When this kind of thing occurs, your fantasy life gets triggered, usually in a wildly unhealthy and unhelpful way, until you start picturing yourself in “your new life.”
Part of it was fueled by my age (I hit 40 somewhere in there, usually a bad time for guys), but I started listening to my appetite, started to question the value of everything I had. Virtues that I had cherished, selflessness for example, started to look like dishonesty. Satisfaction became lack of ambition, and so forth. Everything—my work, my family, my marriage—all started to come under fire. I began this long exploration of self, became enamored of “being in touch with this or that,” until some years later my narcissistic system of delusion finally collapsed. It’s so ironic because since that time I’ve done a complete 360. After all these years, I can tell you that what I wanted was in fact what I had—and the most depressing thing about it is that it was such a cliché, so unoriginal. It felt original at the time, of course, because it was, you know, happening to me (laughs)…but I finally woke up. Fortunately, I was surrounded by a family and friends who found a way to love me again and who never really stopped believing in me entirely, but my marriage was over.
What did it do to your work?
Shockingly enough, very little. I remember directing Coriolanus at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and thinking, “My life is in chaos, and I’m doing some of the best work of my life.” There was no equation stipulating that a bad life meant doing bad work. There’s a time-honored mythology of the neurotic artist who creatively feeds off his or her own trauma—that creativity is a function of inner friction. I’ve never fully subscribed to that. You can have a healthy, happy life and still be indelibly connected to the deeper sorrow of the world. You don’t need to create personal trauma to experience darkness. In fact, in some rarefied theological schools of thought, one could argue the opposite.
I wanted to talk a little about clowning. Not only have you been involved with political theatre since you started out, but you’ve been involved with clowns all your professional life. Was it partly about coming to San Francisco when you did, when the Pickle Family Circus was in its prime?
No question about that. I’ll never forget the first time I took my kids to the Pickle Family Circus. Those three clowns, Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle and Larry Pisoni, were doing phenomenal work. They were not just hilarious but amazingly smart and full of empathy. The laughter coming from the audience was wild and robust, releasing all of us from collective suffering. I’ve always felt that great clowns could do that—connect us to tragedy, because they themselves are so impaired, oppressed and confined, because they see so clearly the limits of our situation. Take Lear’s Fool, for example. Here’s a man who watches the entire world collapse around him, sees it with acute perception, and can do nothing to alter its course. The inevitability of it all only increases the sharpness of his wit, the pain of his laughter. Comedy is his only release, his only technique for survival. Clowning as a response to despair is the kind of clowning I’m most attracted to. The modern clown is a character who has dealt with the apocalypse and who has folded it into his worldview.
Your sensibility seems to fall somewhere in a spectrum between a Beckett clown, that figure of despair you’re talking about, and Dario Fo’s clowns, who are outrageous and robust, creators of mayhem.
I like all those guys. Lately, working with Sarah Jones and Culture Clash, I find myself moving more toward life-affirming performances because I think the world needs it. I think I need it. It’s just too hard sometimes to weather what’s going on in the world without some primordial experience of release, some need to reconnect with each other.
One thing that Sarah’s work does is to say: This is what the world is, engage with it, celebrate it, but you don’t have a choice about whether you’re going to participate, we’re all part of the same experience.
It’s ironic that a one-person show can make you feel like that. By the end of the show you think, “I’ve been involved with these diverse people, and we all belong at the table.” Aside from her phenomenal ability to completely disappear into her characters, Sarah is able to use comedy to talk about complicated political realities and ideas. It’s an old technique, from Aristophanes to Dario Fo—you can critique a government or a political system if you do it within the framework of comedy. If you can make them laugh, people tend to listen longer to what you have to say.
What Culture Clash is able to do at the end of Zorro in Hell is only possible because they’ve made the audience laugh really hard and for a long time. They can get a whole audience into a kind of call and response, that mutual cry of anger about the state of things. It’s something that could never happen in a movie, of course, because there’s nothing like that real give-and-take with an audience.
One of the things I’ve felt as movies and television have increased in their popularity is that the act of two beings being physically close to each other on stage is much more significant that it ever was. The medium is so hot by its nature, and the other media are so cool.
There’s a personal stake in it somehow, if only because you’re actually physically there. In some way, you’re complicit.
Complicit is a great word. Dario Fo talks about the Fool being in a conspiracy with the audience. In the theatre we’re invited, challenged, sometimes forced to participate in a rather direct way. It’s a potentially dangerous medium, more so than film.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the movies. But there’s a specific type of courage required of theatre artists. I remember hearing a story about Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. He had a scene with his father where he had to break down. The director spent some time convincing him of the importance of the scene, and finally he just went ahead…bam, one take, great scene, wonderful job, thanks, Jack. But, well, stage actors have to do it eight times a week, for very little money, in front of some very unforgiving and inattentive audiences. It’s important to remember that what we ask of actors is scary. In order for them to explore scary terrain they have to feel safe, they have to feel that you have their back. I regard the first day of rehearsal as my audition. I want to create an atmosphere that makes people intuitively say, “Yes, I can trust this guy. This will be worth giving my blood to. I think this is going to be a good time.”
That’s the bottom line, given how hard the business is….
Listen, three and half years ago, we went through a really tough period. The economy had tanked, the dot-com thing had gone bust, 9/11 had happened. And we did three shows in a row that, for one reason or another, didn’t catch. Two of them were new plays and one of them was House of Blue Leaves, a comedy about a terrorist with a bomb in New York City (“huh, I wonder why nobody’s laughing?”). So the organization went through a really soul-searching time. People were freaking out, and I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “What’s the bottom line?” And what we did was to stop thinking in terms of what kinds of compromises we needed to make out of fear, out of concerns over money. We just completely reinvested ourselves in the artistic life of the theatre. One thing you’ve got to do is to say, “If I can’t tell stories that mean something to me, I need to get out of this business. Quit. Because it’s not worth it.”
Maybe it’s an advantage that there are so few rewards in the theatre. It clarifies one’s sense of purpose. It really has to mean something to make it worth doing. I sometimes describe what we do as “theatre of urgency.” That’s what I consider my basic aesthetic. The reasons for working in this medium are deep and compelling. It’s urgent, the need to tell these stories, to speak the truth in this way.
Ellen McLaughlin is an actor and a playwright.