BERKELEY, CALIF.: The tide of leadership change at flagship theatres in the U.S. continues, with the announcement today that Johanna Pfaelzer will succeed Tony Taccone as new artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a $20-million theatre in the East Bay now in its 50th year. Pfaelzer, currently artistic director of New York Stage and Film in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., will join Berkeley Rep’s long-time managing director, Susan Medak, at the job on Sept. 1, 2019, after Taccone steps down next August. Taccone will have served 33 years with Berkeley Rep, 21 of them as artistic director. Pfaelzer will plan Berkeley Rep’s 2019-20 season.
“On behalf of the board of trustees, it is my great honor to welcome Johanna Pfaelzer,” says board president Stewart Owen in a statement. He said the board’s vote was unanimous and praised Pfaelzer’s “great taste and a keen aesthetic eye. She has strong leadership skills and works as a generous collaborator. And we were also all drawn to her warmth and character. What Johanna brings is a respect for the eclecticism that has been a hallmark of this company, our unusual mix of classics, new work, and musicals. And she has the necessary desire to bring her own perspective to that work. It’s what I’ve been characterizing as an energetic evolution.”
Added Medak in a statement, “I couldn’t be happier about having Johanna join us. During the interview process I became increasingly fond of and inspired by her. We had an illustrious field of candidates from across the country with a wide range of backgrounds. Johanna’s knowledge of the field and the enthusiasm of artists with whom she had worked made her our perfect choice. Her work at NYSAF in the development of new plays and musicals has made her such a good match for us. She is committed to our Ground Floor Center for the Creation and Development of New Work and our School of Theatre, as both are important pieces of our programmatic puzzle.”
We spoke with Pfaelzer, who will move to the Bay Area with her husband, lighting designer Russell Champa, and their son, Jasper, after completing the 2019 summer season at NYSAF, a new-works incubator run out of Vassar’s Powerhouse Theatre whose pedigree includes Hamilton, The Humans, The Wolves, The Homecoming Queen, The Invisible Hand, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Hadestown, The Great Leap, Doubt, The Fortress of Solitude, The Jacksonian, and American Idiot, among others.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: First, congratulations on the new job.
JOHANNA PFAELZER: Thank you so much.
I had some sense of the history of New York Stage and Film, which was that Mark Linn-Baker and his colleagues started it a few decades ago. But I didn’t realize you were hired about a dozen years ago to be its first artistic director. Is that right?
I came into the company in 1998, actually, as the managing producer. I was sort of charged with being the boots-on-the-ground person for the three founders, who collectively functioned as the producing directors. They made me their partner after a couple of years, so we were essentially a four-person team. I was the one who was primarily present as they each went off and produced films and directed movies and plays and performed all over the world. Then I left for five years and was associate artistic director at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. And then 11 years ago I came back as the company’s first artistic director.
And did you build it into something more than it was, or just build on the success of what it had been?
I think more than anything, I built on the amazing foundation they had established. And if I’m proud of anything—and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done—it’s that I think the spirit of the company has been maintained from when it was founded. It was meant to be a place of service to artists; it was meant to be both a protected and a really rigorous environment. And it was meant to be a place that could serve artists at all different stages of their career. All of those things have really stayed very true.
Looking at your résumé, it’s very much in the resident theatre realm, but New York Stage and Film is sort of its own kind of unicorn within that realm—it’s a summer festival, but it’s also developmental.
Yeah, it’s entirely developmental. Some of the things that set it apart are that it’s all new work, unlike some of the other summer festivals. And it’s not just readings and workshops. I think the inclusion of full production acknowledges that for many writers and directors, they hit a point where they really need to see the work fully realized in three dimensions, to understand where the piece is in its evolution. So I love that we have that as one of the arrows in our quiver. And I think the fact that the work is seen by audiences at every stage of development is really important, because I think the engagement of an audience in a development process is very much a part of the New York Stage and Film process.
That’s why one of the first things I thought of when I heard your name was that Berkeley Rep has its Ground Floor program, which was started about six years ago to give their new-work efforts their own department. Was that one of the things that attracted you to the new job?
Yes, the fact that Berkeley Rep has made such a clear commitment to new work is absolutely one of the things that was most attractive to me about it.
This is a bit of a homecoming, right? I read that you spent some of your childhood in the Bay Area, but were you born there?
I was actually born in England, but when my parents came back to the Bay Area, which is where they had met and married, we lived in Berkeley.
Do you have memories of going to shows at Berkeley Rep or ACT?
Well, I was really little at that point. As I got older and wasn’t living full-time in Berkeley anymore, every time I went back there—I used to spend every summer there—I got to go see stuff at Berkeley Rep, and I did some of the conservatory programs at ACT. I was a camp counselor at one of the kind of legendary day camps in Berkeley. Most of my family is there. So it really is a homecoming, yeah.
That may not be a requirement for the job, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, right?
I think it’s a really particular community in a really particular environment. So I think, yes, the fact that I know and love it deeply as a place and as a community feels like a great beginning to me. And the five years that I spent at ACT, where I really got to have a sense of what the artistic community of the Bay Area is, too.
When was that?
It was 2002 to 2007. And, you know, the Bay Area transforms so quickly. It always has been a place of radical growth and experimentation. So I think the fact that it’s a decade later that I’m returning means everything has changed—and not.
I think I once heard Tony Taccone say that Berkeley Rep’s audience is one of most educated audiences anywhere.
Bay Area audiences have an amazing intellectual appetite. And what we found at ACT is that the more context, background, information we could give them, the greater their appetite for the work was. They are known for being one of the best-read communities in the country, in terms of consumption of literature. So it’s a great place to think about telling stories.
Right, I think the way Tony put it was that it was both a great thing and also a huge challenge to have an audience that was so savvy and well-read.
Oh, I have no doubt. I’d much rather have an audience keep my feet to the fire in that way.
You’re part of an exciting generational changeover at major U.S. theatres, but you’re also part of another trend we’ve seen, of producers leading theatres as opposed to directors, which was long the norm in the resident theatre.
Well, these theatres were largely founded by practicing artists, right? And so we’re just seeing the evolution. In part I think that we’ve seen the demands of sustaining organizations that have grown to the size that they have; it’s very hard to do that and to be as available to the staff and the board and the other artists in the building as you need to be when one of your obligations is to disappear into your own rehearsal process.
Right, it’s been noted that many of the larger theatres in New York City are run by producers, not directors: Lincoln Center, Roundabout, and Signature, with Manhattan Theatre Club and the Public as exceptions. I’m not saying the trend is either good nor bad.
Well, we’ll know in another decade.
And I like to think that, at its most functional, this is not about the exclusion of artists from a central place within an organization. It’s an increase in the ability of the organization to support those artists.
Right, to have someone who is dedicated to not making the art, but supporting the artists and giving them what they need.
Yeah, and being able to engage with them across the board and throughout their process and with each one of them throughout the season. I tend to be quite hands-on in my work with the different artists who’ve participated in our seasons, certainly, at Stage and Film. And I expect to do the same at Berkeley Rep. One of the things I’m looking forward to at Berkeley is, because the productions are spread out over a year as opposed to an eight-week period, having the ability to really be very present and to be able to go more deeply into the work with each one of those creative teams.
That’s a great segue to ask about the leap in scale you’re undertaking here. It’s not just the length of the season that will be greater at Berkeley Rep.
It’s two theatres. The budget of the organization is obviously vastly different. The size of the staff is enormously different. At Stage and Film this past summer, I think we had more than 20 different projects crammed into the two-month period. So on the one hand, that scale feels very familiar to me. But the stakes for each one of those projects were very different. And the opportunity to be in full production throughout the calendar year is hugely compelling to me.
I’m imagining that leading Stage and Film is a year-round job, even though you only produce in the summer.
Yeah, people love to say, “Oh, is this your down time?”
But this is going to be a whole different way of working and living.
Absolutely. That’s why I’m really glad I had the years at A.C.T., within an organization of that scale with that size staff, with an enormous theatre, with a really powerful board. I’m hoping to be able to wed that with the really deep experience I’ve had with the artists of New York Stage and Film. I think there’s a huge amount that you learn whenever you are leading an organization of whatever scale.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you caught the theatre bug initially, and how you figured out that where you belong is supporting artists as opposed to, you know…
Being one? Well, I originally trained as an actor. My first year out of college at Wesleyan I got to spend a year at Actors Theatre of Louisville as a member of their apprentice program. It was the first time I had been in the room, really, with a living artist; that’s a theatre that obviously, through their Humana Festival, is deeply committed to new work. Getting to observe and participate in that process was kind of a revelation for me. When I came back to New York, I formed a theatre company, like you do when you’re 23; it was a group of people that had come out of that same Actors Theater training program over about a five-year span. Our shared vocabulary was new work; that was the culture in which we had essentially been creatively born.
I spent five years within that company, getting to—well, having to do everything, along with my partners and the other company members. We had the opportunity to perform, but in order to have those opportunities, it meant we were reading the scripts, in conversation with writers and directors, building creative teams, figuring out how to raise money, make it financially sustainable, find the theatre space. So we each took on those producing tasks as well as the performing tasks. And it was over that period of time and thanks to that company—which was called Zena Group, after the bar next door to Actors Theater—that I realized I was both much happier when I was producing, and frankly much more effective. From there I went and worked for a couple of different commercial producers. I was the assistant company manager on Lion King. I got to do my tour of duty, soaking up knowledge from a bunch of other people. And it was after that that I finally got to come to New York Stage and Film.
I know it’s early, and you won’t start the new job for a year. But can you tell me anything about your vision for Berkeley Rep? Where is the theatre now, and where do you want to take it?
I don’t know if I’m fully prepared to answer what my vision for that theatre is. I will tell you that I think the scale of theatrical imagination that Berkeley Rep staff, artists, and audiences have embraced is something that’s really exciting to me. I think when you look at the kinds of work they’ve done, from Angels in America to John Leguizamo to the classics that they have reimagined to the work of people like Emma Rice and Mary Zimmerman—that speaks to an appetite for the kind of storytelling that can only happen in a theatre. And the notion of being able to sustain and build upon that is thrilling to me.
I think the other thing that’s really interesting to think about right now is that there’s great entertainment happening all over. There is great writing happening in television. People don’t want to leave their homes to be entertained anymore. And one of the things that is deeply compelling to me is to figure out what is going to make people come into the theatre. How do we capitalize on that extraordinary experience that happens when people share a transformative, emotional moment in the company of strangers in real time? I still think that’s magic.
Along those lines, I wonder if you have thoughts about the state of theatre field, both nonprofit and commercial.
Yeah, you really know how to ask the small questions, don’t you? I think, in the big picture, I’m a big believer in the rising tide. So the more people that are going to walk in the doors of a theatre, any theatre, whether it’s to see Lion King or Frozen or Harry Potter or Be More Chill—I think that is good for all of us. I think people fall in love with theatre, with just the overall experience of theatregoing, at different moments in their life, in different contexts. For many people that happens not on Broadway but in their community. And for those of us who are going to be making work outside of New York City, it’s about making sure that we continue to recognize that which is particular about the communities in which we are making work, that we really deeply investigate the artists who are already part of those communities. And while New York, I think, is always a bellwether of success in the industry, I also think there are riches to be mined in the deep and intimate conversation you can develop with people who are coming specifically to your theatre, repeatedly, over time.
Have you worked with Pam Mackinnon, who’s just taken over ACT, before?
Yeah, we’ve worked together a number of times. When I was at ACT I got to bring her and Itamar Moses together to develop The Four of Us. That was in the early days of trying to craft a new play program for A.C.T. And she’s worked at New York Stage and Film.
It’s an exciting thing to see the leadership changes that are happening all over. I’m sure you’ve been following it: not just Pam but Hana Sharif, Maria Goyanes, Stephanie Ybarra. And now you’re part of this wave.
I’m incredibly proud to be part of this group of women. You know, many of us have worked alongside each other in various theatres over the last two decades. And it seems that my colleagues have come to a place where they get to take on the leadership of these organizations, and to be in a place myself where I’m being gifted with this extraordinary theatre that Tony has sustained for so long. I think we’re ready.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!