Seraphim Past Interviews

Tony Takes on the REPtiles

In 1998, Seraphim Director Demetrius Martin sat down with Tony Taccone, who was about to begin his first season as Artistic Director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It seemed a natural choice: Mr. Taccone had co-directed the World Premier of Angels in America, Perestroika, with Oskar Eustis at the Mark Taper Forum, co-directed most of BRT's extremely successful run of Carol Churcill's Serious Money, and apart from his work at former Eureka Theater Company, had become the Associate Artistic Director of the Rep. Still, there was doubt Tony was a shoe-in. Boards across the country seemed to routinely overlook the second in command, and rumors abound that Mr. Taccone's style may not be what the Rep was looking for after Sharon Ott, someone who had brought the company national attention. From some on the outside, Tony's appointment seemed to be probationary.

From the local artists perspective, Ms. Ott had been responsible for dissolving the former company of actors that made Berkeley Rep a successful company before she arrived. Now that Tony was taking over, there was a curious excitement of what was in store for Bay Area actors and artisans.


As this period of general auditions wind down, most of the actors participating will have the same thought on their minds: will anything come of this? Actors that choose to make the Bay Area home face an unemployment challenge that is equal to New York or Los Angeles . There are fewer actors here than these larger markets, but then there's also less work. Most of the LORT (League of Resident Theaters) companies are casting fewer and fewer locals. Even the lowest tier, the LORT D theaters, are sending their casting directors out of town, tipping the scales further. Once in a while there are particular needs for a certain role that requires a national search; sometimes casting a celebrity increases a theater's ticket sales, but there have been casting choices over the last couple of seasons that have some actors have crying “foul”.

The local vs. visitor casting question is not a new gripe. But when even small to mid-size budgeted theaters are sending their casting nets elsewhere, one begins to wonder what the Board of Directors of those companies are thinking. Isn't it economically sound to cast the best actor around without having to buy a plane ticket or rent an apartment? Of course there are Boards who haven't set a good example when they cast their artistic directors outside when there was an obvious candidate locally.

Tony Taccone's appointment was, in that way, unusual. In 1997 Tony became the new Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, one of the most exciting regional theaters in the country, and he was cast from the local talent pool. Some thought this would improve the chances of more local actors getting work with the Rep, and if Tony's track record continues, they may be right. The first production after his appointment, Pentecost, boasted 15 local actors out of a cast of 20. However, Taccone believes that regional theaters are now looking at the acting pool as a national one, and is not planning for the Rep to return to its resident company format. But then again, he seemed interested in reviving Company Too, a program which kept a certain amount of younger or up and coming actors at hand for understudy or ensemble work throughout the season.

You could say Tony is a real “mensch”, someone you could talk Baseball with as easily as Beckett or Brecht. He's familiar with the Artistic Director's chair and its challenges because he led the Eureka Theater, almost literally out of the ashes, for seven years. We caught up with Tony In the fall of 1997, just before his first official full season at Berkeley Rep:

Q: When someone new takes over at a major house, most of the people who are actors or theater artists want to know what direction the theater is going to go in . . .

A: I'm not going to have a company.

Q: Oh, really? Have people been asking about that?

A: Well, you know, what do local actors want to know: Is there work. We offer somewhere between 55 and 70 roles a season here. A little less than what ACT [American Conservatory Theater] offers, but in the same ballpark. I don't know what the ratio of our out of town casting as to our in town casting; it's pretty high toward local casting. The real question is what is the perception versus what is the reality. There is not enough work. Period. The end. There's a lot of frustration about that. Sometimes that frustration gets played out in some fairly volatile ways, even if those are repressed ways, and then there's is a kind of yearning for a company. The ironic thing about that is that would obviously provide more work for some people and a lot less work for others. So, there's this romance about a company and employment. When I was at the Eureka, I know there were a lot of actors in town that were sort of envious of Lori [Holt] and Abigail's [Van Allen] secret because they got all the good roles. Because it was a company, we gave away the best roles to people in the company, that's the whole point. So, I don't pretend that Berkeley Rep's going to. The only thing that's gonna make everybody really happy is if I said, “Okay, now there's twice as many roles available. And you (whoever is reading this) is gonna play most of them.”

Q: “Show me a contract.”

A: (laughs) Right, ‘Show me the money!' Well, I think acting is.. I don't know how you guys do it. I mean, I know it's thrilling, and, it's a little bit like shooting heroin, you know? It's a total rush. When you're in a great show, and you're getting a lot of response, it's just a thrilling, thrilling feeling. But I think the profession is very difficult on people. You're kind of like migrant workers and it's one of my goals to reduce that feeling. To make this a place a compassionate, warm and welcoming place where the work is really celebrated, and for the actors that do have the opportunity to work here, they regard it as a really worthwhile and wonderful experience.

Q: I think that the romance for companies came from the fact that both ACT and Berkeley Rep started as companies, that was the beginning of a golden age for theater in the Bay Area.

A: It was one of the precepts of the founding of the regional theater movement, which was [taken] from a European model, and where there were large state-supported companies. People were in a company for 50 years and grow up inside of a company; the company takes care of them. That dream eroded over time. Why are all these companies called “Rep” companies? Who's doing rep anymore? No one's doing rep. There was a romance for a lot of good reasons. I consider that I matured as an artist inside of the Eureka Theatre, which was more of a company. The support and the communication and the investment of those relationships help me to develop, not just as an artist, but as a person. I think it was an environment that we really did try to consciously make healthy. You can't put a dollar value on that. That was a phenomenal experience and one that I actually wish more people had.

Q: Many of the subscribers to both the Rep and ACT actually enjoyed seeing their favorite company actors in various roles. They felt they had their own celebrities that lived among them. Most of them say that they aren't all that impressed with an actor who comes from New York or Los Angeles . They're interested in the quality of the acting and the production in general. The perception among the local actors then is “What do the out-of-towners have that we don't?”

A: I think that's like “What does one actor have over another actor?” The perception that they're better for the role. I mean, whose perception is it: The director and the casting director's. In a company situation the actors feel like they have more influence and there's a greater feeling of safety and trust because they're taken care of. That's a very different experience than just auditioning and being left alone to your own individual fears and perceptions without getting any kind of feedback. I've had actors who I didn't cast that I thought it would be so incredibly obvious why I didn't cast them when they looked to see who I did cast; but they didn't see it. “What! You didn't see-- [They're] a totally different type!” “No.” But I think what has happened now is that people don't regard ‘local'; people think of it as a national acting pool. Obviously, economically, it is in these theaters' best interest to cast local actors because it's cheaper. But then Capitalism works in wondrous ways: if it's more expensive, it must be better; if we don't know it, it must be better. There is that flirtation with the more exotic that definitely plays into you're thinking a little bit at times. Why are most actors going to New York or L.A. ? They regard these as a weigh station of sorts.

Q: I've heard some frustrations among the locals that if someone comes here that has done off, off, off, off Broadway stuff, but because they come from New York they tend to get called in more.

A: I think that's ridiculous. I think that's really ridiculous. I'd never; we'd never operate that way. We're trying to, in the best way we can, objectively cast the best person available. And with giving local actors the benefit of the doubt. A lot of times that works out and sometimes it doesn't.

Q: Have you ever done any acting?

A: Yeah, I did. I made that mistake once, sure, everyone starts out an actor. I was in a company called the Colorado Caravan; we toured the Southwest part of the United States with repertory shows, mostly for schools. I was an actor for probably three years. Then I sobered up.

Q: How about writing?

A: I did some writing, but mostly I was a director.

Q: Do you think most actors should be multi-disciplined that way?

A: I think everyone in the theater should be multi-disciplined. Not just for economic reasons which I think is sane, but I think for creative reasons. There's a way in which one activity can feed another one.

Q: You see a lot of actors, so what would you say is lacking in terms of ability?

A: It's a question of are people's voices trained, can they move-- I think the biggest single thing lacking right now is movement instruction. I think [that] most American actors are really being encouraged to play with metaphors and not to use their bodies, and not to play characters. Why was it so outrageous to see Sling Blade? Because the guy was doing a character. It made you realize this is incredibly rare! In the theater there is a whole culture that acting is the search for a kind of truth which is sort of connected with yourself, which means sort of staying within yourself, which means if you do a funny voice or a physical characterization outside of your body that's too weird. Or because there isn't many [people] trained for it and because there is less and less of a call for it, that it feels less safe to have to go there and try to fulfill it. That is not true in Europe . People get out. You should watch a European show, man you just go whoa! I think it's really scary how myopic our perception has become. I would love to see more actors become more fierce and confident in their physical movement, in their physical characterizations.

Q: You were teaching a class before. Are you going to find time to continue teaching?

A: Oh, god. It's really a drag; I would love to continue teaching. I had a class that was really a great class, that I had to discontinue after I got the job; actually even before I went to Ashland because I wasn't sure if I was gonna get the job. I'd love to get back to it.

Q: Do you see the Rep ever having a teaching program or conservatory or tied to a school in some way?

A: I don't see us being a conservatory. Ever. Well, “ever” is a bad word, but I don't see us as being a conservatory. I think we will have many relationships with many educational institutions; ACT has a M.F.A. program, UC Davis, but I don't see us putting our energies there. I'm very interested in having relationships with educational institutions and developing systems where some of those people, some of those students, can have opportunities at our theater.

Q: When I was in Company Too, I found it to be a extremely helpful, not just in the opportunities to be part of or understudy some of the seasons plays, but with the lectures by visiting directors and just being in the environment of a working, professional regional theater. Are there any plans to go back to that “actor internship”?

A: Funny you mention that, because we thought about reviving Company Too. We kind of miss it. But the problem was supervision of Company Too and how it was going to happen.

Q: So money isn't the issue.

A: It wasn't so much money, It was staff time. Company Too needs to be directed and focused and who's going to do it. It's got to be supervised, managed and supported. But we do miss it and now that we directly appointed a new Director of Education we will probably be re-looking at that.

Q: You're originally from the East Coast, what would you say is the difference between the New York scene and this one? It seems New York area audiences go to more theater than here.

A: New York is the commercial Mecca of theater in the United States . So the glitz, and the heat in the industry is more localized in New York . I think that is true because there's a lot more activity, it's a huge city and people go to it for those kinds of reasons, there's just a lot more arts there. But I would really argue intensely the claim that New York is still the theatrical capital of this country. It is the commercial capital, but there's not a lot of regional theater in New York City ; there's the Public, Lincoln Center and Playwrights' [Horizons], and there's a million off Broadway places that pay zero money, but for every job there's twenty times more actors auditioning.

Q: It evens out. There are fewer actors here but then there's less work. This season's choices was still part of that collaborative effort, but don't you think next season there will be this pressure to do well, especially now that the Rep has earned the Tony Award? Don't you feel all eyes will be on you?

A: You know, my thing about pressure is I just don't go there. I guess I just believe that I fall back on my mother's favorite axiom, which is ‘just do you're best; I'm sure it will be wonderful.' Where else can you go? Sit around and be paralyzed? I think what's true is that the amount of responsibility that is on your shoulders . . . if you sit around and think about that all day, you might tend to get paralyzed, or really afraid of doing anything bold. I left the Eureka because I felt I lost my creative energy as a producer. I felt that at the end of those years I was thinking more about why we couldn't do things than why we could. I think that it led me to leave. I'm certainly not there with this job. There might..there probably will come a time where that might happen to me [again] and I'd have to step down. Of course, if next year really bombs I'm sure it will make people really nervous and worry about my level of competence or if I'm the right person for the job. But who wants to stay in job they're not good at anyway? If I bomb, then I bomb. The only thing you can do is pursue the thing you want to do and try to do it with some intelligence and some sense of generosity and some sense of ‘smart-risk'. There's a difference between smart-risk and bad-risk, and I do think we're in the business of smart-risk.■

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