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Not a One-Man Show

In a world of big egos, Robert Kelley of TheatreWorks is known for a collaborative approach—even after 40 years.

Courtesy: TheatreWorks

BROADWAY BABY: Memphis, by Joe DiPietro and David Byran, was workshopped at TheatreWorks and then produced in 2004. The show opened in New York in October.

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By Melinda Sacks

TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley sits silently during an audition, scribbling notes with his No. 2 pencil, then pops out of his chair to encourage a girl to sing out. "Louder, louder!" he calls from one end of the long rehearsal room. "Let's put it in a place as big as San Jose Arena!"

Myha'la Herrold, 13, has arrived for her audition straight from school still wearing her cheerleading outfit. She could not look more incongruous, given that the tryout is for A Civil War Christmas. Myha'la responds to his suggestion in an arena-sized voice so beautiful it causes goose bumps. Kelley is impressed, and Myha'la is subsequently cast.

Auditioning actors could feel a little intimidated by a director who is nationally known for his ability to take new plays and artists all the way to Broadway. But once in the door, actors, directors, musicians and colleagues repeatedly use such words as inspiring and collaborative to describe working with Robert Kelley, '68.

"Kelley looked at me when I was just this scrawny Asian-American without a whole lot of experience on his résumé," remembers Francis Jue, an Obie Award-winning actor whose résumé today includes starring roles on Broadway. "He offered me opportunities and he asked me to step up in ways I had never been asked before. He really helped plant the seed in me that there was room at the table."

That table has expanded considerably since Kelley founded TheatreWorks, a company that now boasts 9,000 subscribers and operates on an annual budget of $6.8 million. The recipient of 12 Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle awards for its most recent season, the company often captures the largest number of awards among its Bay Area competitors, including such powerhouses as American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. With its 2009-10 season TheatreWorks is celebrating its 40th anniversary—and Kelley is still at its helm. He "projects an endless enthusiasm for every aspect of the art form that seems to work as a kind of fountain of youth for him and for TheatreWorks," says San Francisco Chronicle theater critic Rob Hurwitt. "It's managed to make him apparently impervious to the burnout factor that afflicts many long-term artistic directors and to help keep the company fresh as it's grown into a major institution."

In 1970, fresh out of Stanford with a degree in creative writing and a little experience with school productions, Kelley got a summer job with the City of Palo Alto to develop a youth production. Joe Simitian, MA '00, now a California state senator, was the show's stage manager. Terri White, one of its actors, is a sensation in the Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow.

Kelley wrote and produced a musical set in a town called Scraggly Tree. Popcorn focused on issues of the day—freedom, equality, racial and generational tensions, and the antiwar movement. Four days before it opened, an antiwar rally made headlines when 400 people were arrested. "We got a huge amount of press, and the company was launched," Kelley says. "It was a show exactly tuned to its times."

Although TheatreWorks' seasons contain classics, Kelley still loves most to produce new work. "There is always a visionary behind a successful theater," says playwright Joe DiPietro. "The interesting thing about Kelley is he created and helped grow this thriving theater company and even in these economic times he is still developing new works. He loves intelligent things; he doesn't put up fluff. He loves shows that make you think and have a real heart to them. He is still doing great work, and he still has a ponytail."

As the company grew from a community theater to a professional regional one, so did Kelley's commitment to original material. In 2000 Kelley announced the company's New Works Initiative, which holds annual writers retreats, workshops, young playwrights showcases and an annual festival of staged readings. TheatreWorks has done 53 world premieres, and its shows have traveled across the country.

In laying out a season, Kelley and his team consider an array of issues, but at the top of the list, he says, is content and message. "I do have an agenda," he explains. "I have eight plays to select each year and taken as a whole, I hope they do address and engage as many different people in the community as possible, including people of every race and color and point of view." This season includes Tinyard Hill, a Vietnam-era, country-music musical about reconciling to change, and a new Paul Gordon musical, Daddy Long Legs, about an orphan girl on her way to becoming "an independent American woman." (Gordon composed Emma, a Jane Austen adaptation that in 2007 became TheatreWorks's best-selling show.)

Wandering through the massive set construction and storage rooms that fill the TheatreWorks warehouse in Menlo Park, Kelley points out the lengths the company goes to in creating each production. The space smells of new wood, and the grinding of a buzz saw fills the air. A painter is painstakingly working on each book that will fill a 1940s case belonging to a Jewish scholar in The Chosen. An engineless Model T from Ragtime is parked not far from the 1940s truck used in Grapes of Wrath.

"I'm a very, very visual director, so the way things look is to a certain extent what the whole production has to say," Kelley explains. He can be compulsive about the look of leaves on a tree or the kitchen flooring used for one of his shows. "I think I work well with actors, but I am also obsessed with how the overall set looks. I love theatricality. I have finally gotten to the point where I can even make fun of my own theatricality."

What does the future hold for TheatreWorks, which has known no artistic director except Kelley?

"Do I think about retiring? Yes," says Kelley, 63. "Do I want to? No. . . . Forty years seems like a long time in the life of a theater. But getting here makes me think about, how do we do another 40? We are creating art that reflects the people and innovation of this area. It reflects a worldview that is rippling out from here into the rest of the world."

MELINDA SACKS, '74, is director of media initiatives at Stanford.

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