barbara oliver 2012_david allen
Barbara Oliver, who passed away on Monday. Photo: David Allen

Barbara Oliver, the founding Artistic Director of Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre and an instrumental figure in Bay Area theatre for more than 40 years, passed away peacefully from complications of a stroke on Monday at her Berkeley home. Her family was with her, as they have been throughout the duration of her recent illness. She was 85.

A veteran actress and director, Oliver  co-founded Aurora Theatre Company in 1992 and was its Artistic Director until stepping down in 2004.

“Like many people in the Bay Area, my life has been irrevocably changed for the better by having met Barbara Oliver,” said Aurora Theatre Company Artistic Director Tom Ross. “Little did I know that our initial meeting, a job interview 22 years ago, would take me, and hundreds of Aurora Theatre artists, staff, Board members, and patrons, on such a long and significant journey, one that will no doubt continue for many years to come. Trying to distill the legacy that Barbara left as founding Artistic Director is difficult, as she created such a vast foundation, but ultimately, I think that she instilled the belief that we should move forward and grow steadily with absolute integrity, and to show unequivocal fairness to all. Barbara not only preached these messages but personified them. It goes without saying that she was a talented actor, director, and teacher as well. Her passion was endless and she could inspire nearly anyone.”

“The passing of Barbara Oliver is a huge loss, not just to her family and those of us at Aurora, but to the entire Bay Area theater community,” said Aurora Theatre Company Managing Director Julie Saltzman. “Her vision for a company telling good stories while creating a nurturing environment for artists to work in is the backbone of Aurora. I’m honored that I get to be a part of that, and that I got to know and work with her over these past few years; she will be incredibly missed.”

Born in Ohio in 1927, Barbara Oliver completed her acting and directing training in 1949 at America’s oldest theater conservatory, the prestigious Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University.

In 1950, she married William Oliver, and they moved to Fargo, North Dakota where Barbara was the Artistic Director of the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre until 1953. In 1958, she settled in Berkeley, California, where her husband taught in the theater department at University of California, Berkeley.

She began acting at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the late 1960s. In 1991, Oliver made a bold career move: perceiving a dearth of appropriate theatrical roles for older women, she developed, with writer Dorothy Bryant, a play inspired by the literary correspondence between writers Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, entitled Dear Master. The production, in which she played George Sand, led to the founding of Aurora Theatre Company.

Barbara_The Chairs
Barbara Oliver in the Aurora’s production of The Chairs

Barbara, along with Dorothy Bryant, Marge Glicksman, Richard Rossi, and Ken Grantham formed Aurora Theatre Company in 1992. For its first decade, the company occupied an intimate 67-seat drawing room in the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club, quickly attracting a core of loyal patrons for its high-quality chamber productions; in 2002, the Aurora expanded and moved to its current 150-seat space in the downtown Berkeley Arts District.

Barbara Oliver’s Aurora directing credits included this season’s critically acclaimed production of Wilder Times, last season’s World Premiere translation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Anatol, Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, the Professional World Premiere of Ellen McLaughlin’s The Trojan Women, Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and McLaughlin’s adaptation of The Persians.

An accomplished Bay Area actress, Oliver appeared in Aurora Theatre Company productions of The ChairsThe Gin GameHoliday MemoriesBailegangaireLa CastrataThe Aspern Papers, and Dear Master, as well as productions at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, California Shakespeare Theater, and Yale Repertory Theatre, among others. She also directed productions for the American Conservatory Theater Master of Fine Arts Program and UC Berkeley’s Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies.

Barbara is survived by her daughter Anna, her son Michael, her son Soren, her daughter-in-law Jennifer, her grandson Griffin, her sister Alda Marsh Morgan, and her brother-in-law, Donn Morgan.

A private funeral service will be held on June 8; a public memorial service is also planned but no details are available at this time.

In lieu of flowers, the family respectfully asks that remembrances of Barbara be made in her name to Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church (2300 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) or to Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley.

Aurora Theatre: 20 years at heart of Berkeley’s cultural life [09.22.11]

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