Aurora Theatre artistic director Tom Ross (left) with director Mark Jackson. Photo: David Allen

After 27 years with Aurora, 15 of which were spent as the Berkeley theatre company’s artistic director, Tom Ross is stepping down from his post at the end of the 2019 season to freelance direct and to write and produce his own shows. Berkeleyside met with the affable Ross recently to hear about his next steps and to reminisce about his somewhat surprising success in the theatre.

“Neither of my parents ever saw a live play in their lives.”

Growing up, Ross never expected to work in the theater because all the men in his family had worked in the Gary, Indiana steel mills.

“Neither of my parents ever saw a live play in their lives,” said Ross. “But my dream was always to move to New York.”

After graduating from an Illinois state college, a long-haired Ross saved up enough money to move to New York City, taking his Steely Dan albums and J.D. Salinger books. “It was just a leap of faith,” he said. This was only the first of several leaps of faith that Ross has made over his career.

His move to New York turned out wonderfully well. He worked at New York’s Public Theater for eight years as executive assistant to Joseph Papp and co-director of play and musical development (1982-1990). Although Papp was a very difficult person, Ross said, “We ended up having an incredibly strong and, I’d say, loving relationship.”

While at the Public, Tom wrote the book adaptation for the Joe Orton/Todd Rundgren musical Up Against It! and collaborated on projects with artists including Larry Kramer, Kathy and Mo, Malcolm McLaren and Jonathan Larson. Coincidentally, while at the Public, he met a very young Jonathan Moscone (formerly artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, now Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Chief of Civic Engagement), and Carey Perloff (formerly artistic director of A.C.T.).

“I thought it was a crazy idea to start a professional company in a little room that held 67 people, but I thought, why not?”

What brought Ross to the Bay Area was another leap of faith. When Papp’s health began to fail and the Public Theater began to change, Ross moved to the Bay Area. He had visited it briefly before and was attracted to its music scene. After being rebuffed for job opportunities at Berkeley Rep and at A.C.T., Tom began to produce independently, and worked with the Solo Mio Festival, which presented such luminaries as Dick Gregory, Claire Bloom, Jon Waters and David Sedaris.

One day in 1991 Ross saw an ad in CallBoard magazine, which announced that Barbara Oliver was starting a theatre company at the Berkeley City Club.

“I had no idea who she was,” said Ross. “I was interviewed and we hit it off. I thought it was a crazy idea to start a professional Actors’ Equity company in a little room that held 67 people, but I thought, why not?”

The first season, Aurora produced three plays, with Ross as the general manager and sole business person. From its inception, Aurora set out to be a theatre of language and ideas, to appeal to the intellect and engender conversation. In the nine years that the Aurora was at the Berkeley City Club, performances were typically sold out and were well reviewed by the major Bay Area newspapers.

“We wanted to build a theatre that would grow, we wanted a theatre that would outlast us, not just be a sandbox for ourselves,” he said. By the second season, Ross was directing. Over the course of his stint at Aurora, he became managing director, then producing director.

In 2001 when Berkeley began to develop its downtown Berkeley “arts district,” Ross oversaw the Aurora’s move to its current location on Addison Street, and supervised the construction of the 150-seat theatre. After a year-long extensive national search for an artistic director, which Ross said “turned [his] hair gray,” Aurora hired Ross for the position.

“The major job of the artistic director is to plan a season,” Ross explained. “So I pick the plays, directors may pitch me ideas, but the six plays per season rest on my shoulders.” Then the artistic director chooses the directors and the designers, helps the directors cast the shows (although the artistic director has final approval), attends rehearsals, and give notes and ideas to the directors. There are also many meetings as well as events with donors and the public.

An award-winning director, Ross has staged 30 productions at Aurora thus far, including his particular favorite: the 2011 production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. The playwright, who died in 2016, attended the opening night performance and gave the production a standing ovation.

Other notable plays Ross directed include The Homecoming, The Birthday Party, Betrayal, the U.S. premiere of Temple, the world premiere of The First Grade, the Bay Area Premieres of Luna Gale, A Bright New Boise, This Is How It Goes, SEX, Blue/Orange, The Shape of Things, The Weir as well as Fifth of July, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Best Man, and The Entertainer.

And now Ross is taking another leap of faith. Like his theatrical compatriots, Moscone, Perloff and Berkeley Rep’s Tony Taccone, he believes that it is time for the next generation to take over. “A younger artistic director will attract younger audiences. People want to see themselves on stage,” he said. As for his future, Ross already has received several expressions of interest to direct plays and to teach.

But he still has 15 months more at Aurora and is anticipating directing two plays next season. He is particularly looking forward to directing Everything is Illuminated, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 debut novel.

The Aurora board recognizes the magnitude of the task it faces in finding Ross’ successor.

“Tom has an amazing eye for intelligent, thought-provoking plays that shine in our intimate venue and resonate with our audiences,” said Gary Moore, Aurora’s board president. “That, combined with his passion for the craft of theatre and his commitment to fostering our diverse local community of artists and artisans, is what has made Aurora the special place that it is. As we look for our next artistic director, we will be searching for someone who can build on that legacy.”

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...