The recent appointment of Johanna Pfaelzer as the new artistic director of Berkeley Rep (beginning Sept. 1, 2019), to replace departing artistic director Tony Taccone is big news around Berkeley. I had the pleasure of speaking recently with Pfaelzer, currently the artistic director at New York Stage and Film (NYSAF), as well as with the Rep’s long-time managing director, Susan Medak.
“We think that Johanna is utterly perfect to be the new artistic director,” said Medak. “For nine years, she has led a company of new plays and musicals. She works with some of the same audiences as Berkeley Rep and will bring new audiences. Since her family has lived in the community for years, she understands the nuance, complexity, diversity, and socio-economics of our nine-county audience. She’s also a lovely, gracious and curious person.
“Our search firm said that we were offering the job that everyone wanted. We are known for our great production staff, open and curious audience, and are not in debt. So we had many appealing and qualified candidates, but Johanna seemed ideal for our diverse and intelligent audience.”
Pfaelzer said that Berkeley Rep handled the search with “thoughtfulness and grace.” In her recent visit, she was impressed with the Rep’s “beautiful facilities.” Her timing was such that both theaters were dark, so she was unable to attend a production, a disappointment she plans to correct soon.
Although Johanna Pfaelzer has the 2019 Powerhouse Summer Season to complete at the NYSAF, she “will travel back and forth to Berkeley until her summer season starts.” She doesn’t plan to move to the Berkeley area until that season in New York is over. She is looking forward to living in the Bay Area with her husband, lighting designer Russell Champa and son, Jasper. Bay Area real estate prices don’t faze her since their “needs are modest.”
Before the search even began, the board of trustees and staff spent a year preparing for the search, Medak told me. She quoted the Rep’s board president, Stewart Owen, as saying, “We want an energetic evolution, not a revolution.” So Berkeley Rep’s board and senior staff rethought all of their processes, including “changing the old and lengthy mission statement to one that more clearly articulates our values and cuts to the core of choice-making,” Medak said.
To make the transition as smooth as possible, the Rep built in a year’s time gap during which the new director will acclimatize. “It will be a year of conversation about how we create our plays and our season — what to keep, what to change. We will have a series of internal meetings to discuss such issues as our relationship to local artists and other local theaters, community engagement, possible changes to our production schedule and changes in our audience, Medak said.
Both Medak and Pfaelzer are interested in gaining additional insight into the make-up and desires of the Rep’s audience, although a great deal of information has been collected over the last 15 years.
“Our audience is extremely diverse, complex and intelligent,” said Medak, “They know that theater isn’t a frivolous pastime. They are all lovers of words. Some members want harder edged material, while others love the big bold works, like Ain’t Too Proud. “This will be one of Johanna’s challenges.”
Pfaelzer believes that younger audiences want entertainment to be “more experiential. At the NYSAF she uses “deep conversations with audiences,” and would like to give them the opportunity to see productions in development and to look behind the scenes.“We can’t make everyone happy,” said Pfaelzer, “We need to build a big tent. To attract younger viewers, who often have not had much arts education, we should try to make theater more accessible and available. Some of it may be the schedule.”
“Younger audiences are “not necessarily price sensitive,” said Medak, “they buy on perceived value and are initially attracted to the most accessible productions” and then gradually try other offerings.
Certainly, Pfaelzer has big shoes to fill, taking over from award-winning departing artistic director Tony Taccone, whose recent successes include his splendid directorship of last season’s Angels in America. The 33-year Berkeley Rep veteran is now heading into his final season as artistic director, ending Aug. 2019. And it looks like a great season, with such varied productions as Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, about society and race, Paradise Square: an American Musical written by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan, based on the songs of Stephen Foster, and Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses.