Longtime Berkeley resident and theater luminary Mae Z. Meidav died on Friday, Jan. 10, at age 84. A true polymath, Meidav made her mark on the Bay Area theater scene as a playwright, actor, director, producer and manager of her own theater company while simultaneously pursuing a career as a systems analyst at BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), and before that, as a professor of sociology and an aircraft engineer. She also was an inspiring and beloved teacher and coach who instructed dozens of Bay Area followers in the craft of writing as well as the art of belly dancing.
In the 1950s, at a time when women in STEM careers were vanishingly rare, Meidav earned a B.A. in mathematics and a master’s in engineering and math. She went on to hold various engineering positions, including as an aviation engineer at Israel Aircraft Industries in the 1960s and the San Francisco locations of IECO and Bechtel in the 1970s, finally landing at BART in 1982, where she worked for 21 years in various technology-oriented positions, from computer programmer for the train control system to senior assistant to the chief engineer.
Meidav also completed a Ph.D. in sociology (1971), applying her talent for mathematics to the demographics of white flight, and served as a professor of sociology at St. John’s University in New York until the family moved to Berkeley to follow her husband Tsvi Meidav’s career in geothermal engineering.
During her tenure at BART, Meidav founded (in April 2001) and served as artistic director of Brookside Repertory Theatre, headquartered in her Elmwood home and named after her street, Brookside Avenue. In this capacity, she wrote, directed, produced and performed in numerous original plays, and led a playwriting workshop affiliated with the theater that lasted more than 30 years. At the same time, she performed in numerous plays staged by other theater companies, most notably Subterranean Shakespeare.
A member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Meidav was a prolific playwright whose works were performed in various local venues including the Berkeley City Club and LaVal’s in Berkeley, the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco, and several editions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival. She was drawn to Jewish and autobiographical themes, and particularly her early years growing up in the insular Jewish immigrant community of St. Louis, Missouri.
Notable among her plays are “Franz/KAFKA,” an ambitious biographical drama about the enigmatic literary great performed at La Val’s Subterranean Theatre in 1997, which Meidav reworked into “Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters and Hallucinations,” performed at the Berkeley City Club in 2008; “Island Heat,” a steamy romance story inspired by her family’s stint on a Caribbean island where Meidav’s husband pursued a geothermal project, and performed at the Phoenix Theatre II in San Francisco in 2001; “Basha Rubenchek From Minsk, Comrade of Petaluma,” telling the story of Meidav’s Communist chicken farmer aunt, also performed at the Berkeley City Club, in 2009; and “Flying Out of Formation,” about the daring American pilots who risked everything to secretly help establish and equip Israel’s Air Force in the days leading up to the fledgling country’s 1948 War of Independence, performed in 2013 at The Marsh in Berkeley.
Meidav’s produced short plays include: “Chanukah Is Not the Jewish Christmas,” and “McNally and the Ghost of Christmas Past,” performed at Brookside Rep’s Holiday Shorts; and “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife,” performed at the 2006 S.F. Fringe Festival.
Fully staged solo performances by Meidav include: “The Physics of Bodies in Motion”; “The Interview, Or, Would You Consider Saudi Arabia”; “To Have and to Hold”; “Bessie, Peshie”; “The Butcher”; “Ejecting a Jeep from an Airplane”; “My Zayde, Or, Never Turn The Pickle Barrel Sour”; and “The Interview, Or, Would You Consider Saudi Arabia?” Meidav was selected for San Francisco’s 2000 Solo Mio Festival, where she performed “When You’re Down, You’re Up: A Guide to an American Yiddish Family.”
Outside recognition came in the form of a California Arts Council Playwrights Fellowship in 1991-92, granted for “Delicate Pin Stripes and Other Tales,” a two-act solo performance script that chronicled sexual harassment in the workplace, and was performed at La Val’s. “Delicate Pin Stripes” was also a finalist in the 1992 San Francisco Bay Guardian Playwrights Contest. Brookside’s series of short plays — including Meidav’s “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Computer” — won the honor of “Best Collected Shorts” at the 2003 San Francisco Fringe Festival.”
Not only did she provide guidance and countless opportunities to Bay Area actors, but also Meidav herself appeared on Bay Area stages in both contemporary and classical productions. She got her start on stage under the tutelage of Stanley Spenger, who at the time was running the Subterranean Shakespeare company and cast her in several parts. It was the start of a 30-year theater partnership in which they would trade off the roles of director, actor, producer and the like.
Among the many roles that Meidav played in various productions, her favorites included Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie,” Volumina in “Coriolanus,” the Dukes in “As You Like It,” Gertrude in “Hamlet” and as the Nurse in the original play “Phaedra,” by Berkeley playwright Deborah Rogin. She trained in both London and the San Francisco Bay Area in contemporary and classical stage acting, and in cutting edge solo performance as practiced by such luminaries as Jean Shelton, Phil Bennett, Ray Reinhardt, Bill Talen, Irene Maria Fornes, Nina Wise, Corey Fischer and Ann Galjour.
Meidav’s expansive, book-filled home in the shadow of the Claremont Hotel was an intellectual hub for Berkeley’s cognoscenti and the site of a regular series of soirées, in which she would stage presentations of her students’ short plays with the help of working actors, much to the delight of the lucky East Bay residents who snagged an invitation to these private staged readings.
Meidav was as much a fan of Bay Area theater as she was a practitioner of theater arts. She held season subscriptions for decades to the major theater companies in the core Bay Area, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to attend back-to-back productions on a given weekend. She fed her keen intellect with a voracious reading habit, often staying up to the wee hours to devour countless novels, short story collections, poetry collections in Hebrew and English, and her beloved New York Times and the New Yorker magazine.
Meidav’s husband Tsvi Meidav passed away some 10 years ago. She is survived by her three children, including novelist Edie Meidav, daughter Tamar, son Josh Meidav (Daphne) and four grandchildren, Shira, Danilo, Eliana and Dalia.
Donations can be made to the Mae Z. Meidav Theater Fund, to fund theater education for underserved youth and to support emerging playwrights and actors.