Berkeley Rep managing director Susie Medak is stepping down after 3 decades

A self-described “animal of the theater,” Medak will depart Berkeley Rep in August. She’ll pursue executive coaching.

Berkeley Rep managing director Susie Medak in her Berkeley backyard. Credit: Daphne White

Berkeley Repertory Theatre managing director Susie Medak is leaving the company after 32 years. She’ll depart in August, at the end of the theater’s 53rd season.

Medak has had a remarkable career at the Rep.

A self-described “animal of the theater,” she moved to Berkeley from Chicago in 1990 to become the Rep’s second managing director. Under her leadership, Berkeley Rep oversaw the opening of the 600-seat Roda Theatre in 2001, the renovation of the 400-seat Peet’s Theatre in 2016, and the creation of the School of Theatre in 2001, which provides classes and workshops for 20,000 youth, teens and adults annually. In 2012, Medak helped create The Ground Floor, which champions the voices of new playwrights.

Known nationally in the theater community, Medak has served on the boards of numerous organizations, including six years as president of the League of Resident Theaters. Locally, she co-founded the Berkeley Cultural Trust, served as chair of the Downtown Berkeley Association and helped create Berkeley’s Downtown Arts District.

When ticket sales evaporated at the start of shelter-in-place, Berkeley Rep lost 75% of its revenue, and Medak described the last year and a half as a “ghastly” time in which she was forced to lay off people she’d known for 30 years. As the pandemic progressed, she turned her energies toward collaboration with other ailing arts organizations, co-founding the East Bay Cultural Alliance in an effort to make a joint plea for county funding.

Known for her tough love (which she says is more “love” than “tough”), she will now continue her side job as an executive coach. She said Berkeley Rep is her “last theater.”

“Susie’s legacy will be in the generations of artists, artisans and organizational leaders she has championed over the years, and whose impact on this art form is immeasurable,” artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer said in a statement. “It’s hard to picture Berkeley Rep without her, but we will move forward holding fast to her commitment to the people of this company and this community.”

Board president Emily Shanks is leading Berkeley Rep’s search for a successor, in partnership with the Arts Consulting Group.

In a conversation with Berkeleyside, Medak spoke about how she found a career in theater, why she moved to the Bay Area and what it’s been like to manage Berkeley Rep for over three decades. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to come here in the first place and what was Berkeley Rep like when you started?

I was a theater major in college. In my sophomore year, I was offered a job at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and I took a year off from college. It was a great choice because it let me know that I was a better manager than an actress. It opened the door to how I could be impactful in the field.

After the Guthrie, I worked at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. I then ran smaller theater companies for several years, and they wear down your soul. I became close with Mitzi Sales [then managing director at Berkeley Rep] when she and I were two of the few women at the League of Resident Theaters.

In 1990, when Mitzi called me and told me she was leaving her job in Berkeley, I was running a theater in Chicago, living there with my husband and our new baby. Our babysitter from Chattanooga told me that ‘If God wants me to move to California, you are going to take that job.’ Until my babysitter told me that God might want me to move, I hadn’t considered it!

So, we all moved out here. The babysitter moved, too. Then all of our Midwestern family started coming out here, and now I have a huge local family.

How have you been changed or affected by Berkeley?

I know that I am so different from having moved here. We became a solid company then, but we also became comfortable taking risks and being opportunistic. That had to do with being in the Bay Area. I’ve absorbed Bay Area values.

How is the workload split between you and the artistic director?

Theoretically, the artistic director selects the plays and is responsible for engaging the artists and establishing an artistic vision of the organization. The managing director has historically been responsible for strategic planning, finance, organizational culture, fundraising, and marketing. The two places of crossover are the physical productions and the school. But it’s never a nice clean line. Joanna [Pfaelzer, the current artistic director] and I talk daily about a range of things, including the art.

My interest in money is only because it helps us make art and theater. I’m an animal of the theater. That’s what I do.

Have things been different under the aegis of the three artistic directors?

Yes, very different. Many managers never find a partner they love. I’ve loved them all and been proud to work with them.

Under Sharon Ott, we went from being an actors’ company to a director’s company. She was very ambitious and had already brought a show to New York. The Rep was building its reputation and had an exciting and incredibly loyal audience. Sharon was shifting from classics to new works by a diverse body of artists. The company wasn’t at the top of its game, but a plan was in place.

The primacy of the directorial eye was profound under Sharon’s term. She hired Tony Taccone as her associate and had an uncanny capacity to program for the moment. Her ambition brought Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith and Mary Zimmerman out here.

Tony, who replaced her as artistic director when she moved to Seattle in 1997, shifted even further to new work. We built the infrastructure for new work, and ultimately, we established the Ground Floor’s new play development as a structural entity within our institution. With Tony, budgets increased, and we built a much higher profile in New York and around the country doing co-productions.

What are the highs and lows over this long period?

Without a doubt, the last year and a half have been ghastly. It’s not the way I wanted to end my career here. I spent a lot of time worrying about whether the theater would survive. Had the government not given money to us, we would not exist. Having to lay off people just ripped me up. That time period brought out anger and awful uncertainty.

And you were the face of the bad news?

Yes, Johanna had just arrived as the new artistic director, and I had been here for 30 years. It felt very personal, and it was very hard. I haven’t said this to anyone before. … It was simply horrible.

I’m sorry. Let’s move to the good stuff. Can you name productions that you’re incredibly proud of and have stood the test of time?

Our production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land [2013] is one of the great ones of my life. All of Mary Zimmerman’s and Emma Rice’s works have beautiful visual and lyrical sensibilities. Even though it was a mess, Sharon Ott’s production of the adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior [1984] was amazing. Ott’s show of Tony Kushner’s The Illusion [1991] was exquisite in its sophistication. American Idiot [2009] blew my mind. When I saw Ain’t Too Proud [2017] recently, I couldn’t believe that we had made it. The world premiere of Fraulein Else [2003], adapted from the novella by Arthur Schnitzler, was sweet and small and lovely.

How important are the behind-the-scenes crafts?

Theater is not just about imagination; it’s also about craft — the artisans, shops, writers, directors, and actors. People might not have loved every show we did, but they are always respectful of the quality of the work. That has made me so very proud. Accounting, tailoring, carpenters, everyone is exceptionally good at what they do.

Are you sticking around here?

Yes, but this is my last theater. I teach at Hass’ Executive Leadership Institute in the MBA program. I got certified as an executive coach at the Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute at Haas during the lockdown. I have a few clients and hope for more. 

Last question: What do you and the Rep think of reviews?

Easy — they are about commerce and ticket sales. I’ve said to you before, I think, that you really are an astute observer and have written fine reviews. A lot of people aren’t particularly good critics. But most artists evaluate things on their own terms. Sometimes you learn from critics, but you learn more from audiences.

They vote with their feet?

And you can hear an audience responding. A new play is like a child. You can’t be objective in the moment … maybe months or years later. Every play is great on opening night. After it closes, maybe the good playwrights learn something. But a critic can help build a thoughtful and open-minded audience.

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.