In 1970, a year after graduating from Stanford, Robert Kelley shelved plans to teach English, and instead founded TheatreWorks. The very first play the Palo Alto company presented — the rock musical “Popcorn” — was a world premiere.
On Aug. 25, Kelley is expected to make his traditional warm and informal pre-curtain appearance – complete with grey beard and ponytail, in jeans – in the company's second home, Mountain View's Center for the Performing Art. He will introduce another premiere there – the 50th in TheatreWorks' 38 seasons.
The new work is “Emma,” a musical by Paul Gordon, whose Broadway production of “Jane Eyre” was nominated for a Tony Award. Based on Jane Austen's 1816 novel, “Emma” tells the story of an impetuous young society woman (Lianne Marie Dobbs) whose matchmaking on behalf of the awkward friend Harriet (Dani Marcus) creates havoc for all, including her father (George Ward), her friend (Timothy Gulan), and the prospect for Harriet (Brian Herndon). Kelley directs “Emma,” as he has most of TheatreWorks' plays, including a near-complete cycle of Stephen Sondheim's musicals.
While acknowledging that “50 world premieres is a milestone,” Kelley adds a cocky “We’re already charting our path to 100.” From others, that may sound bravado; from Kelley, it's a promise to take seriously.
A special aspect of the milestone, Kelley says, is that the premieres are the products of “thousands of amazing artists who collaborated in their creation. New work has always been a core value at TheatreWorks, [developed through] our nationally-known New Works Festival.”
The company's amazing record of innovation — including 123 U.S. and regional premieres — is matched by few theater troupes (one being a neighbor, San Francisco's Magic Theater), even fewer in the commercially-successful status TheatreWorks has accomplished.
This prominent member of the League of Regional Theaters employs 300 artists annually, including Equity and non-Equity actors, directors and designers. Its year-around seasons in Mountain View and Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theater attract more than 100,000 patrons each year.
What is Kelley's secret? He says it's “a perfect match of artistic commitment and community involvement, being gifted with a Silicon Valley community attuned to new ideas, excited by the prospect of innovation, and invigorated by the entrepreneurial spirit. Our passion for new work is mirrored by a legion of adventuresome subscribers and donors who share our belief that creating new theater is not only an opportunity but an obligation.”
And yet, the same community whose support Kelley credits for the company's success has undergone a great crisis in recent years. The Dot-com meltdown in 2000, followed by the impact of 9/11 a year later, made corporate funding and individual contributions dwindle. The fiscal crisis sounded the death knell for such organizations as the state's oldest orchestra, the San Jose Symphony. How did TheatreWorks come through that period?
Kelley acknowledges the problem that hit the art world at the beginning of the new century: “We were affected in many ways, for example, subscriptions declined as a number of subscribers moved out of the area altogether. Although we cut back in some areas, the company generally grew throughout this period, greatly increasing the number of Equity actors employed and continually improving the quality of productions on the stage. Important support from national, and especially state and local foundations, coupled with exceptional subscriber loyalty and individual donor giving provided a vital foundation for the company’s mainstage productions.
“It also supported the implementation of TheatreWorks’ New Works Initiative, which grew to national significance during this time and provided major world premieres for our season. Our education program also grew significantly from 2000-2005, adding two traveling school shows and an acclaimed new program at the Children's Hospital at Stanford.
“We believe the company remains strong because of the synergy between our mission of creating outstanding, innovative, and premiere theater and our community's commitment to innovative and entrepreneurial thinking in every aspect of life.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Previews at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; opens Saturday and runs Tuesdays through Sundays through Sept. 15
Tickets: $30 to $61
Contact: (650) 903-6000 or www.mvcpa.com