Interview: Robert Kelley of THE BOOK OF WILL at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Turns His Focus to Lauren Gunderson's Theatrical Love Letter after RAGTIME Is Postponed

By: Mar. 26, 2020
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Interview: Robert Kelley of THE BOOK OF WILL at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Turns His Focus to Lauren Gunderson's Theatrical Love Letter after RAGTIME Is Postponed
Robert Kelley
Artistic Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
(Photo by Kevin Berne)

It's a sad scenario that has been playing out in theaters all over the world for the past several weeks. How to reach the heart-breaking decision to cancel a show, knowing that you're about to put a team of people out of work and deprive your audience of some much-needed solace at this critical time? BroadwayWorld spoke with Robert Kelley, Artistic Director of the Tony-winning TheatreWorks Silicon Valley on March 13th, the morning after the company had decided to postpone their much-anticipated production of "Ragtime" until Spring 2021 and prematurely end the run of "They Promised Her the Moon." The good news, at least for now, is that TheatreWorks is still moving ahead with its final play of the season, Lauren Gunderson's "The Book of Will," set to open in early June. Kelley describes it as a love letter to the theater.

The conversation had originally been intended as a celebratory sneak peek at "Ragtime," the final musical Kelley would direct before stepping down as the founding Artistic Director of TheatreWorks after an astonishing 50-year run in that role. Instead, it ended up being a more complicated snapshot of a specific moment in time. Kelley was alternately sorrowful, practical and sanguine. He has been at this game for a very long time and has learned how to weather significant setbacks by always, always focusing on the future. After half a century at the helm of TheatreWorks, his belief in the power of theater remains unshakable and his joy in the work is palpable. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This is obviously a difficult time for everybody, but performing arts organizations have the extra challenge of how to manage the knock-on effects to the remainder of their seasons. How did TheatreWorks ultimately reach the decision to postpone "Ragtime" for a year?

We've been watching the developments and checking with county officials, the cities that we're in, who control the theaters that we use. It was a real moving target; things were different every day. We started by instituting easy exchange privileges for patrons who might not want to come, because we had a show running at the time, "They Promised Her the Moon." But as things changed so rapidly, we finally started the process of imagining cancelling either one or both of our shows that were coming up. "Ragtime" was just in rehearsal throughout this last week, very successfully, with a wonderful cast. We were having a great time and were on our way to a wonderful production, with huge teams working in our shops to create the scenery and the costumes - there are close to a hundred costumes in the show - just a big undertaking. But as things started to change, we realized that it wasn't something that you could just sort of adjust to, you needed to take some very significant steps to protect the public and to certainly protect our audiences and the performers and crew. So yesterday we finalized our decision to close, more or less at the same time that Broadway was closing and that the theater in which we would be performing "Ragtime" was also closing through the end of this month.

Was it ever an option to delay it for a shorter period, or was that just not realistic, given the particulars of your situation?

Well, we don't own our theaters, so each time we have a run, when it's over something else is going to be in that theater, so it's not like you can just punch it ahead on your schedule. It's much, much more complicated in our situation. We gave a little bit of thought to moving it into our final slot when we're doing "The Book of Will," but that show's one we deeply believe in also, and it's also underway. It's mostly cast and the designs are getting started. When we had the idea that we might simply move "Ragtime" into the next season at the same time of year and offer our existing cast the roles that they were currently playing, that would at least allow us the possibility of preserving what was shaping up to be a wonderful experience. We all really believe in the show "Ragtime." We feel that it really expresses the values and issues that have defined TheatreWorks over half a century now, so we just didn't want to lose it no matter what.

I'm retiring at the end of June, but our wonderful incoming new artistic director Tim Bond, as part of this decision to move the show, also asked me to direct it next year. And - and lo and behold - I was free! [laughs] Of course I was thrilled, so in some ways this is an artistic dream deferred, but still to happen.

The other thing is our cast's availability in the immediate future was not certain. These are actors who have other jobs; this is how they make their living. We felt like maybe given this amount of lead time, you know maybe short of starring on Broadway, which some of them have, they may be able to make room in their schedules to bring it back next year with the same group. It was certainly disappointing for our young actors who in many cases this was their first professional production. Their age ranges from I think 11 to 15 and it was something they had completely altered their lives to do at a professional level. That was the saddest part of this transition. It was sad for all off us, but the one thing we all agreed on is that the meetings we were having, the conversations we were having, the tears that were flowing, were happening literally at exactly the same time all over America, in the world of American theater. And so we had to pull the plug.

Last night, we had a gathering of the cast of "They Promised Her the Moon" which was basically a goodbye because their show was coming to a halt two and a half weeks early. They'd had some lovely reviews and the cast was just bonded beautifully, in fact the cast and the crew were bonded together in a wonderful family of theater artists, and that was its own sad time. But all we could think of was our brother and sister theaters all over the country, and certainly here in the Bay Area where casts of many theaters were having to say goodbye.

"Ragtime" is one of my all-time favorite shows. What led you to choose it as the musical capstone to your tenure as Artistic Director? What is it about the show that resonates so deeply for you?

"Ragtime" is set in a very special period of time, for me at least. I'm a history buff and it's the era that is the first fifteen years, say, of the last century when so many things happened all at one time, things that would change America, but also that defined America in ways that have remained particularly relevant through another 110 years. The invention or the advent of automobiles and airplanes and motion pictures were all happening at one time, the strength of the women's movement that eventually would lead to women's suffrage being passed was alive already in the country throughout this period.

And certainly it was an era of massive immigration to the United States, especially from Europe, but really from everywhere, and that would change all of us as well. As we were meeting our cast and talking about the show, the number of people who had relatives who had come through Ellis Island was kind of astonishing, and in this exact period. Also immigration was a huge feature of the impending strength of America, but also a trigger for prejudice against members of the Jewish faith, people of different ethnicities, from different countries. We were seeing a kind of discrimination based on place of origin or religious affiliation, and racial discrimination was a huge part of it. It was the era of Jim Crow getting really getting started more strongly than ever and a disastrous prejudice permeated a lot of the country.

And the final part of it is this wage discrepancy between the very poor and the very rich that we talk about now so freely was a [major issue in] America in that era. We were emerging from the industrial revolution decades before and there were great, great fortunes made, but often at the expense of labor.

We've done a lot of plays in this area, and I think it's because those are the issues that still resonate today, and in many cases more strongly than ever over the last five years or so. That really led me to feel that this was the ultimate show to be my final musical at TheatreWorks as the artistic director, but also the final musical statement of our 50th anniversary season. In fact, the actual birth date, the founding of TheatreWorks, was on April 1st 1970 and that would have been the night of our first preview for "Ragtime."

Looking ahead, lets talk about "The Book of Will." Are you still hoping that show will happen this season?

We're still planning to do "The Book of Will" in June and we're in the process of assembling a wonderful cast for it. Jim Carpenter and Aldo Billingslea are going to be in it and a bunch of other folks that I've worked with over the years that I think are gonna make that a very, very special show. We put it on the season in part because we love [playwright] Lauren Gunderson and she's a local artist, but also because it is this gigantic celebration, a love letter to the theater and to the people who make it. It's about the people in Shakespeare's company making the first folio, seeing to it that that work would continue at theaters forever.

Last night when I got home after we'd cancelled two shows, with the image of our wonderful young actors in tears still in my mind, what I turned to is to focus on celebrating theater that can cover decades and centuries, and realize that this is you know a bump in the road, a setback, not just for our productions but for so many hundreds of them around the country. And to do what we always do, which is start the next one.

For us theatergoers, too, this is a demoralizing time. Just knowing that we still have something to look forward to even this season at TheatreWorks gives us some hope.

Oh, yeah. Cross your fingers! We're starting work on the summer shows, too, so auditions for those get underway in a couple of weeks. So it's exciting!

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of The Book of Will is scheduled to run June 3rd through 28th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA. For information or to order tickets visit theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960.



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