BWW Interview: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Artistic Director Robert Kelley Talks About Winning The 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley was honored at the Tony Awards this past Sunday with the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award, the highest honor that an American theater company not on Broadway can achieve.
In this interview with BWW's Linda Hodges, Robert Kelley talks about what it was like to be in NYC receiving the Tony, plus TheatreWorks SV's dedication to diversity and his hopes for the future of the Tony-winning regional theatre company. BWW also had a surprise congratulatory note for him!
Read below to find out who it's from!
BWW: First of all, congratulations to you and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for this phenomenal win! What was it like to be at the Tony's to receive this great honor?
KELLEY: What a thrill it was! Outside the enormous Radio City Music Hall all I could think was: "It doesn't get any better, or scarier, than this." But as we entered, there was Montego Glover hosting the red-carpet live stream broadcast. She was the star of TheatreWorks' world premiere of Memphis, which won the Tony Award for "Best Musical" in 2010. And when our time came to receive the Tony Award, Danny Burstein, co-star of the upcoming Broadway production of Moulin Rouge, was the presenter. He was the hilarious star of our world premiere of Everything's Ducky some years back. With old friends everywhere I turned, I could relax and thank the many thousands of artists and audiences who had grown TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for 50 amazing years.
KELLEY: We all arrived on different days. I came in early in the week for the Tony Award special awards presentation but left for home the next day to be at the first two previews of Rajiv Joseph's comic drama Archduke, the regional premiere that is concluding our 49th season. Then back to New York on Thursday to see a few shows and try to memorize my Award speech. Fortunately, I learned that there would be a teleprompter, although my next few nights were filled with nightmares of it breaking down as I spoke.
BWW: That was my first thought when you mentioned "teleprompter!" But everything went well. It was a thrill to watch you up there. This special Tony truly acknowledges the great work being done at TheatreWorks and in regional theatres across the country.
Why do you think it's important to highlight regional theatre?
KELLEY: Astonishing, groundbreaking work is being done in regional theatres across America every day. We nurture the art and artists of Broadway's future. The 2010 Tony Award Best Musical Memphis began at TheatreWorks, and quite a few of this year's nominees have worked with us. Actor Alex Brightman, star of Beetlejuice, began his career at TheatreWorks at age 9!
BWW: Wow, I didn't know that Brightman got his start here in the bay area. It's definitely an area rich in talent and creativity.
KELLEY: Other productions nominated this year were developed by our sister Bay Area company Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The interactive relationship between Broadway and America's regional theatres has never been stronger.
BWW: I think that's due, in no small measure, to the quality of the theatre companies we have here. TheatreWorks has some staying power. You founded what would become TheatreWorks in 1970.
Did you have any inkling back then that you'd helm the endeavor this long and this successfully?
KELLEY: When we began, my personal dream was to somehow work in theatre for the rest of my life. But when our first show actually opened, I determined that I would be part of TheatreWorks for the rest of my life. Since then, TheatreWorks has been a dream coming true over and over again, a dream shared by thousands of theatre-makers first from across the Bay Area, and eventually from across America.
BWW: In doing my homework for this interview I saw that diversity is listed in both your vision statement and in your list of Core Values. In fact, from the very beginning diversity was important to TheatreWorks.
KELLEY: Our first show in 1970 ended with a soaring anthem sung by Terri White, an African American woman who went on to a Broadway career. In the 1980s we became a Bay Area leader in culturally specific programming, non-traditional casting, and the employment of artists of color, a commitment that continues today.
BWW: TheatreWorks SV has definitely been a diversity leader in the theatre community! Not only for people of color but also for women. Though gender parity is still an issue the American Theatre Wing, again, you're leading the way.
KELLEY: Our artistic programming has been strong for women writers and composers, and many female directors have found an artistic home here--their number has grown substantially in the last decade. I still remember fondly directing the premiere of Jeanine Tesori's first musical decades ago.
Diversity? Let me put it this way: we are the only company in America to feature two shows In the same season about lesbian women working in both white and African American funeral homes: Fun Home and Marie and Rosetta.
BWW: That's phenomenal! It's yet another reason why this Tony win is so well-deserved.
What do you think diversity and inclusion have meant to up-and-coming actors and playwrights of color whom you've worked with?
KELLEY: Last week three extraordinary African American actresses joined us for a pre-Tony Awards gathering of TheatreWorks alums in New York. All three had begun their professional careers with us and were thrilled to share this special moment in our history. Prominent Asian American actor Francis Jue was there with similar memories. Later, as I sat in the audience of the Tony Awards on Sunday night, I realized how much had dramatically changed for the better for performers of color in the American theatre over the past 50 years. I'm proud to know that TheatreWorks was a leader in creating that change.
BWW: TheatreWorks truly reflects the diverse cultures and people in the bay area. I'm thinking, for example of The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga as well as Stephen Schwartz' The Prince of Egypt.
KELLEY: Both of those shows showcased very diverse casts, and we are proud to have nurtured and advanced the careers of many artists of color for half a century.
BWW: I have a surprise for you from Stephen Schwartz and his biographer, Carol de Giere. When Stephen, along with his son, director Scott Schwartz and playwright Philip LaZebnik were here at TheatreWorks, Carol de Grier hosted a luncheon with the three of them and their many fans!
Carol de Giere sends her congratulations and said that "Because TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has cultured a steady audience for new works, musical theater writers consider themselves lucky if their show is accepted into a season there."
And Stephen Schwartz writes: "I've had the privilege of working with Kelley several times through his years at TheatreWorks, both in his capacity as director and artistic director. Every time I've done so, he has been that rare combination of smart, possessing a sharp and specific critical eye, and supportive, so that his suggestions and contributions always felt positive and creative. My most recent experience with him on the premiere of The Prince of Egypt was no exception. I greatly admire what he has achieved at TheatreWorks, making it a home where new work and new artists can flourish." Stephen Schwartz
KELLEY: Working with Stephen has been a highlight of my 50 years at TheatreWorks. We've produced eight of his shows and I've directed five of them, each a cherished memory. I've found great inspiration in the honesty, compassion, and joy of his brilliant work. The chance to create the world premiere of The Prince of Egypt at TheatreWorks was an unforgettable gift to all of us.
BWW: What will this Tony Award mean for TheatreWorks going forward?
KELLEY: The Tony Award has already advanced our national reputation for creating new work. As a result, we hope to see many more actors, playwrights, and composers eager to bring their art to TheatreWorks in years to come. Locally, we hope to see new and excited audiences emerging from Silicon Valley and throughout the Bay Area.
BWW: You're set to retire in 2020, 50 years after you founded TheatreWorks.
What do you wish for TheatreWorks in the next 25 years?
KELLEY: A brilliant career of leadership and art from our next Artistic Director; exceptional new works; a happy and committed staff and Board of Trustees; overflowing audiences; And of course, many more Tony Awards!
BWW: And lastly, where will the Tony be kept?
KELLEY: Most of the time under my pillow, but occasionally on display at our home theatres in Palo Alto and Mountain View, California.