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BWW Interview: Tim Bond of VOICES OF DEMOCRACY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Harnesses the Power of Theater to Bring Us All Together

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TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's new Artistic Director discusses the online initiative to get out the vote and advocate for racial justice

BWW Interview: Tim Bond of VOICES OF DEMOCRACY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Harnesses the Power of Theater to Bring Us All Together
Tim Bond, Artistic Director
of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
(Photo by Hillary Jeanne Photography)

When TheatreWorks Silicon Valley announced way back in November 2019 that beginning in July 2020 Tim Bond would succeed founder Robert Kelley as only the second Artistic Director in its storied 50-year history, that choice appeared to be an excellent one. Bond has decades of experience in a variety of leadership roles in the theater, across the country and internationally, and as an African American has long sought to expand the theatrical community to include opportunities for everyone. Fast forward to late 2020, with its many crises, challenges and attendant opportunities - and, well, Bond's hiring seems downright prescient. He is clearly the right person for the job.

Under Bond's leadership, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has just launched an ambitious new online initiative entitled Voices of Democracy, with the intention of encouraging audiences to get out the vote and stand up for racial justice. Leading up to the 2020 election, Voices of Democracy offers digital theatrical experiences that celebrate diverse voices and build a bridge from empathy to action, including plays, poetry, and curated quotes that shine a light on pressing issues during this election year. It will also feature an interview with Tony Award winner & TheatreWorks alum James Monroe Iglehart (Broadway's Aladdin and Hamilton). The initiative culminates with Jeanne Sakata's Hold These Truths, filmed during the 2018 TheatreWorks production. Starring Joel de la Fuente ("Madam Secretary," "The Man in the High Castle"), Hold These Truths shares the story of a Japanese American who passionately defends his Constitutional rights against an unexpected adversary: his own country. Hold These Truths is available via video streaming through November 3, 2020, and access is offered on a sliding scale. Further details about the entire Voices of Democracy program, most of which is available free of charge, can be found at

I recently caught up with Tim Bond to learn more about Voices of Democracy and his own history before coming to TheatreWorks. Bond is a fascinating guy to talk to so our conversation took all kinds of interesting twists and turns. A true people person, he is especially committed to using theater to build community and effect change. In conversation, he often takes his time to respond to questions and is apt to speak in complex sentences that show a great deal of thought. He is not someone who needs to shout to make his voice heard and frequently leavens his responses with gentle laughter. At once brainy and comfortable expressing his emotions, Bond is clearly a person of heart and mind (to paraphrase Joni Mitchell!). The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I can't imagine what the past several months have been like for you. I mean, you get hired into this great new job, TheatreWorks gives you plenty of planning time and a healthy overlap period with Robert Kelley. And then - suddenly the whole world undergoes a tectonic shift and you start your tenure in the midst of simultaneous challenges that there's really no playbook for. So, given all that - how are you doing these days?

[laughs] Well, I'm pleased that you have an inkling of what my life has been like. It's certainly been very challenging. I think the really good thing is all the planning TheatreWorks did to create the opportunity for overlap with Kelley. Really from January all the way up til June I was on the phone with him, in meetings with him, in Zoom sessions, and having private conversations with him. Now it's about every two weeks we connect. That really has given me a strong footing in the history and the direction the company's been going in and has helped tremendously given the fact that the ground has been shifting in so many ways. And it's a great staff and Phil Santora's a terrific Executive Director with 13 years here. There's been great partnership and support, and the board had done a lot to fundraise around the end of Kelley's time. All those factors have given us a lot of solidity in a really uncertain time.

But - it certainly was not the way I had planned to start. [laughs] The hardest thing has been not being able to spend time with board and staff in person. I mean, Zoom is a useful device, but it doesn't substitute for being in the same room, being able to shake people's hands and hug people, the things we do in the theater that really build connection and relationships.

And the other piece is the audience, like when am I going to get a chance to really meet our audience and feel how they respond to the work? That's tough. I had been at several TheatreWorks shows while I was going through the process of interviewing so I've got a sense of it, but I'm hungry for that and looking forward to it. We've gotten really good response to our online programming and the readings we've put out there. I've been on Zoom webinars with audiences after they've seen things and gotten the chance to read their body language and hear some of their comments. But I'm a "molecule guy," like I want to be in the same space and feel that thing. But we'll get there, we'll get there.

Tell me about Voices of Democracy. It's the first major public-facing effort under your leadership as Artistic Director so I imagine it's something you're personally very passionate about. How was the project conceived and what does it encompass?

Yeah, I'm very passionate about Voices of Democracy and excited that we've been able to get it going. I really wanted it to be happening as we were leading up to the election, but it will also continue past that time. As an artist and a citizen, I have a lot of concerns about racism and the way social media has affected people's rudeness and lack of kindness, and how voices are being suppressed and voting is being suppressed throughout the country, and how that's chipping away at our democracy. I feel like theater is one of the ultimate democratic know platforms for interconnection between people of different backgrounds. The whole pluralistic idea of America, that's the great experiment, what we're about as a country. Not being able to have in-person theater really triggered in me the need to say "How can I pull us together around the idea of democracy, around racial justice and getting out the vote?"- which are the pillars of our democracy, to me.

We're going to do some plays, and I'm really excited about Hold These Truths, an encore production of that, which is about a guy who's fighting for his constitutional and human rights, and fighting the systemic racism that came down on Japanese Americans in World War II with the internment camps. It's a very important and beautiful play for right now to remind us that we need to stand up for ourselves and have a voice, and to bring unity back to this country.

We have a slam poet piece by Beau Sia, called "Courage Rising," and we're doing some Langston Hughes poetry. I love the short form of poetry and how it triggers our imaginations and gives voice to individuals and to groups and can be a rallying cry for unity. And it will give actors some work, who are [otherwise] out of work right now. I started looking at some quotes about democracy from different great leaders and regular old citizens, and put those in the mouths of actors, again to remind us of all that.

Then we're connecting to some other theater companies. I'm hoping TheatreWorks will continue to expand in the years to come, partnering with communities from diverse backgrounds and different civic organizations within the Silicon Valley, but also nationally and internationally with other theater companies who are of like mind. We're going to be presenting a couple of other pieces that we think will be really great around the whole question of democracy right now, one that Berkeley Rep is doing called It Can't Happen Here, adapted from the [novel by] Sinclair Lewis, and another around Fannie Lou Hamer that the Goodman is doing. It deals with civil rights and giving voice and the vote to African Americans, which is under siege again right now.

And we've got the Women's Equality Day Project still running. We started that just a few weeks before we rolled out the whole initiative, but we didn't have everything else in place yet, so we didn't announce it that way. It's on our website with everything else for Women's Equality Day and Women's Suffrage and the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

All these are geared to getting out the vote, but also to looking at our long-term commitment to our democracy and promoting racial justice, so the actors in these pieces come from very diverse backgrounds. And we've got Tony-Award-winning James Iglehart, who's going to be speaking on racial justice. He'll be very familiar to our audiences and was kind enough to give an interview with Robert Kelley a few weeks ago. So - we've got a lot!

One of the tenets of the racial justice movement is that it is not up to folks of color to solve the problem, and yet here you find yourself as a Black man in a leadership role overseeing just that kind of effort. In practice, how are you reconciling those two things?

Well, it's not new to me [laughs] - either this position or the responsibility that I bear, which I'm happy to take on. The way I look at it is to help be a catalyst and a guide for our audiences and for the rest of my staff and board to create the opportunities for connection to issues around racial justice, to set a vision for folks to aspire to, and to set a process of interrogation and evaluation of all the systems and policies within the TheatreWorks universe to see how we can make progress. I felt before I took the job, and I still feel very clearly, in the hearts of the people who I meet and who I'm working with, a real belief in and will to become anti-racist, and to continue to embrace the human spirit, which is built into our mission, in all of its permutations. And that is something I feel I've been given this incredible opportunity to help lead.

It's been really good and it's gonna be painful, it's gonna be challenging, but it's something we're grappling with as an entire society. And if not the theater, who should be leading that? We're the most human artform, the most collaborative artform, and potentially the most diverse artform there is. I've been involved in these questions and issues on a national level for a very long time and I'm excited to be able to help lead the charge here.

Like most theater companies right now, TheatreWorks is undergoing an intense re-examination of its practices across the organization. Even though you're still relatively early in that process, do you have some initial ideas about specific things that might need to change at TheatreWorks?

Well, we're all looking at all these things. TheatreWorks has a pretty good history on non-traditional casting and -

Certainly, I've noticed that as an audience member.

-and on producing plays that have dealt with people from diverse backgrounds and told those stories. That work will continue. I'm hoping in our commissioning process and new works development we will continue to open those windows and welcome in more and more artists from many different points of view and cultures into our process of new play development and new musicals. I think that as we continue to build ourselves and evolve, our staff becomes more diverse, our board finds ways to reflect more of the diversity of the Bay Area and our nation, and our donor base reflects more cultural diversity. I hope that in our audiences we find a way to welcome and support a much wider diversity of folks than we have on any given night.

I think there's a lot of capacity there, a lot of work to be done - exciting work that can transform the culture of the organization into becoming the celebrator of all human's spirits, in a way that is reflective of what Kelley began 50 years ago when he did Popcorn. He had a diverse group of young people telling a story about what was going on right at that moment in the upheaval of our society, in the civil rights and anti-Viet Nam War era and the culture wars that were going on then. That was reflected in the new musical Kelley started with, and that was really the germ, the DNA, that has been inside of this company. I'm looking at how we can open that up now so over the next 50 years we really become the full-blown version of that initial idea.

So that's what I'm doin'! [laughs]

Small task!

Just a small task, yeah. [laughs] Before I got here, a group had already formed, the IDEA Collective, which is about Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access and we're working with that group. Hopefully along with every other theater in this country right now we're looking at the "We See You White American Theatre" document and all the really urgent and realistic concerns and demands that are inside of that to see how we want to prioritize achieving what within our universe is going to begin to address some of those issues. We will be bringing on some outside consultancy to help us in that process, and to help us develop a language and way of working that can really begin to achieve becoming a multi-cultural theater, in culture and in practice.

Now, I'd like to learn a little more about you and how you came to this job. Where were you born and raised?

I grew up, until I was 13, in Toledo and Bowling Green, Ohio, then we moved to Sacramento. My dad was president of Cal State Sacramento in the 70's. I went to UCLA for a couple of years and then I transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. I ended up in Seattle for quite a while, then Ashland and Syracuse, and now I'm back here. So I've lived a lot of different places.

You're a Howard alum, as is Senator Kamala Harris, so I just have to ask. Any chance your paths ever crossed?

Unfortunately, not yet, but I would love to meet Kamala Harris. She came after my time. Howard was a transformational experience for me, and I sometimes say it did two things: it gave me my artistic voice and it kind of saved my life. You know it's very difficult when you're in a situation where you're the only African American. To be able to really find yourself and your voice, particularly as a young man, that was difficult. So going to Howard really, really helped me find my footing and my roots and my ancestral connections and my cultural voice, which really empowered me as an artist. I owe a lot to Howard. It was a great place. I'd love to chat with her about it sometime.

Well, now that you're in California, maybe you'll get that chance, although she might be really busy for a while. [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, but I've got some connections in D.C. My dad was actually in the Carter administration.

Was what his role there?

He was a deputy director of Selective Service. At the moment it changed from the draft to the current system, he helped draft that legislation. It was funny - he left Sacramento the same week that I decided to leave UCLA. We both decided to go to Washington, D.C, totally independent of each other. It was one of those karmic sort of kismet moments that will always stay with me. I called him up and said, "Dad, I want to leave UCLA and I'd like to go to Howard." There was a big pause, and he said, "I can't believe that, Timothy." And I said, "Dad, Dad!" And he said, "No, I'm not disagreeing with you. I can't believe that cause I just turned in my resignation and accepted Jimmy Carter's offer to join with him in Washington, D.C. Your Mom and I are moving there in a few weeks, and I was just about to call you and tell you that." [laughs]

Black artistic directors are still unfortunately less common than they should be. Did you have any kind of "a-ha!" moments along the way that pointed you toward this path?

When I was in 4th grade, I played Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. [laughs] It was probably a shortened version, (I hope it was, you know!), maybe an hour long. I had the lines "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears." I said the line and I was really nervous of course, and the audience, I just felt all the air go out of the room and everyone kind of lean forward, and I thought "Wow! The spoken word onstage, this is so powerful." And then I flashed - I remember the moment very clearly - on Martin Luther King, who had just been assassinated a week earlier. I thought about the power he had from speaking and bringing people together and moving a whole, huge group of people in this country, and thinking about the power theater had. That is what sort of hooked me on a certain deep, subliminal level, realizing the power theater had to build democracy and civic action, and to take poetry and have it capture the human imagination.

So then, you know, I went on and was a kid and didn't think about it. A few shows later, eventually it sort of formed into "Oh, I really want to do this and I want to be a leader in it." That came later, but I remember that moment, thinking about Martin Luther King. I could hardly get the next line out, cause of course it emotionally hit me really hard, but it also kind of fueled the speech, you know? [laughs] Because we had just lost him. I mean, there were still riots in the streets at that time, as there should have been.

I also have to give kudos to a woman named Joyce Lord, who ran a company up in Grass Valley, in the foothills. I was an actor at that time, just coming out of high school and I acted there one summer in The Fantasticks and Oklahoma! The next year I was coming back and auditioned, and she took me aside and said, "I see something in you, and I actually want you to direct this summer." She gave me my own cabin and paid me to become a director at 19 years old. She mentored me into learning how to direct. I had to stay separate from all the other young people, like I instantly was put into a leadership position. So I learned a tremendous amount that summer as well. It took me a while to get to the place where I thought I could really do it and that I could actually lead a company, but that was the first sort of boost in my [career path]. I've been very lucky.

It was really important for me when I went to grad school at the University of Washington that they had a relationship with The Group Theatre, which was one of the nation's first multicultural theaters, founded in 1978. I arrived there in 1981 and had an internship with them for the 2 ½ years I was in grad school. The founding artistic director, Rubén Sierra, had cut his teeth with Teatro Campesino. Meeting him and seeing an artistic director who was a person of color who had a deep connection to his Mexican ancestry and to political theater, and to community, you know to really connecting to community and welcoming people of all different backgrounds, empowered me so much.

At the end of my first day, he took me on a tour around the theater and showed me his office and everything, and said, "So, what are your plans when you finish grad school?" I was a directing student getting my Master's, and I said, "I want your job!" [laughs] He just kind of looked at me funny and said, "Oh, really?!" And I said, "No, no - not now! You keep it as long as you want, but I want to do what you're doing." And he goes, "Oh, all right. Well, watch and learn, kid." And so I got mentored under him and it was, it was uh... I get a little choked up [audibly chokes up and takes time to let the emotion pass] - but it was really, really important to have a role model.

Then I met Lloyd Richards and spent time with George Wolfe and hung out with Ping Chong, and these are all leaders of color in the American theater. That really made an impact on me. And hanging out with August Wilson it was like you go, "OK, people can get to that other place. I see myself," vs. what I had been seeing. Therefore, I can do that.

I learned a lot of that from my dad as well. He was the first Black college president, of a major university that was not a historically black university, west of the Rockies. It was very rare in 1972 to have a Black college president, so I kind of grew up with a belief that if I wanted to, I could do something more, but also feeling I had a responsibility to do something more.

Artistic Director of TheatreWorks is a plum job and you're obviously eminently qualified for the role, but thinking back to the interview process, what about was it about this specific position at this specific organization that made you think, "This is the right job for me"?

Well, I've really thought about community my whole life, and I somehow could tell there was a family here of artists, and an audience that was a family. But I was curious about whether it had been able to open its doors enough to everyone from the community, in a larger gesture. I really hadn't spent any time in the Silicon Valley. I'd spent time in the Bay Area, but more in the City and on the East side, and I'd spent time in Santa Cruz. I spent two summers working down there when I was a teenager at Capitola. I worked at Henry Cowell Redwood State Park as a park aid.

There's this whole other high-tech thing that has happened in the interim throughout this area, and I thought leading a theater company here and getting folks from the tech community into that part of their imagination, enjoying the arts and the theater, and getting all the amazing diversity of people that live in this area to feel welcome and to have a reciprocal relationship, a partnership, with the theater would be the next step after these amazing first 50 years of TheatreWorks. That could mean something, and that felt like a project I would like to take part in.

I felt the heart of the people as soon as I came into the room with the staff, and when I met the board and so forth. I felt a similar heart as when I went into the Group Theater in Seattle, that company I first started in. I thought, "This is gonna tap into what I can offer, and I'm gonna grow from that experience. I think this is a good match. It's building on something that's already been really good, and that is moving in this direction." So that's really what did it for me, I think.

I can't imagine what it's like to take over from a predecessor who founded the organization and then led it for 50 years. Given your overlap period with Kelley, I assume you've gotten to know him pretty well. In your approach to the role, how do you think the two of you are similar, and how might you be different?

Kelley is an amazing person. He's got an incredible intellect, he has got a huge heart, he's really smart about the theater. [When] he reads a script, he gives the best analysis of a play I've ever read. He has built this theater around him, so no matter who was going to come in after him, they're going to be different. Because the theater is built around its founder, the entire way the theater has operated is based on one evolving model over the last 50 years. I've been doing this for 35 years, and I think the fact that I have run several other theaters and have directed in dozens of theaters, nationally and internationally, I have a lot of different models that I've been exposed to, which inevitably means that what I'm gonna do is gonna have a different flavor than what Kelley does.

Because I don't have a lot of ego - others might think I do, but I don't think I do - I love collaboration. I'm really interested in empowering disenfranchised voices, in terms of the kinds of artists I like to bring in, the kinds of communities I want to reach out to, and the people on the staff that I work with. I want to have them bring all off themselves to the table and empower their voices. The way I work is very, very collaborative and less about what I think only. Kelley has great taste and a great vision, and ultimately things have fit into the way he sees them, which is fair and good. I'm interested in figuring out the way the community as a whole thinks and figuring out how we can approach it. I'm sure Kelley thought those same things, but I think the way that I do that will be a little different than the way he may have. Which is absolutely no criticism of his way, or an aggrandizement of what I'm doing. It's just the only way I know how to work. [laughs]

The thing I really found is our hearts are very much in the same place. When we're talking, one of us will say something and we'll both sort of well up with tears at the same moment, we'll both laugh in the same moment. We have a similarity of what matters to us, what we care about. How we get at it, what we might like about one piece of art versus another, I'm sure is a little bit different, but what it's trying to say and what it touches in the human condition, I feel we have a similarity there.

Out of the countless plays and productions you've been involved in over the years, as an actor or director, what is one that felt most like it was an expression of your authentic self? I'm not asking which was your favorite or the best or most successful, but which felt the most like you?

Hmmm... That's a really tricky question cause I'm kind of an ethereal person in that I live from project to project and from human to human that I meet. I'm a chameleon in that sense. And there are so many plays that have done that...

Can you pick one that fits the bill?

One that was very special for me was Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson. The lead character (whose name is Citizen, kind of getting back to Voices of Democracy!) goes through a spiritual transformation, comes into himself, and leaves with a mission to go out and help create opportunities for freedom for others. It really spoke to me about why I do theater, what I'm hoping to try to achieve with each project, and what I hope an audience might leave with. Of course, you can tell by talking to me, that I set a very tall order for myself, [laughs] maybe not achievable in my lifetime. But that feels like worth going after, something bigger than myself and something that is for the greater good.

The other lead character is Aunt Esther, who is 285 years old. She's a spiritual healer and a community leader and a repository of African-American history that lives in her and that she offers to the community. I'm very moved by that idea, and by my own personal experience with that, the idea of spiritual healing and of helping to create opportunity for transformation and growth. And it's got music, it's got great poetry, it has big ideas in it, it has human heart in it. It goes to the heart of the matter. That's what I love, plays that go to the heart.

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From This Author Jim Munson