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Interview: Timothy Near of THE ROAD TO MECCA at Z Below Reunites with Her Lead Actors to Present Another Fugard Classic

Near helms a new production of the ever-timely play running in San Francisco June 4th to 30th

By: May. 17, 2023
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Interview: Timothy Near of THE ROAD TO MECCA at Z Below Reunites with Her Lead Actors to Present Another Fugard Classic  Image
Wendy vanden Heuvel and Victor Talmadge in
Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca at Z Below

Back in 2018, director Timothy Near had such a success with her production of Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes at Z Below that is was pretty much a no-brainer she'd want to reunite with her two lead actors on another Fugard play at the same theater. It's just taken a few years to make that a reality. Obie Award-winner Near is helming a new production of Fugard's The Road to Mecca starring Wendy vanden Heuvel and Victor Talmadge at Z Below in San Francisco from June 4 to 30. Kodi Jackman rounds out the cast of this incandescent play.

Fugard was inspired by Helen Martins, an artist who transformed her home into the visionary The Owl House in New Bethesda, South Africa. The Road to Mecca's Miss Helen is an eccentric aging widow who fills her house and garden with life-sized sculptures representing a fantasy pilgrimage to Mecca. Spurned by neighbors who think she's crazy, a conservative pastor and passionate young school teacher debate about the aging artist's future. Written during Apartheid, Fugard's work uplifts the freedom found in art and speaks for the victims of evil systems through love and trust, which is certainly something we could use a little more of these days. The Road to Mecca was initially presented Off-Broadway where it won a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and was adapted into a film starring Fugard alongside Yvonne Bryceland and Kathy Bates.

Near has enjoyed a vibrant and prolific career, first as an actor and then director and artistic director, working virtually all over the country at theaters such as the Guthrie Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Goodman Theatre, Alliance Theatre and Berkeley Rep. She is perhaps best known for directing Fire in the Rain ... Singer in the Storm, written by and starring her sister, folk music icon Holly Near. That show enjoyed a particularly long run in San Francisco and also played Off-Broadway and at the Mark Taper Forum in LA. As if that weren't enough, Near was also Artistic Director of San Jose Repertory Theatre for over twenty years where she led the effort to create a new state-of-the art theatre facility that played a major part in creating a vibrant new downtown for that city.

I spoke with Near by phone last week as she was deep into her second week of rehearsals. Chatting with her it was immediately clear she is one of those seasoned theatre people who lives, eats and breathes the artform. We talked about her love of Fugard's writing, her unorthodox upbringing in rural California, her belief in the power of theatre to act as a catalyst for positive change in the world, what it was like to lead a theatre company at a time when there weren't many women in that role, and a new work she's been developing with actor/writer Kathryn Grody. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Interview: Timothy Near of THE ROAD TO MECCA at Z Below Reunites with Her Lead Actors to Present Another Fugard Classic  Image
Director Timothy Near

What prompted you to choose this play?

Wendy vanden Heuvel (who is playing Helen) and Victor Talmadge (who is playing Marius) and I had done A Lesson from Aloes in 2018 here. It was a wonderful experience, the show was extremely successful, and the audience seemed to have a real interest in Fugard. I mean, he's such a fabulous storyteller. This is my fourth Fugard, so I'm always interested in doing his work.

There's not a lot of plays for people over 50 who are the leads, whose story is right there in the front of the play, as opposed to secondary. So we circled around a bit on other plays, but came back to Fugard, because this is such an obvious choice, a beautiful story about two friendships - one with Miss Helen and her former pastor Marius, and then also a younger woman who comes into their world. It's also rare to find a play that is about an older woman and a younger woman's friendship. Yes, we've seen plays about mothers and daughters, but I can't even think of one where the deep friendship between an older woman and a younger woman is really at the forefront of the play.

What do you especially love about Fugard's writing?

I feel like right now people really want a good story, they want some kind of entertainment, and what I love about Fugard is he's an extraordinary storyteller. He creates these fascinating characters, so there's a lot of entertainment value in his plays as well as rich, deep layers of how to live our lives in this world. And as you know - this world is pretty complicated right now.

Have you ever had an opportunity to meet Fugard?

No, I haven't. But he just turned 90, and he's still writing, still very vibrant, still very present in the world.

Wendy vanden Heuvel and Victor Talmadge are such veterans. Is it a particular pleasure to direct them?

Absolutely! And boy do these two have a good handle on their characters. They arrived having done a lot of work already, and after the first reading I went "OK, I have been given all of the paints. Now all we have to do is paint the picture." I'm very interested in telling the story visually and supporting what Fugard is saying about relationships, and about society and politics and how to live your life.

Actor Kodi Jackman is new to the fold, correct?

She is. She's young, but she is extraordinarily skilled and a wonderful actress, so she's holding her own, for sure. [laughs]

Your sister is Holly Near. Did the two of you grow up in a particularly creative or artistic household? Or was there just something in the water?

[laughs] And my other sister, Laurel, runs a dance and theatre school, too, in Ukiah! I grew up in a tiny town in northern California with a population of 900 people, but my mother was from New York City. She was very educated and creative and loved going to the theatre. We lived out in the middle of nowhere on a ranch. The closest neighbor was probably several miles away so she just thought "What am I gonna do with all these kids?" She gave us a box of old clothes and said, "Dress up and do shows." And that's what we did. You know, we didn't have electricity, we didn't have television, we had a wind-up Victrola, no telephone, and we just used our imaginations to have a lot of fun. And then we all ended up doing it professionally.

One of the reasons I'm fascinated by The Road to Mecca is that it takes place in South Africa way out in the middle of nowhere. I grew up understanding what it is to live in a fairly conservative small town, and so I felt like I had that personal experience to bring to the table with this play. Because it is about the artist who wants to express some passion that is inside them, and the town that really feels it's more important to conform. And another thing I was very aware of was the racism in our community regarding native Americans, the indigenous peoples of that area. That is also in this play, although it's not as much in the forefront as some of Fugard's other plays, but it is very much there.

You started your career in theatre as an actor. How did you transition into directing?

Through a friendship with an older woman who saw something in me - again a parallel to this play. There were almost no other women directors in the field at that time in the late 70s, and she said, "You seem you're maybe interested in directing. Do you want to direct a play?" It was a children's play and I said, "Sure. But I'd like to pick it out myself." And she let me, and I did that, and then very soon after that she asked me to co-write A Christmas Carol with her and direct that. And that career just took off really fast.

But it started from an older woman putting out a hand to me and saying, "You seem to me like you have a director's mind. I want to give you a chance." And you know, that's often how it happens. And at that time, there were very few women directors or women running theaters. But people were beginning to go, "Oh, I think maybe I oughta hire a woman." With the feminist movement of the 70s and early 80s there was a kind of early awareness that women were not getting opportunities, and so there I was. To some extent it was because of that activism on the part of feminists that I was really seen and considered for these jobs.

Back in those days did you feel like sort of a pioneer?

[laughs] Well, yeah. Particularly once I began to run theatres. I would be in the board room with mostly men, sometimes all men, and I would go "Wow, I'm in an unusual place for women." But I'd already been working in theatre, I was an actor, so I knew my way around that whole world. Honestly, I wasn't really thinking about "Oh, gee, I'm a pioneer." I was just in it. I wanted to work. I loved directing, I was thrilled that I was getting jobs and having an opportunity to look at the whole picture of a play as opposed to just my part as an actress, which was an enormous and wonderful leap for me.

So I don't think I was thinking politically, but I do remember that when I took over San Jose Rep there was an article about me, Carrie Perloff, Sharon Ott and Mame Hunt [then the artistic directors of A.C.T., Berkeley Rep and Magic Theatre, respectively], and we certainly felt our separateness. I think there was maybe at that time 250 big LORT theaters across the United States, and maybe 8 or 9 women that were run by women.

I mean, we could tell war stories, but I think at that time it wasn't so much about the unusual aspect of us having jobs; we just wanted to do a good job. We were very interested in the art and what we wanted to say with that art, and how we wanted to relate to our communities and our audiences. We were doing some plays about feminism, but I was doing more plays about racism. I think that was my bigger issue at that time.

But you know Holly was a major feminist, so feminism was just part of our lives, part of who we were.

You were Artistic Director of San Jose Rep from 1987 to 2008 which is quite an achievement. Looking back on that experience, what was the best part of that job?

I loved the conversation between what interested me and what I put on the stage and the audience and the community. I was very lucky to be part of a kind of wave in San Jose of creating that whole city, and creating the downtown and how art played a role in creating a center in the heart of the community. I actually got to work with the City of San Jose to design and build what is an extraordinary theatre facility.

When you're freelancing, you don't know your audience so well. You're comin' in, you're doin' the art, and it's a wonderful experience. You're working with fellow artists on hopefully marvelous plays, but you don't know necessarily who you're speaking to. Like I don't know really who's going to be coming to this play. And that's just a different experience - a wonderful one, but it's different.

What I loved about running a theater was I got to know that audience and I got to really think about what would deepen their lives, and what would take them to maybe a slightly newer enlightenment or introduce them to some new culture, some new concept. I did a lot of talkbacks, and I loved doing those with the audience. I really got to know what they were thinking. I just loved that conversation, and I do miss that.

The playwrights and directors I talk to are often in town just for one show and then they leave, so it's a very different experience.

Yeah, and I got to do that kind of hands-on participation actually working with the redevelopment agency and the mayor and city leaders to really talk about how theatre can play a part in making a community safer, making it more progressive in its thought, and giving it a feeling of unity and togetherness.

Coming back to Mecca, Fugard really feels that artists play a role in activism and changing the world to be a better place. He combines extraordinary storytelling with social message and his belief that love and equality and freedom can be had, and must be had, in non-violent ways. He had just become a Buddhist when he wrote this play and he had just stopped drinking, as I understand it. He also was really turning from kind of a western view more towards an eastern view and a more peaceful view of how to change the world.

It's not that theatre changes the world, but it inspires those activists who are gonna get out there and change the world. Activism and politics and art all go together, and in the best possible world really inspire each other and educate each other.

I'm intrigued about The Unexpected Third, the piece you've been workshopping with actor/writer Kathryn Grody. Do you know yet what the future is for that show?

Omigod, we know it is gonna happen, we're on the verge, there's a lot of interest, but nobody's said "Yes, let's go!" yet. I'm going back in June, and we've been given space to do some additional work on it. It is so about the moment that you sort of have to keep rewriting it, if that makes sense. She and I [originally] worked on it at Berkeley Rep's Ground Floor, which is when it got written, at that wonderful program. We both just were so impressed by Ground Floor. It just was amazing.

Since we last did it in November, I've got new thoughts so we're gonna try to weave those into the play and get ready for what we're sure is coming, but we just don't know where. I think both of us would love to start it in New York and then move it around to major cities like San Francisco.

(photos by David Allen)


The Road to Mecca will be presented June 4-30, 2023 at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit


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