After 35 years of promoting and advancing the Bay Area theatre and dance community, we've touched a lot of people—and a lot of people have touched us. Today’s honoree: Sabrina Klein, former executive director of Theatre Bay Area.
Who are you? Can you give a little bit of background about how you got to where you are today?
My name is Sabrina Klein. Who I am is the kind of person who reads the question, “Who are you?” and goes all existential inside—who is anyone, really? But who I am in the most overt sense is currently executive director of the nonprofit Teaching Artists Organized (TAO), a sometime theatre director and accidental producer, a theatre teacher and mother and wife and believer in the power of making and sharing art. How I got to where I am today? Oakland? Moved back to the Bay Area in 1995 after three years in Cambridge, MA, and couldn’t afford to live in Berkeley any more, where I’d lived for 13 years before that, first earning a graduate degree in dramatic art at UC Berkeley then creating and producing Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Programs for 6 years. I fell in love with down-to-earth, messy, complicated Oakland and it’s been my home ever since.
What is your history with Theatre Bay Area?
Before I worked at Theatre Bay Area, I was a member for many years. I once wrote a letter to the editor—who had to be Jean Schiffman at the time, in maybe 1989? 90?—in response to an article by Benny Sato Ambush on color-blind casting (I can’t remember what either of us wrote—do you, Benny?) I posted casting notices from Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Programs and attended general auditions as casting director. I directed a couple of productions, and read articles about trends in Bay Area theatre before I moved across the country. While I was in Massachusetts, the theatre company I worked with was asked to join a new consortium of theatre companies. I called Theatre Bay Area to ask for samples of Callboard magazine to show the New Englanders what a real consortium looked like and I was blown away by all that Theatre Bay Area was doing just three short years since I’d left the Bay Area. I had no idea I’d be interviewing to work there just one year later…
After leaving Theatre Bay Area, I ran the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts for six years, which remained a Theatre Bay Area member during my tenure there and participated in Theatre Bay Area ticketing programs and shared marketing programs. I’ve partnered with Theatre Bay Area staff in the founding of Teaching Artists Organized, which I now manage, and mostly recently tapped the Theatre Bay Area postcard distribution program and TIX Bay Area when I found myself producing my friend Belinda Taylor’s play, Becoming Julia Morgan. And I think I’ve attended all of the past five Theatre Bay Area annual conferences with the diversity of speakers and conversations keeping pace with and leading the evolving theatre eco-system. I can’t imagine what the next phase of “my history with Theatre Bay Area” will look like, but I can’t wait to see it in action.
You are being honored particularly for being former executive director of Theatre Bay Area. Please tell us about that.
I moved back here in 1995 to take the job as executive director after Liza Zenni left, following her amazing tenure in the position and a personal tragedy that touched everyone around her who knew her. I was grilled by the board of directors for my interview and felt rather ambivalent about the job (did I say they really grilled me?) until I met the senior staff—Belinda Taylor, who was managing editor of Callboard, and Chris Shuff, director of ticketing services. I know Brad must say the same thing now, but we had a really amazing staff over those 5 years! Part of our legacy lasted up to this year—Chris hired Cara Chrisman and Belinda hired Karen McKevitt, both of whom made serious contributions for more than a decade and a half after we all left. Both the Theatre Services and Individual Services Committees were very active at that time and contributed to some dynamic initiatives, including the first TIX By Mail catalogue, the Community Box Office Network (CBON), CA$H, the Nomadic Theatre Companies coalition, and the South Bay Costume Collective. Whatever their later evolution, all these initiatives were community-driven and felt very daring and experimental at the time.
Our goal was that everyone in the theatre community would feel like they had an insider friend at Theatre Bay Area—Richard Ryan at the front desk, Rica Anderson working individual services and Kim Larsen doing company services knew everyone and everything going on. I went to three or four shows every week (obviously this was before my kid was born) and someone from Theatre Bay Area sat on every possible committee that ever met (some things don’t change, do they, Brad?). One of my favorite collaborations was with the California Lawyers for the Arts and Golden Gate University’s now defunct Arts Management program (with Alma Robinson and Anne Smith, respectively) when we were training and placing women (mostly women) who were transitioning off of welfare into work positions in arts organizations, including Theatre Bay Area, Intersection for the Arts and BRAVA! They don’t run Welfare to Work programs any more, I don’t think, but I know I never ran into one that had an arts focus. I really liked that about our work together.
Why is theatre important? What do you think your role is keeping it a vital part of civilization? How does Theatre Bay Area help?
One of the coolest things I got to do at Theatre Bay Area was initiate and participate in a set of community-based conversations about why theatre matters. We got a grant from the Packard Foundation (bless you, Barbara Kibbe!) to explore whether theatre folks could develop a social marketing message about theatre akin to health marketing messages that engaged people to change their behaviors for their own and for society’s good. Looking at campaigns that had really changed behavior (like “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk”), we set out to find out what ideas might resonate, and since then I’ve been in dozen of community conversations about the value of theatre in society. I guess that’s my role in keeping theatre a vital part of civilization—continuing to convene and facilitate these “Creating Public Value” conversations that have evolved directly from the first Packard Foundation-funded process.
For myself, I believe that theatre and other arts are essential to a healthy democracy. Theatre teaches us about ourselves and about others. Theatre shows us the world as it is and as it might be otherwise. If you can’t imagine the world other than it is all around you, you have no hope for the world to be a better place. Without imagination, you don’t have hope, and if you don’t have hope you can’t have a democracy. Theatre really is the voice for all that has been and all that can be. It’s an essential conversation played out on stages every day.
Theatre Bay Area carries that message everywhere it goes—I’ve heard Brad articulate it beautifully at state and regional meetings where I’m always happy to see him carrying the torch for the whole community.
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Click here to RSVP for the 35 Years, 35 Faces Celebration on April 30, 2012.