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TBA Online: News & Features: September 2018

Tom Ross Looks Back and Forward

Tuesday, September 4, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Sam Hurwitt

Having announced his departure this May, Tom Ross is now beginning his final season as artistic director of Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, amid a wave of local artistic director departures. Carey Perloff recently left American Conservatory Theater, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Tony Taccone and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley founder Robert Kelley have also given notice. 

Ross worked for eight years for Joseph Papp at New York’s Public Theater. After moving to the Bay Area he produced San Francisco’s Solo Mio Festival and wrote and directed the long-running A Karen Carpenter Christmas. He joined Aurora in 1992 as general manager and became managing director and producing director before taking over the artistic helm from founder Barbara Oliver in 2004. He oversaw Aurora’s 2001 move from the Berkeley City Club to its own 150-seat theatre downtown. In 2009 Aurora opened a second 49-seat black box space in its newly constructed Dashow Wing.

Tom Ross. Photo courtesy Mr. Ross.

What made it feel like this was the time to step down? 

One thing I knew was I did not want to be a super old artistic director because I thought, how do you bring in a young audience if you look like a grandparent? And then a lot of people seemed to be dropping, and people kept coming up to me going, “Well, when are you going to retire?” 

And then one night I was at a board meeting, and we got into a conversation, and by the end of that conversation I said, I really think it’s time for me to go. It sort of just happened out of the blue like that. So it must have been in the back of my subconscious, and it was just ready to come out. I thought giving Aurora basically a year and some months is plenty of time to find somebody new. It would also give me time to figure out what I wanted to do after I left, which I’m still figuring out. 

But I’m not retiring, I’m stepping down. Three theatres in the Bay Area have already said they’d like me to direct for them after I leave here. I’m going to teach a course at ACT. I’m going to produce some of my own shows like I used to in the old days. I’m working with the woman who I worked on A Karen Carpenter Christmas with about doing a new goofy cabaret show and kind of go back to my roots. 

From the outside, it’s like, what’s going on? Because all of these ADs are stepping down at once.

But all of us are of a certain age. I mean I’m 66, and Carey’s a little younger than that. Tony’s the same age as me, I think. Robert Kelley is older. So it’s not like we’re like all quitting in our thirties. I think everybody has their own reasons. But it does feel like there’s a cultural shift happening. And so I think it might be good for Aurora to be a part of the cultural shift, not just by me trying to program different kinds of plays or to diversify this, that or the other, but actually bring another point of view in, preferably a younger point of view. 

What would you like to see as the next step of Aurora’s evolution? 

I’m not involved with the process of getting the new artistic director, on purpose. I talk to the board about what my job is, so they know how I see the job. But I don’t think I want to say what the next artistic director should do. I think the next artistic director should not have the same vision as mine, so I don’t know what that person should do. 

I would hope that they would continue developing new work at Aurora, like we’ve been doing with the Originate + Generate program. So I’d say continue developing new work, doing good work and diversifying, onstage and offstage. 

How’d you first get involved with Aurora? 

I moved here from New York after working for Joe Papp for eight years. I was his executive assistant for four and then codirector of play and musical development for four. He secretly had cancer and he was starting to figure out how to divide up his kingdom. He was like a father figure, so I thought it would be really hard for me to say, Joe, I really want to get another job. But I could say I’m thinking of moving to California. I’d lived here very briefly, not even for a year, some years earlier. And I thought this was a great place to develop rock musicals, because that’s what I was doing a lot at the Public. Jonathan Larson was my protégé and we were working on Rent together. That could have been my show if I’d stayed in New York. 

I moved to San Francisco, and Bill Talen at Life on the Water was the first person to hire me, to start the Solo Mio Festival. And then I read in Callboard magazine this little ad about starting a theatre company at the Berkeley City Club. I didn’t know who Barbara Oliver was, but we hit it off really well. The idea of an Equity theatre company in that little room was to me insane. I thought maybe we’d last a season. But because Barbara was very well respected, there was an audience, there were high-quality actors who were willing to come out and perform in that little room, and the press was always there. 

 How did you get into theatre? 

Neither of my parents ever saw a play in their lives. So it was just some innate thing. When I was like in fourth grade, I played a flying squirrel in a puppet show and I really dug it. Then I started the William Shakespeare fan club in sixth grade. In high school I wrote a play called The Forest. It was sort of a poor man’s [Waiting for] Godot. I was president of the thespian society in high school, and I had an acting scholarship to Illinois State University. I started doing that and went, no, I don’t really want to be an actor. So I ended up with a double major in English and art. My dream was to go to New York and be a writer or an actor or a poet or whatever. So after I got out of school, I worked for my dad in the steel mills and saved up $2,000, which I put in my shoe. I got on a train and I went to New York. 

I was working at Brentano’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue. I had a friend who was working at the Public Theater, and one day she said, how would you like to work for Joe Papp? And I said, oh God, yes, of course! I had to go through five interviews until I was interviewed by him. I started as his administrative assistant, which is what Jon Moscone actually did after me. Moscone was there, Perloff was there and I was there all at the same time. She was an intern in casting, I worked for Joe, and he started in the finance department. 

Frank Zappa was coming to talk to Joe because he wanted to do a show on Broadway. He had no idea who Frank Zappa was. The managing director knew that I was a pop music guy, so he said Tom knows who Frank Zappa is, I’m sure. From that day on, Joe attached me with music, and we started getting really close. An opera singer named Angelina Reaux had this one-woman Kurt Weill show called Stranger Here Myself. I thought it was a cool idea and I told him about it. He said “you produce it” and gave me the small theatre on the main floor. It was my first hit as a producer, my first show. 

I thought Up Against It! by Joe Orton would make a really cool musical. It was going to be the Beatles movie after Help! that was never made because it was too dirty, and Joe Orton was killed by his lover right around the same time. So Joe said, “Tom, it’s yours. You do the book. Who do you want to do the music?” I said, I think Todd Rundgren would be really cool. He said, all right, contact him! And Todd said sure, I’ll do it. So then I’m out at Woodstock with Todd Rundgren writing a musical. It was kind of magical how it all happened.

What was your proudest moment at Aurora?

My proudest moment was the night Edward Albee was here to see the opening night of A Delicate Balance. It was also my most anxious moment, because he’s a curmudgeon and a perfectionist. It’s a three-act play, and every intermission I was always afraid he was not going to go back into the theatre. At the end of the show when he stood up, I couldn’t believe it. I did not tell the actors he was in the audience, and I remember going back there and saying, “Hey, just want you to know Edward Albee just gave you a standing ovation and he looks forward to meeting you.” You never saw actors get out of their costumes so fast. 

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance arts journalist and playwright based in the East Bay. Follow him at twitter.com/shurwitt