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TBA Online: News & Features: October 2019

What’s In a Legacy? TBA Award Recipients Consider Their Impact

Tuesday, October 22, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Sam Hurwitt

Part of the beauty and the impact of live theatre is its ephemeral nature. You have to be there to experience it and once it’s over, it’s over—not just a run but any given performance. And it leaves a mark. At least ideally, it leaves something that will stick with the viewer. And over time, artists and arts institutions build a legacy, something that lives on or is passed down in what they’ve built and the impact they’ve made. 

Among the various honors that will be given out at the Theatre Bay Area Awards, on November 4 at the Herbst Theatre, are three special TBA Legacy Awards. 

One goes to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley founder Robert Kelley, now in his 50th and final season as artistic director of the company that just won the 2019 Tony Award for Regional Theatre. 

Another goes to Teatro Visión, serving and amplifying the Latinx community of San José since 1984. 

The third goes to Kevin Seaman, an interdisciplinary artist, arts activist, consultant, and drag queen who was instrumental in the passage of San Francisco’s Proposition E for arts funding last year. 

Kelley is certainly leaving a tremendous legacy as he prepares to turn over the helm to an as yet unnamed successor next summer after a storied 50 years, during which time TheatreWorks has grown from a Palo Alto youth theatre arts workshop to a League of Resident Theatres (LORT) powerhouse that has originated shows, especially musicals, that have gone on to Broadway (the Tony Award-winning Memphis) and the West End (The Prince of Egypt). 

Robert Kelley. Photo courtesy of Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group

“There’s things that I feel strongly that have become part of TheatreWorks and will be a lasting legacy for the company as a set of values that inspire our artistic work and our education work and everything we do, starting with a very strong belief in creating new things and new works for the theatre,” Kelley says. “I think we’re coming up on our 70th world premiere with Pride and Prejudice, Paul Gordon’s musical in December. Even in our education programs, when kids come to camps or anything else, their whole goal is to write something new, be in something new.”

Kelly started TheatreWorks in 1970 when the city of Palo Alto asked him to create a new show with area youth. That first show, the original musical Popcorn, focused on the generation gap in the local community and attempts to bridge it. 

“I feel that the core values of TheatreWorks and its mission were launched with our very first show in 1970,” Kelley says. “It was a commitment to innovation, to diversity. And that is a huge part of TheatreWorks, diverse programming of races and ages and cultures. The celebration of music and drama together as inherent to great theatre, that’s been there from the beginning. And perhaps our most naive core value is the celebration of the human spirit, and that also has been there from the get-go. All of these things began with our very first show, which was about this community and was written and created fresh by people here. And lo and behold, it’s now 50 years later and we’re still doing it.”

Rodrigo García. Photo courtesy of Teatro Vision.

Teatro Visión artistic director Rodrigo García is focused on continuing and carrying the 35-year-old company’s legacy into the future, having taken over the helm from company founder Elisa Marina Alvarado two years ago.

“Teatro Visión is one of the few companies or culturally specific companies that remains after over three decades that were part of the Chicano arts movement from the 70s,” García says. “I mean, the company did not start in the 70s, but it definitely carries that legacy of the Chicano arts movement from the 70s.”

García started working with Teatro Visión in 2006 as an actor and became an artistic associate, helping to develop the Spanish adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and the company’s annual original play Macario, which he’s directed several times. 

“I guess part of the legacy in the model that Elisa created and developed is really rooted in our cultural values, in the sense that knowledge is passed through generations,” García says. “We honor the wisdom of elders in our community. When she started, she was a young person, she became the elder in the community and she was in charge of making sure that somebody else had that knowledge. I mean, she definitely mentored a lot of people, not only me. But you know how destiny works, that you’re in the right place at the right time, and that was me. And now the work that I do is really reflective of the values that she instituted in our company, in giving voices to those who do not have them, in making sure that there is equity, addressing gender equity on stage and behind the stage. And I’m very committed to honoring and continuing cultivating that.”

For García, a big part of continuing that work is nurturing the next generation of artists and arts leaders that can continue to bring the company and the community forward into the future. 

“That model of mentoring and passing the knowledge through different generations, it’s not only about the administrative part of knowing how a company works, but understanding that values are the pillars of the company,” he says. “We’re trying to replicate that by creating and nurturing and mentoring our younger folks, so at some point some of those folks who understand the values and understand how to manage an organization are able to take over and inject new energy into the company.”

Kevin Seaman.

Though Seaman’s work as a midcareer artist, consultant, and arts advocate is multifaceted to say the least—earning him Americans for the Arts 2017 Emerging Leader Award—his work on 2018’s Proposition E was particularly tireless. Not to be confused with SF’s current Proposition E regarding zoning for affordable housing, last year’s ballot initiative was the latest (and this time successful) attempt to re-link the city’s hotel tax fund directly to the funding for the arts, to ensure that the rich and ongoing artistic legacy of the San Francisco arts community does not go unsupported. 

“I think really, this award is for everybody that did anything on that campaign,” Seaman says. “The only reason I feel like I’m getting recognition is because I was sitting in this pivot point of the campaign. But really it was so many people that did so much to make it happen. And it was on the back of all of the work that happened on [2016’s failed] Prop S, from large arts organizations to cultural districts, cultural centers, small arts organizations. I feel like it’s the legacy of anyone that put work into this legislation last year.”

Now Seaman says one of the big questions is what the legacy of all that work is going to be. 

“What I’m really interested in is what comes next,” Seaman says. “How are we working together as a community to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table, rather than just making sure that there’s money in the coffers and those who know how to access it can? How are we working together to make sure that our most vulnerable populations have the same access as wealthy folks or folks that have access to large venues, or that have resources and donors? How are we creating a community of knowledge and resource sharing to make sure that we’re all doing better?”

Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Follow him at