The Man Who Came to Dinner

Some people say that The Theater is dying. Some say it's long past dead. Perhaps nowhere could either of these grim prognoses be more difficult to believe than in the unusual home of Tony Taccone.

As artistic director of the widely respected Berkeley Repertory Theater, Taccone is earning a reputation for challenging the arthritic ways of today's theater. So I listen intently as Tony, wearing a black T-shirt and bluejeans and looking a little like Dustin Hoffman in the non-drag segments of Tootsie, talks about his work and takes me on a tour of the ex-nickel plating factory that he and his roommate have converted into a sprawling Emeryville home.

Past the comparatively modest kitchen that serves as the entrance lies a seemingly endless hallway. Like some kind of theme ride at an amusement park, each environment in the home gives way to another: We pass from Tony's chic living quarters to a professional-style woodworking shop to his roommate's cavernous painting studio before finally arriving at an indoor jungle, replete with pools of sludge and giant neon sculptures.

This isn't your father's artist loft.
Back in the kitchen, Tony pours from a bottle of white wine as he begins the final dinner preparations. After brief discussions about the transformation of Emeryville from industrial wasteland to a pseudo-artists' live/work mecca, and the challenges of dramatic writing (“It's like a combination of haiku writing and great prosaic poetry”), we settle in for a long talk about Tony's role in the theater.

I start by asking what it's like to achieve such institutional success in an art form struggling for an audience. Has his idealism run smack into business reality yet?

“That's what we all come up against,” says Tony. Then, in a deep Jewish rabbi's voice, he shakes his hands in the air and asks, “What does this mean?

“It's the big-picture thing. Then you get to be my age, and that question becomes really big. You start wondering: Does any of this mean shit?

“But you know, that's when you meet God.”
Tony laughs briefly, having caught himself in a soundbite.
Pouring a container of mixed vegetables into a saute pan, Tony goes on to talk about the difficult decision to accept the position as Berkeley Rep's artistic director.

First he describes his artistic state when the offer was made:
“I'd lapsed into a sort of retro-'80s cynicism about life and politics and the state of the world,” he explains. “My work was still kind of angry and hip and cool. And I was not challenging myself about stepping up … speaking out … in a way that I had when I was younger. … So sick of myself, and lonely. Internally … spiritually lonely. I was thinking about leaving the theater. I was definitely thinking about leaving the Rep.”

Then he offers a reverential appreciation of Sharon Ott, his predecessor at the Rep: “Sharon did an incredible job raising the bar in that way. She was just astonishing in her ability to say, 'We want to do better. We want to finish the product in a better way.' “

Next, he explains why he took the job …
“I was part of the institution, but I didn't feel there was enough intimacy in the institution. Intimacy in the larger sense of the word. A kind of deeply understood, shared sense of values.”

… and what he's trying to do with it.
“[I]nternally, it still felt for me like a lot of people were working simply for that [i.e., craft alone], as opposed to a sense of really getting engaged. Instead of having a community of individuals trying to understand, trying to create an expressive response to the world — with each other — and trying to actually improve their own picture of humanity.”

“So,” he concludes, “that's a very long-winded way of saying that I really took the job … I pursued the job because I thought it would be an opportunity to mix my public life with what I most cherish in my private life. And to speak out. And once I saw that, it was like: Let me at it!”

Tony pauses to pull a smoking tray out of the oven. A dark round blob rests on top. “Look at that baby, huh?” he exclaims.

Moving in for a closer look, I ask, “What the hell is it?”
“Chicken,” says Tony. “From Andronico's.”
“That's the ugliest bird I've ever seen,” I offer with a laugh. “You got that precooked?”

“Sure as hell,” says Tony as he hacks our dinner in two. “It's only been in there for three minutes.”

Transferring each piece to a plate, he hands me my meal, saying, “Here. Half a chicken. You're like a Viking.”

We sit at a long, painted banquet table, a clear product of the in-home woodshop. Tony, who'd warned me the dinner would be takeout, explains that everything came from Andronico's Market.

The spit-roasted chicken ($3.99/pound) is perfectly reheated, tender with an herb-coated crust. Mixed grilled vegetables ($5.99/pound) include zucchini, peppers, and big chunks of portobello mushrooms. Tony has completed the plate with a chunky fruit salad ($4.99/pound) highlighted by watermelon, cantaloupe, fresh blueberries, and grapes.

“I actually do cook,” explains Tony. “I really like it. But I haven't gotten into the rhythm of cooking lately.”

It's certainly no skin off my chicken, as long as Andronico's knows what it's doing.

Returning to our conversation, Tony talks about the storm he's weathered in attempting to integrate his vision into the now-venerable Rep. “It's one thing to say that you want to be controversial. It's another thing to actually live with controversy. Like live in your physical body. With people angry or upset or rejecting you. You know what I mean?”

“This season,” he explains, “we're out there, Berkeley Rep, we're doing a lot of new work. And part of our audience is scared. They think, 'What has he done to the great legacy of Berkeley Rep?' And I love classical work, you know? I do. But I'm not particularly excited about doing work that I can't feel is making a contribution to what we define as culture, and what's going on in the world.”

Over the remaining bottle of wine, a BV Coastal chardonnay (regularly $9.49, on sale for $7.99), Tony tells me how he got started in theater, and offers some allusions to how it may all come to end.

“I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to have a family … so I wasn't going to be indigent. But they make you take, like, 10 years of statistics, which is not my thing. I went for an interview with the guy who headed the anthropology department, and after about half an hour he said, 'You know what? I don't think you're going to like this.' And he was right. Then I was hanging out with a bunch of actors in a bar, and I thought, 'These people are fantastic! I love these people.' So I tried out for a play.”

Now, 25-plus years later, Tony is leading Berkeley Rep in a physical, as well as artistic, expansion. The Rep has just broken ground on a second theater, which, Tony hopes, will lead to the development of a new arts center for Berkeley. “It's one of our great dreams to make the whole block an arts district. It would be just great to have people in the area say, 'Let's go check out what's happening on Addison Street. You just know something's going down.' That would be really exciting.”

Even as he enthuses about expansion, though, Tony acknowledges the possibly insurmountable struggles of reviving live theater in a technology culture. With a bit of resigned sarcasm, he compares attending a play to absorbing the buzz and whistles of the Christmas film releases. “It takes such an effort [to go to a play]. I mean, Christ, you can't throw your popcorn on the floor,” he says. “Leaving is a huge deal, you know? You gotta pay attention. You gotta get there early. It's a deal!”

And soon enough, Tony makes a matter-of-fact prediction: “I think eventually the theater will clearly, literally die. It will just die. So I have to be able to take some heat. And I am. I'm willing to take some heat. Because I think we can really make a difference.

“And I've made my peace with that. I figure if it doesn't work out, um, that's cool. I mean, hey, I've been given an amazing opportunity. Amazing opportunity. How many people in this country can get to do what I do? What? Twenty? And the kind of audience I have? Ten?

“So I'm gonna give it my best shot. And try to create a spectrum of work that is inclusive, and invite people into the process in enough ways so that hopefully they find it enjoyable and stimulating and [something] in which they can engage. But I want to believe in everything we do. Every single thing we do. So you know … pray for me.”

Tony laughs, and calls out, “Soundbite.”

By Barry Levine

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