By Robert Simonson
30 Oct 2009
|Photo by Kevin Berne|
Taccone has, for 12 years, been the head of Berkeley Rep in California's Bay Area. Always a respected company, the theatre has in the last few years rocketed to the top of the regional heap, turning out nationally prominent productions at an impressive rate. The ball got rolling with Stew's musical Passing Strange, which went from Berkeley to the Public Theater to Broadway in 2008 to the silver screen. But just now Berkeley Rep is everywhere. Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking, which is directed by Taccone and was polished at the California theatre, is one of Broadway's fall hits. Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the vibrator play, which began life in Berkeley, is in previews at the Lyceum Theatre, in a Lincoln Center Theater production. Meanwhile, out West, American Idiot, a musicalization of the smash Green Day concept album, has become the top-grossing show in the Rep's 41-year history with the biggest advance sale, the biggest day at the box office, and 17 of the top 20 days ever. A move to New York is almost a certainty. At that rate of success, even Taccone is a bit overwhelmed. The native New Yorker and one-time actor spoke to Playbill.com about his winning streak.
Playbill.com: A play that you premiered in Berkeley began previews on Broadway last week. That's been happening a lot to you lately, hasn't it?
Tony Taccone: (Laughs) Yeah. It's been kind of wild, actually. I knew some of the shows might end up there, because they've travelled real well and they've been received well. There's a logic there. But the number and intensity of the shows, that's been quite a surprise.
Playbill.com: Let me ask about individual projects and their origins. How did Passing Strange come to you?
TT: Passing Strange was when Bill Bragin — who was curating Joe's Pub at that time — spotted Stew and he thought, "This guy really has the potential to do something. He's such a great storyteller." He contacted the people at the Public and the people at the Public called us. Stew applied to Sundance and we went there and checked it out and fell in love with it instantly. So Oskar Eustis and I — we go way back — I think it took us 30 seconds to look at each other and say, "We should do this." We formulated workshops and opened at Berkeley Rep, then another workshop and opening at the Public. We didn't plan on it moving uptown.
Playbill.com: What about American Idiot?
TT: My oldest son, Jorma, who's a writer at "Saturday Night Live" now, he came out and said "Dad, you should do 'American Idiot.' It's great." He was younger then. I love the music. The band is from here. When Spring Awakening happened — Michael Mayer is an old friend and colleague of mine. Tom Hulce and he had been partnering recently. They called me and said they had some ideas they wanted to talk about. I went to New York and we talked and they had three ideas. They went through the first two, and the last idea, they said, "We have this idea to do 'American Idiot'," and I said, "We're going to do that." It was a complete no-brainer. It just felt completely right. We came up with a plan at that time. A little over a year ago we had this workshop. We then gave ourselves a few months to decide if we could go forward. It's very complicated. The size and scale is enormous. But the level of cordial and enlightened conversation about it was really enormous from the beginning. It's been a lovefest.
TT: Wishful Drinking had its first incarnation at the Geffen in Los Angeles. Carrie Fisher did it independently on her own. I was not the director. It was kind of this scrabbletooth version that she put together. The script was really differently structured. We worked hard dramaturgically to get the script into a different shape. We cut like a third of it. It morphed a lot. We did it in its current incarnation at Berkeley after that. It went on a tour, came back to Berkeley Rep, then went to NYC.
Plabyill.com: That was your second Broadway credit, after the Sarah Jones solo show Bridge & Tunnel. Solo shows seem to be an area of expertise of yours.
TT: You know what? I'm sitting here going, "I used to direct Coriolanus. What's happened to me?" I really have not sought out those shows at all. But what happens is there are these extraordinary people: Danny Hoch and Sarah Jones. I guess I just fall in love with them a little.
Playbill.com: So what is the status of American Idiot right now?
TT: Well, the status is really good. (Laughs) Any way you look at it, the status is really good. They're certainly in the process, as we all are, of planning for the next incarnation of the play. The intention is certainly to bring it to New York. How it gets there is still a conversation to be. In New York, it's always a question of space.
Playbill.com: Do you feel that after Passing Strange and now American Idiot people are approaching you all the time as a good place to launch adventurous musicals?
TT: The answer to that is YES! (Laughs) Dude, the pile of CDs on my desk is starting to get obscene! We created a monster here a little bit. It's been good. There's a lot of really good musicals out there, but the question is which to do. We can't do this all the time. It's enormous. The scale of these musicals is usually really huge. The other thing is I can't just think only about these musicals. I have a season. I have to think about these other shows, and they have to be good, because we care about them.
Playbill.com: Is this just coincidence or was it always your plan to have work at Berkeley Rep seen by a larger national audience?
TT: I think we really did consciously set out to enlarge the number of people who were exposed to our work, and to forge some relationships that might facilitate that. We didn't sit down and say we need to have one show a year go to New York. That was not part of the plan. Certainly, with building the Roda Theatre, which is...much more a state-of-the-art space, if you will, that enabled us to think in a different way about what kind of shows we could do and what kind of shows could possibly move. There was that, and we embarked on an ambitious new play program. Our goal is to hire 50 writers over ten years to write new plays for us. At any given time there are like ten writers writing things for us.
Playbill.com: Has that program borne fruit yet?
TT: Yeah. Last year, the first two that were part of this program, In the Next Room was one of them. The other one was an Itamar Moses play, Yellowjackets. It's about Berkeley High School. We don't hope or plan that every play will move. It's not smart to think in those terms. You don't want to get ahead of yourself. The first question is "Is it any good?" If it is good, what are the tools that we have? And is it appropriate for us to expand the audience for it?