Catalyst for Conversation

Eric Ting shakes things up at Cal Shakes.


Eric Ting, artistic director at Cal Shakes, seeks compelling community dialogue about theater.

Photo by Jay Yamada

Since arriving in November 2015 to assume the artistic director position at California Shakespeare Theater, Eric Ting has been drinking coffee. A lot of coffee.

“When I first arrived here, I was given advice to have coffee with three people a week,” he said in an interview at—guess where—an East Bay coffee shop.

Roughly 72 weeks and many cups of joe later, Ting said interactions with board members, patrons, local artists, and community partners were an entry point to discover his place in the Bay Area theater community. “The biggest learning was with our audience last summer. I’m still in the midst of that.”

Cal Shakes—the name by which most people know it—is the Berkeley-based outdoor theater company whose mainstage productions at Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda re-create classic plays in vital, contemporary fashion. With high-level artistry and audience engagement as core pursuits, Cal Shakes also uses education and outreach programs to introduce people of all age, race, gender, and other definitions to the universality of theater. Bold listening at Cal Shakes is no less important than speaking truth.

Wayfinding, therefore, is not only Ting’s intention; it is common practice. Like most newcomers, he seeks an intersection, a place to exist authentically, if not always peacefully or easily, with people whose principles include respect, curiosity, growth.

It takes hard work. “I’m learning. The Othello I directed in 2016 was an exploration of how audiences in the Bay Area respond to Brechtian Shakespeare,” Ting said. The production resulted in polarized reactions. Some audiences resented Ting’s nontraditional approach when actors broke the fourth wall to address the audience in standup comedy routines or to recite clinical definitions of death. Other audiences applauded, saying in post-show talkbacks that it was the first time they’d ever understood Shakespeare’s work.

“I want conversation,” Ting said. “I’ve been in pursuit of that dynamic throughout my career. The great discovery in contemporary theater is breaking the fourth wall. Shakespeare has been doing that forever. In his time, audiences weren’t hidden in darkness. Soliloquies had actors speaking their thoughts directly to the audience.”

Board member Mark Toney is an Oakland resident who has attended Cal Shakes performances since 1995. Toney says that during breakout moments in Ting’s Othello, he saw younger people react positively. “His Othello was unconventional. It spoke to younger people and people of color. I saw older, and frankly, white audience members react negatively. That’s one purpose of theater: getting people to feel something.”

Ting said he is seeking to expand ways for the audience to speak back. “The work is a catalyst for conversation. That’s the broadest program initiative I’ve brought to Cal Shakes.”

Asked for his impression of the new artistic director after a half-season, Toney said, “I’m impressed that he sees theater as a hammer by which to change society, rather than as a mirror to reflect it.” His greatest fear, Toney said, is that although supporters, funders, and major patrons constantly talk about diversity, they don’t always step up to fund it. “Admittedly, when a theater legend like Jon Moscone leaves, some measure of support leaves with him,” said Toney.

But he is comforted by a surge Cal Shakes is seeing in subscribers—demonstrating a new, growing, and younger fan base—and by Ting’s activism in the community. “He’s doing Commonwealth Club talks, moderating award events, directing a play at Berkeley Rep. He’s increasing his visibility as a leader in the sector, not just at Cal Shakes,” Toney said.

Ting said that he was drawn to the company after 11 seasons at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., by Cal Shakes’ audience features that are “exquisite.” Among them, a loyal embrace of nontraditional theater, courageousness, and diversity in programming—and a willingness to expose themselves physically to an experience in nature that can mean sweating at the start of a play and bundling in blankets as the air cools during final scenes. Ultimately, Ting said he sees high commitment to authentic stories told through the human instrument—live voice—and heard in the “miasma of being human together.”

“Miasma” begs the question. “But that’s unpleasant, isn’t it?” Yes, he answers, because in the seams of stories—and lives—that are generous or humanitarian, are incredible acts of cruelty and inhumanity. Honest theater includes good and evil.

All of which will require three characteristics that, when offered as terms to define his approach, cause his face to light up: guts, gravity, and goodwill.

“Oh, I’m going to use that,” he said.

Applying the terms to playwright Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey, which Ting directs and which runs Aug. 9-Sept. 3, Ting said Gardley is a poet. “He’s often writing with the kind of truth that when spoken, we think of it as guts. It’s not always easy to hear. On the page, you don’t capture the entirety of it. His relationship to language is the same as ours to breath. Speaking it lifts it.” Ting said the tale, set in Oakland, of a soldier trying to get home to his family features music from ancient African chants to hip-hop. Asked in what ways the current political climate might steer his directing, he said, “You can’t talk about African-American experience without bringing in the moment that we’re in.” Likewise, he might add, a person can’t find his or her place without listening—and lots of coffee.

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