Berkeley Rep’s Johanna Pfaelzer Does It Her Way
The new artistic director of Berkeley Rep brings a commitment to new work and a diversity of voices and cultural experiences.
Photo by Benjamin Michel / Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Long before she was chosen as the new artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Johanna Pfaelzer fantasized about what it might be like to work at the theater.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Pfaelzer, who lived in Berkeley as a young girl and still has a large extended family here. “Listen, this is one of the leading theaters in this country. It’s got an articulated commitment to new work, which is unbelievably important to me. It’s in one of the only places I can imagine leaving my home and my theater in New York for.”
Pfaelzer assumed her new position Sept. 1 — she programmed the current season over the last year, on a consultant basis — and in August moved to Berkeley with her husband of 19 years, lighting designer Russell Champa, and their son, Jasper, 14.
Her credentials are diverse. Pfaelzer spent the last 12 years at New York Stage and Film, running a nonprofit summer festival in Poughkeepsie, New York, and shepherding such new works as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s monumental Hamilton, the Tony-winning The Humans, and Taylor Mac’s epic A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music in their early stages of development. Prior to that, from 2002 to 2007, Pfaelzer was associate artistic director at the American Conservatory Theater, working with then-artistic-director Carey Perloff.
At Berkeley Rep, Pfalezer follows Tony Taccone who served the company 33 years, the last 21 as artistic director. Unlike Taccone, who frequently directed plays at Berkeley Rep in addition to establishing the company’s artistic vision, curating each season, and hiring artists and designers, she is strictly a producer.
“I don’t direct,” Pfaelzer, 50, said during a warm afternoon in Berkeley Rep’s large administrative offices in West Berkeley. “It’s not what I do.”
Pfaelzer has high regard for Taccone’s record at Berkeley Rep but says she feels no desire to replicate his vision or artistic mandate. “I’m never going to be able to match a Tony Taccone season, and I wouldn’t know where to begin. I only know how to do it my way — with my point of view.”
The 2019-2020 season, which launched Sept. 12 with The Great Wave, a geopolitical thriller set in Japan and North Korea, reflects Pfaelzer’s commitment to new work and to a diversity of voices and cultural experiences. Four of the eight plays will be directed by women. Two of them, Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise and Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play, were written by African-American women. The Great Wave author Francis Turnly is Japanese/Northern Irish. The writers of Culture Clash (Still) in America are Richard Montoya, who is Chicano; Ricardo Salinas, who is Mexican; and Herbert Siguenza, who is of Salvadoran descent. The only revival in the season, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, stars double-Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest.
“I really wanted to make sure I was honoring the sense of scale and theatricality that audiences appreciate,” Pfaelzer said. “Things that really challenge the form. Big, theatrical gestures. I think this is a really intelligent audience, which is up for the rigorous intellectual debates that theater can spawn.”
When asked if, as a woman, she’ll bring a different perspective to Berkeley Rep, Pfaelzer answered, “I think, as a woman, I like to work in a deeply collaborative way. I’m deeply invested in creating a lot of opportunities for a lot of different kinds of people — for men and women of a variety of backgrounds.”
The number of women running theaters, regionally and in New York, has increased dramatically in the last decade, as has the number of women directors and playwrights. “It’s an extraordinary time to be a woman in this field right now,” Pfaelzer said. “I think my generation is being given opportunities, which means a shift in the American theater as a whole. I also think, to be clear, we’re not being given the opportunities. I think we’ve earned these opportunities.”
Pfaelzer’s interest in theater began in high school, where she started acting “for fun. I had originally trained in ballet. My parents were unbelievably supportive of that, but never pushed. They were the same way about theater. The thing they did that was unbelievably generous was that they had zero agenda about it.”
Over the years, both parents independently become avid theater-goers. “My father has seen more at Berkeley Rep, probably, than I have. He used to be a volunteer usher here; that’s how he could see the shows here for free. Now he thinks I’m going to get him free tickets. And he’s probably right.”
Born in England, where her parents were graduate students, Pfaelzer lived in Berkeley from age 3 to 6. She was too young to attend Berkeley Rep, but she remembers seeing the San Francisco Mime Troupe in Bay Area parks and falling in love with the Pickle Family Circus and its resident comic clowns Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle.
When her parents divorced, Pfaelzer and her mother moved to Humboldt County and later to San Diego and Washington, D.C., where her mother, an American studies professor at the University of Delaware, still lives. Her father, now retired, taught mechanical engineering and rehabilitation design at San Francisco State Univeristy, and lives in Berkeley. So do Pfaelzer’s stepmother, stepsiblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles.
She graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, spent a year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky and moved to New York where she and several Actors Theatre grads started their own theater company, Zena Group. “It came out of desperation,” Pfaelzer said. “Because we were having to produce in order to create performance opportunities for ourselves, that was where I got my first taste of all the things that go into producing.”
Pfaelzer isn’t sure why she became a theater artist. “But if you’re raised by an English professor, as I was, I think you grow up with a pretty deep love of story. And one of the romantic things that we all like to say about theater is that it’s a place where you make family. That may be a little reductive, but I do think it’s a place of intense community. And one of the truly collaborative art forms.
“It’s not like writing a novel or painting a painting. It’s an art form that’s entirely dependent on a group of people coming together and essentially making a contract with themselves and with the audience — that we are going to make something together in real time. And I think that’s a rare and beautiful thing.”