Angels, Idiots, and Gerbils
Tony Taccone, one of America’s most prominent artistic directors, contemplates a post-Berkeley Rep life.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
(page 1 of 2)
Ten of us were gathered around a dining table in a Berkeley flat in spring 1985, getting ready to choose our players in the third draft of our fantasy baseball Lucky Pork League. But first we had to come up with names for our teams. Tony Taccone, a baseball fanatic who was born in Queens and had, by the eighth grade, abandoned his dream of playing second base for the Yankees, called the team he co-managed The Fuckin’ Gerbils, a reference to both an obscene urban myth about actor Richard Gere and the derisive nickname that pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee attached to his Boston Red Sox manager Don Zimmer.
Flash forward to July 2017. I was sitting with Taccone in overstuffed chairs in the foyer outside his upstairs office at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in downtown Berkeley. Before we got to the business at hand—his reasons for stepping down as artistic director, at the conclusion of the Rep’s 2018–2019 season, and his post-retirement plans—Tony and I spent 20 minutes reminiscing, catching up, and laughing a lot. We’d crossed many different paths over the past 40 years: at the East Bay Socialist School, where his then-wife Suellen took a labor history class I co-taught in the late 1970s; in the UC Berkeley child care program, where I taught his and Suellen’s toddler son, Asa, in the mid-1980s; and on Berkeley Rec Department athletic fields, where we played softball with and against each other though much of the ’80s.
We compared notes about growing older, nursing aching joints, and becoming, in his words, “old farts,” bemoaning “the complete, utter, 180-degree shift in values to the point where you’re having to tell kids around the fireplace what it was like back in the day.” And we shared our wonderment about the post-Berkeley High success of his sons: Asa, a pop music artist in the band Electric Guest and a composer for film, video (including Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts), and theater (including the Berkeley Rep’s Bridge & Tunnel); and Asa’s older brother, Jorma, a founding member of the comedic music-video trio The Lonely Island and its Party Over Here Production company, and a director and actor (SNL, Girls, MacGruber, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping).
Then we got down to the brass tacks of his leaving a job he’s held since succeeding Sharon Ott in 1987, a job at which he’s been successful enough for the theater publication Playbill to assert in 2009, “Tony Taccone may very well be the most prominent artistic director in America right now.”
“I’ve been here for 30 years now, 20 as A.D. and 10 years before that as associate A.D.,” the 66-year-old Taccone told me. “It’s the best job in American theater, I think. There will be a line around the block to get this job. It’s already forming, seriously, and I’m not leaving for two years. I love being part of this, but I just need to change the channel in my head. I’m not burnt out. I don’t feel like it’s boring. The job is probably more challenging and more engaging now than it’s ever been, but at some point you have to find out who you are outside of your job, outside of your title, outside of your identity. I think I need to rediscover that part of myself.”
Over the course of Taccone’s three-decade tenure, Berkeley Rep added the 600-seat Roda Theatre across the courtyard from the 400-seat Thrust stage (now the Peet’s Theatre), opened the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, presented more than 70 world, American, and West Coast premieres, and saw its annual budget grow from around $3 million to $18 million.
Susan Medak, the theater’s managing director since 1990, said in an email interview, “Under Tony’s leadership Berkeley Rep has stretched our programming in all directions. We’ve worked hard to make the theater a destination for interesting projects that can have a future life in commercial runs, resulting in shows like Ain’t Too Proud, Monsoon Wedding, and [Green Day’s] American Idiot, which changed our profile nationally. It was like hanging out a shingle to say to artists with ambitious projects, ‘Hey, we’re here for you!’ Our reputation rests on the number of shows we’ve sent to New York City and to other theaters, and on our support for new work.”