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TheatreWorks' 50 Years Of Innovation

Jeanne Cooper | July 16, 2019 | Lifestyle

TheatreWorks marks 50 years of innovation onstage and behind the scenes.

The_Prince_of_Egypt_322_Kevin_Berne.jpgIn 2017, The Prince of Egypt had its world premiere.

If an international corporation like Hewlett Packard can spring from a Palo Alto garage, the recent Regional Theatre Tony Award for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (season subscriptions $215 to $591)—an amateur troupe when it debuted a half-century ago in Palo Alto—is not unprecedented.

Screen_Shot_2019-07-16_at_1_42_46_PM.pngArtistic Director Robert Kelley.

“Our growth curve is pretty much an exact curve for the growth of Silicon Valley,” observes Robert Kelley, founding artistic director of the now-professional company that performs in Mountain View (500 Castro St.) and Palo Alto (1305 Middlefield Road). “That’s proven to be vital in our success. Among other things, TheatreWorks is very dedicated to diversity in everything we do... and in the course of the growth of Silicon Valley, we’ve become one of the most international communities in the world. Our programming has resonated well with that development.”

TW_Romeo_Juliet_98_JessicaChastain_DavidAllenPhoto_2.jpgAs a teen, Jessica Chastain acted with Travis Engle in 1998’s Romeo and Juliet, set in Northern Ireland.

During his 50-year tenure, Kelley has found an appreciative audience for his commitment to producing new plays and musicals, and nurturing their creators. The new season starts July 10 and will feature its 70th world premiere, a Pride and Prejudice musical, while its New Works Initiative includes an annual New Works Festival of staged readings and writers’ retreats. “The idea of creating something new where there was nothing before is part of the ethos of the Valley,” says Kelley. “We tell subscribers, ‘Just think of it as the R&D department of the arts,’ and they’re glad to hear about it, and, in some cases, support it.”

02_Memphis_2004_JamesIglehart_David_AllenPhoto.jpgMemphis debuted in 2004 and later won a Tony on Broadway.

Derry Kabcenell, a retired software executive and longtime trustee, subscribes with his with wife, and, together, they underwrite the New Works Festival or one show each season. “It’s really fun to be involved in that,” Kabcenell says. “It’s also impressive how much [TheatreWorks] has contributed to the theatrical literature of the country. Some of the things from our New Works Festival and writers’ retreats have gone onto professional productions and even on Broadway.”

Caroline_or_Change_2008_Steve_Mannshardt.jpgCaroline, or Change starred C. Kelley Wright in the Bay Area’s first look at the musical in 2008.

Kelley retires next June. Notes Kabcenell: “The feeling of being part of the community comes from Kelley, and we’re working hard to preserve that as we choose a new artistic director.”

Originally published in the July/August issue of Silicon Valley

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Photography by: Photos Courtesy of Kevin Byrne; David Allen Studio; Steve Mannshardt