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Community connections make theater work

Palo Alto stage company TheatreWorks thrives on Silicon Valley culture

While many of the organizations putting the "silicon" in Silicon Valley have rocketed out of the recession, leaving a trail of higher paid tech workers and higher rents in their wake, other sectors of the local economy are still fighting their way back from the 2008 collapse, and some arts organizations have not been able to survive.

The New York City Opera was forced to close its doors in 2013, and the San Jose Repertory Theatre filed for bankruptcy just weeks ago. However, the Palo Alto-based TheatreWorks, the third-largest theater company in the Bay Area, continues to soldier on.

Robert Kelley, founder and artistic director of TheatreWorks thinks his company has been able to weather the storm because of its deep connection to Palo Alto and the surrounding areas commonly referred to as Silicon Valley.

"I'm very much a part of this area, this region," Kelley says. "I grew up here. All of my experiences in the theater were here -- both at the Children's Theatre, the Lucie Stern and at Stanford. I feel that there's a real strong connection between TheatreWorks and the community, as a result. And the values of this community are represented on our stage."

Kelley's local upbringing is not the only reason his organization has become so intertwined with Silicon Valley. The connection TheatreWorks shares with the Midpeninsula and the South Bay were hard won over years of direct outreach through programs and initiatives aimed at encouraging the creation of new theatrical work, because ultimately, as Kelley sees it, that is where the future of the theater lies.

Kelley says he started TheatreWorks back in 1970 with the idea that "the art of creating, not just performing" would be heavily emphasized. Indeed, the company's first production, "Popcorn," was written and produced locally and was about local issues, Kelley says.

Since then, the company has grown from a grassroots community theater, to the premier stage company in Silicon Valley and is now nationally recognized both for the high caliber of its professional productions, as well as for its stellar original works and world premiers -- such as the play that will lead off the company's 45th season.

When the curtains part at the Lucie Stern Theatre this week, the audience gathered in the Palo Alto hall will be the first to take in the bittersweet dramedy, "The Great Pretender," in its fully realized form. However, it's quite possible that some who plan to attend the first preview performance of the production on July 9 already witnessed some version of the play last summer, when its director and writer, David West Read, was working out the kinks on the very same stage, at TheatreWorks' 12th annual New Works Festival.

Kelley launched the New Works Festival during the company's 2001-02 season. It functions as an extensive play and musical workshop, which affords the creators of five nascent productions the opportunity to have their plays and musicals read before a live audience, so that they may see what works, what doesn't and get direct feedback from the theatergoers so that they might improve their productions.

Read is originally from Toronto and has been living in New York for most of the past six years working in theater. He was drawn to the New Works Festival for the opportunity it would afford him to engage directly with a trial audience.

"I had a great experience doing the New Works Festival," Read says. "I think what sets the New Works Festival apart is that you get a number of readings in front of a few hundred people. ... It's a great opportunity to be in dialog with the audience and also make them a part of the development process."

Having conversations with audience members and seeing what is working and what isn't was incredibly valuable, he says, especially when it came to writing jokes. When an audience doesn't laugh, Read reasons, that means it's time to work on that joke.

The Tony Award-winning musical "Memphis" is perhaps the highest-profile production to come out of the New Works Festival, where it saw its first live read in 2002 and its first proper staging through TheatreWorks in 2004. "There are parts of 'Memphis' that were changed and modified because of people right here," Kelley says of the production. "I find that very exciting."

In addition to the New Works Festival, TheatreWorks encourages the creation of new theater in other ways, such as in its youth programs.

Through various summer camps and other one-off events, such as the 24 Hour Play Festival, TheatreWorks encourages children from kindergarten through high school to pen and produce their own plays. "All our youth programs are based on the premise that doing new work is what the theater is about," Kelley says, noting that one recent highlight in his professional life was seeing a group of kindergarten to fourth-graders produce a "hilarious" and "immensely creative" play.

Kelley also says that Silicon Valley, with its do-it-yourself ethos, spirit of entrepreneurship and highly educated, cultured population has had a profound influence on TheatreWorks.

The New Works Festival, he says, is reflective of the "underlying spirit of the Silicon Valley and what's going on here. It's just a sense of creativity done in collaboration. There is this very palpable sense that the audience is part of the process -- because they are."

Furthermore, Kelley adds, the "professionalization" of the region has resulted in a population that expects "the highest quality of everything," and TheatreWorks has been doing its best to deliver.

Of course, Kelley allows, Silicon Valley has also been the cause of some pretty steep competition to the theater business. "People are getting their entertainment on their tablet, they're getting it on their smart phone," he says. "It's a challenge, and it's a challenge that has grown."

However, Kelley is hopeful that there are enough people out there who see the world of theater the way he does.

"I want to hear a real voice, I want to see a bead of sweat, I want to have my heart broken or watch it soar," he says. "What we have to offer is intimacy, the risk, the human connection of live theater. I think our task is to convince a new generation that has so many more options for entertainment, that the live experience is not only irreplaceable but also unmatchable."

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