Interview by Lissa Tyler Renaud[1]

Actor and director Barbara Oliver © Photo by Malcolm McWilliams
Actor and director Barbara Oliver
© Photo by Malcolm McWilliams

California’s San Francisco Bay Area (U.S.) has a history of fostering women as remarkable as actor-director Barbara Oliver, many of them involved in performance. Among the best known, Isadora Duncan has been called “the mother of modern dance,” Gertrude Stein has been called “the mama of dada,” and in our own time, Barbara Oliver has been called “the first lady of Berkeley theatre” and “a bright star in the galaxy of Bay Area theatre.”

Born in Ohio in 1927, Oliver spent some of her childhood years in India, and completed her acting and directing training in 1949 at America’s oldest theatre conservatory, the prestigious “Carnegie Tech” (now Carnegie Mellon University). Over the next 40 years, Oliver acted in professional theatres around the country and all along the U.S.’s western coast from Seattle to San Diego. She settled in 1958 across the bay from San Francisco, next to Oakland, in Berkeley, home of the celebrated University of California.

The Bay Area’s diverse population is typically international, educated, politically aware, socially liberal and artistically adventurous—and this turns out to be the perfect audience to appreciate the Aurora Theatre Company, which Oliver co-founded, and where she served as Artistic Director from 1992 until 2004. Since then, Oliver has enjoyed an active career as both actress and director. This year, she has returned to direct for the Aurora’s 20th anniversary season.

The Aurora is the expression of Oliver’s independent mindedness. When general trends in the theatre have been towards the auteur director and “visual theatre” dominated by designers, she has created an actor’s theatre in which the design elements support, not overwhelm, the text. When U.S. theatres started hiring actors for single productions rather than forming companies, Oliver balanced hiring new actors and collaborating with talented theatre professionals among her family and close colleagues, many of whom return to work with her from all over the country. When theatres were clambering for large spaces as a sign of success, Oliver started in a 67-seat space in a building by another remarkable Bay Area woman, architect Julia Morgan; the new Aurora (2001) seats 150. When other theatres have explored new plays, improvisation, indigenous theatre or storytelling, Oliver’s theatre has produced and commissioned new plays along with new translations, new adaptations and new versions of plays from the canon of Western dramatic literature. When “physical theatre” has been at the fore, her hallmark has been doing plays with intricate language expressing rich ideas.

At the Aurora—under Tom Ross’s artistic directorship since 2004—Oliver has directed 20 plays in 20 years. She has been showered with awards since the theatre’s beginning, including Lifetime Achievement, two West coast Drama-Logue Critics’ Awards for performances and four Bay Area Critics’ Circle (BACC) Awards. The Aurora routinely makes the critics’ Top Ten lists, the popular “Best of” lists, receives Bay Area Critics Circle nominations in the dozens, and wins awards you need two hands to count. Their website contains the note: “We at Aurora are… grateful for the acknowledgements we receive from the critical community.”

At the time of this interview, Oliver was in rehearsal at the Aurora for Wilder Times, four one-act plays by Thornton Wilder.

Barbara Oliver and Ken Grantham in “Dear Master” by Dorothy Bryant. Independent production. Berkeley City Club (Julia Morgan architect), Fall 1991. © Photo by Robert Bryant
Barbara Oliver and Ken Grantham in “Dear Master” by Dorothy Bryant. Independent production. Berkeley City Club (Julia Morgan architect), Fall 1991. © Photo by Robert Bryant
Nagg (Giles Havergal, left) and Nell (Barbara Oliver) in Samuel Beckett's “Endgame.” Dir. Carey Perloff, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, California, May 2012. © Photo by Kevin Berne
Nagg (Giles Havergal, left) and Nell (Barbara Oliver) in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.” Dir. Carey Perloff, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, California, May 2012. © Photo by Kevin Berne

LISSA TYLER RENAUD: In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world?”—or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?

BARBARA OLIVER: I can’t think of any local problem or concern that a Bay Area playwright might be reluctant to put on stage, except possibly a “send-up” of liberal politics and social behavior—and the fact that we are probably complacent about how we cope with problems in our own community. Do we even recognize the fact that we have serious problems? What’s happened to all the people who used to live in nice old houses that had become a bit seedy? Many of those houses look elegant now because of the almost convulsive changes in the real estate market. Another example: we’re a community dominated by a university. I’d like to see a play about that. Isn’t it a little like living with a friendly giant? But no matter how friendly, when a giant sits down on a wooden bench beside you, the bench is liable to crumble, and you’ll fall with it. Beware of the Giant that embraces you, unless you’re sure that he knows how strong he is! And yet, would we be willing to say “Goodbye!” to the Giant, or even “Would you consider going on a diet? For your sake and ours!” How would the Giant respond?

What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?

It all depends on the people, doesn’t it? No, I’ve never designed a show, so I can’t really speak to the last part of the question.

Until this past season I was fortunate enough to work for several years with what I called a “team” of designers, all of them with local connections, and all of them very good at what they did.

I had useful conversations with each of them early in the pre-production period, told them what I thought the playwright was saying, and responded to questions they had that related to each designer’s specific field. Without fail they provided what the production needed and wanted. In other words, they listened, and I (for good reason) trusted them. Changes were made, of course, when they were needed. Sometimes the designers made suggestions that were enormously helpful to me as a director, too. Recently I directed six of Schnitzler’s Anatol plays. I told the set designer, John Iacovelli, that I was concerned about accomplishing all the set changes in a very small performance space. He said, “How about a revolving stage?” It was a perfect answer; it suited the play, and it solved a problem.

“Anatol” by Arthur Schnitzler, world premiere translation by Margaret Schaefer. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2012. One of Anatol's (l. Mike Ryan) former loves (c. Delia MacDougall) tries to keep Anatol and Max (r. Tim Kniffin) from being on time for a wedding. © Photo by David Allen
“Anatol” by Arthur Schnitzler, world premiere translation by Margaret Schaefer. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2012. One of Anatol’s (l. Mike Ryan) former loves (c. Delia MacDougall) tries to keep Anatol and Max (r. Tim Kniffin) from being on time for a wedding. © Photo by David Allen
“Anatol” by Arthur Schnitzler, world premiere translation by Margaret Schaefer. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2012. Anatol (Mike Ryan) and fiance Emily (Delia MacDougall) admire a precious gem from her past. © Photo by David Allen
“Anatol” by Arthur Schnitzler, world premiere translation by Margaret Schaefer. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2012. Anatol (Mike Ryan) and fiance Emily (Delia MacDougall) admire a precious gem from her past. © Photo by David Allen

In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?

I enjoy casting least. I think it’s the most important and the most difficult job a director does. If a director casts a play well, 90% of the job is done, in my opinion. That opinion may be based on the fact that I’m an actor as well as a director!

I could take a step back and say that understanding a script deeply and thoroughly must happen before it’s cast—or at least one has to be well on the way! And that isn’t always easy, either—especially if the play you’ve been given has some serious flaws. That’s not uncommon!

So, first I need to understand the play, and then I need to find a promising group of actors. And then I need to make choices based, of course, on the characters, but also on intelligence, imagination, a willingness to communicate (not just with me, but with everyone else involved), and to discover—a passion for acting.

What makes a group of actors “promising”?

In my experience, really good actors are imaginative and curious, good co-workers and good listeners.

During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?

I can’t remember a comment of a critical nature that has been particularly useful. Like most directors (or actors!) I’m delighted when nice things are said in print and glum when they aren’t.

I’m too old to have a mentor, though in the past, as a student, I had a few.

I believe I’ve learned more from directing good actors than I have from any other source. I’ve learned a lot from being on stage with good actors, too.

A few seasons ago I directed John Gabriel Borkman. I was fortunate to have two excellent actors as Borkman and Foldal. The depth and the nuance that those actors found in their attic scene (the first one they have together in the play) was so moving and so funny! I smiled, I laughed—and I almost cried! The actors had found the humor in the scene. I’d missed that completely! But that’s Ibsen, isn’t it? Not just three dimensions—more like four. As for two—never!

James Carpenter in the title role of “John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Eldridge. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2010. © Photo by David Allen
James Carpenter in the title role of “John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Eldridge. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2010. © Photo by David Allen
Ella Rentheim (l. Karen Lewis) and John Gabriel Borkman (r. James Carpenter) go for a walk in the snow in Aurora Theatre Company's “John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Eldridge. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2010. © Photo by David Allen
Ella Rentheim (l. Karen Lewis) and John Gabriel Borkman (r. James Carpenter) go for a walk in the snow in Aurora Theatre Company’s “John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Eldridge. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2010.
© Photo by David Allen
John Gabriel Borkman (r. James Carpenter) and Vilhelm Flodal (l. Jack Powell) in Aurora Theatre Company's “John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Eldridge. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2010. © Photo by David Allen
John Gabriel Borkman (r. James Carpenter) and Vilhelm Flodal (l. Jack Powell) in Aurora Theatre Company’s “John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Eldridge. Dir. Barbara Oliver, Aurora Theatre Company, April 2010. © Photo by David Allen

Fewer women than men start theatres, and you started your own theatre at a point in your life when most people are retiring. What role did being a woman play in that experience?

I wasn’t really aware of feeling dismissed because I was a woman, though I’m sure that was somewhere in the mix. I simply knew I was not ready to play nothing but “nannies and grannies,” and that’s what I was being offered by the theater where I’d worked since the late ‘60s.

When Aurora wasn’t a gleam in anyone’s eye yet, a good friend who is a fine novelist—Dorothy Bryant is her name—suggested that I develop a one-woman show based on the life of George Sand. I don’t much care for solo performances in the theatre, so she agreed to write a script that included George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. We developed the piece “Dear Master” over a year or two. Finally in 1991, we (by this time “we” included Robert Bryant, Dorothy’s husband; Richard Rossi, an actor and director; and Ken Grantham, who played Flaubert) decided to launch a full production. To our amazement we were sold out before we opened.

We agreed that there was an audience for plays that emphasize language and ideas! The Aurora was a 501c3 non-profit theatre by 1992, and we began our first season in January of 1993.

How does your experience as an actress influence your directing?

I think that being an actor as well as a director helps me to understand how hard actors have to work. There must be empathy and sympathy and respect for each other’s work. We need each other! A diagram of the relationship between director and actors shouldn’t be pyramidal. It should be circular.

“Candida” by George Bernard Shaw, dir. Barbara Oliver at the Zeum Theatre, San Francisco, Oct. 2007. Prod. American Conservatory Theatre’s Master of Fine Arts Program. Madness reigns in Rev. Morrell’s household—from left: Rev. James Morrell (James Wagner); his secretary, Proserpine (Jahmela Biggs); Candida’s father, Burgess (Dan Morrison); her wounded admirer, Eugene Marchbanks (J. C. Ernst); and Candida herself (Shannon Taing). © Photo by David Wilson
“Candida” by George Bernard Shaw, dir. Barbara Oliver at the Zeum Theatre, San Francisco, Oct. 2007. Prod. American Conservatory Theatre’s Master of Fine Arts Program. Madness reigns in Rev. Morrell’s household—from left: Rev. James Morrell (James Wagner); his secretary, Proserpine (Jahmela Biggs); Candida’s father, Burgess (Dan Morrison); her wounded admirer, Eugene Marchbanks (J. C. Ernst); and Candida herself (Shannon Taing). © Photo by David Wilson

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[1] Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training in California. She has taught acting and voice throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, she is an award-winning actress and a recognized director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published by Routledge (2009; paperback 2011). Renaud was guest speaker and master teacher in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2010 and 2011. She is currently writing a chapter for an international volume honoring Stanislavsky’s 150th birthday (2013).

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“A Gleam in Her Eye: Language Theatre in the Visual Age” — Interview with U.S. Actor and Director Barbara Oliver