Read Sam Hurwitt’s article from the Marin Independent Journal
New artistic director shakes things up at Marin Shakes
By Sam Hurwitt | IJ correspondent
Change is afoot at Marin Shakespeare Company. And a big catalyst of that change is the introduction of a new artistic director, Jon Tracy.
Tracy is a familiar, dynamic presence in Bay Area theater and at Marin Shakes itself. He’s directed plays for companies such as Magic Theatre, Shotgun Players, Aurora Theatre Company, San Francisco Playhouse and Marin Theatre Company. As a playwright, he’s created dynamic adaptations of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”
At MSC, Tracy was first hired in 2008 to direct the teen touring company for a few years. He also directed “The Tempest” in the theater’s 2011 season.
“He’s somebody who has worked with Marin Shakespeare many times in the past, someone who I personally admire and who has been a real leader in the Bay Area theater scene,” says managing director Lesley Schisgall Currier.
When Tracy became artistic director (later renamed artistic facilitator) of Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST in 2016, he initiated a radical shift in pretty much every aspect of the company. It became entirely devoted to developing new plays and made a commitment that every company endeavor would involve a group made up of at least two-thirds people of color, at least half women and at least one-third LGBTQ+ artists. In 2021, he turned TheatreFIRST over to new leadership, but it closed down this August due to financial pressures.
Currier and her husband, founding artistic director Robert Currier, had been running Marin Shakespeare Company since it began in 1990 in Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, which had previously been the home of the Marin Shakespeare Festival of the 1960s and ’70s.
In February 2022, MSC announced former Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic associate Raphael Massie as its second-ever artistic director, but by June the company announced that Massie had left and the planned summer season was cancelled.
“We did a national search and we hired someone who didn’t work out,” Lesley Schisgall Currier says. “So then we were very skittish about how do we proceed. Jon had been a semifinalist in our original search. He’s not only a really creative and visionary director, but he also has a lot of experience in building organizations and leading organizations. And so I hired Jon on a trial basis to be the artistic producer of our summer season.”
“For better or for worse, it allowed them to reassess once again what the next steps may be,” Tracy adds. “One of those things was moving more pragmatically and slowly and not trying to change the entire company overnight. And that’s work that’s interesting for me to explore. I have always been someone who’s had the opportunity to move quickly and boldly and perhaps ambitiously. I want to stay away from the word ‘revolutionary’ because I feel like that should be held towards people who have done so much more than myself, but I’ll use it to say in comparison that I’m now exploring a much more evolutionary approach.”
This summer, Tracy presented his own bold reimagining of “Hamlet” and director and choreographer Bridgette Loriaux’s luminous adaptation of “Twelfth Night.” The acclaim and sheer infusion of energy that both productions generated seemed like a pretty good indication that the experiment was a success.
“We got to work together for about nine months, and I tried to give him a free hand in making artistic decisions, casting and hiring and show selection and concepts,” Currier says. “We had many times when we disagreed about things, but we figured out how to deal with disagreements and conflict, and we really got to practice working together. So I felt very comfortable recommending to the board that Jon be hired as our full-time legit artistic director.”
“I’ve done my best to get to know the company as it stood, and the company has done its best to get to know me as I stand and find ways that we can collaborate and synthesize our visions,” Tracy adds. “We do have some really tough conversations, because we have a lot of shared goals but different ways of getting there. And the process of trying to figure out which methods we can move forward with together has been a lovely way to really get to know them.”
Last summer was the company’s first main stage season since 2019. Like many theaters, MSC has had a bumpy road back from COVID shutdowns and other disruptions. In the meantime, the company has continued its youth educational programs and its Shakespeare program in prisons, as well as finishing up its new indoor Center for Performing Arts, Education, and Social Justice at 514 Fourth St. in San Rafael (formerly Heller’s for Children).
The first new program announced under Tracy’s tenure is Open Access, which opens up the new center free of charge for artists to develop work, rehearse or otherwise use.
“We’re just opening the space up three days a week, four hours a day for artists to come in and write or be on the stage to practice,” Currier says. “We’ve got pianos. We’ve got different small rooms around the building, or people can be in the lobby. Someone recorded a podcast in here the other day. Some poets came in and were writing poetry. Actors have been here using the stage. It’s only been going on for a week, and it’s already really fun and super successful.”
“How can you put a theater in the middle of the Canal district in San Rafael, call it a community center, and not find a way to literally and figuratively swing the doors open to folks?” Tracy adds. “All we’ve done is just given the space, and everything else, the full power of it, is just who comes in through the door. It’s sort of the stone soup model. Everyone is their own ingredients, and we’re just the basin.”
Marin Shakes will announce its 2024 season at a gala in the new space from 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 3.
“This season will be the first one that will be in multiple spaces,” Tracy says. “We will do two shows outdoors and at least one indoors. And though there will be an adjacency to Shakespeare this year in the indoor space, it will begin the conversation about how we explore new works.”
Along with Tracy’s appointment, Marin Shakes announced nine new associate artists brought aboard to help plot the course of the company in the future, including Aejay Mitchell, Cathleen Riddley, Elena Wright, Joey Pagaduan, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Michael Torres, Nick Musleh, Nina Ball and Stevie DeMott.
“It’s about making sure that there’s all the right people in the room to continue to ask harder and harder questions about not only Marin Shakes, but theater in general, and more specifically what a Shakespeare festival means now,” Tracy says. “They’re not Jon Tracy’s group of folks. I work for them, as far as I’m concerned. I am going to look at each of them as shaping the whole ethos and the ethic of the space.”
Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/shurwitt.