Edward Albee was in the audience for the opening night of “A Delicate Balance” at the Aurora Theatre earlier this month. He stood up at the play’s end, joining many others to give the actors a standing ovation. Tom Ross, who directed the play, had not told his cast that the renowned author of the play they were performing would be present on their first night. It would have given them the jitters, he said — even more than they probably already had.
As Artistic Director, Ross has been taking care of the actors at the Aurora this way for the past seven years. He has also been sustaining the Aurora’s reputation for top-quality theater that emphasizes language and ideas since 1991 when he inaugurated the company with Barbara Oliver.
Oliver, who was in her 60s at the time, worked as an actress at the Berkeley Rep, and she decided to go it alone after she realized that all the roles she was being given were one of a kind. ”They were either nannies or grannies,” she says.
The company’s first production, “Dear Master” by Dorothy Bryant, was performed to a 67-strong audience in the back parlor of the Berkeley City Club, the group’s first home, and it was a sell-out before it had even opened. “We understood then that we would have an audience for the type of plays we wanted to put on,” says Oliver.
The theatre’s name was inspired by the subject of that first play –the 13-year long correspondence between George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. Sand’s given name was Lucile Aurore Dupin.
The Aurora moved to its current location in 2001, in the heart of what was then the city’s burgeoning arts district. Oliver, who is still involved with the company and will direct one of its 20th anniversary season’s shows, says they have much to thank her former employer for.
‘We have earned our success but we have also had good friends to help us along the way,” she says. She cites Susan Medak, the Rep’s Managing Director, who a decade ago was working with Berkeley’s then mayor Shirley Dean to establish a cultural hub downtown. Medak argued there should be more than one theater in the area.
The Aurora is sandwiched between Rep and the Jazzschool, and and across the street from another Berkeley cultural institution, the Freight & Salvage. The two theaters still help each other out, says Ross, although there is a friendly rivalry too. Ross, for example, says he likes the fact that people walking to the Rep from the east need to step across the Aurora light logo which is beamed onto the sidewalk under their entrance canopy.
Not that the Aurora is struggling to fill its intimate, 150-seat thrust theater. Ross says the company has 2,800 subscribers and a 91% retention rate.
Over its 20-year history, the Aurora has become known for putting on the non-obvious plays, the B-sides if you will — some that have never even been seen on stage. “We like to resurrect little gems,” says Ross. “They don’t have to be the greatest hits.” They also favor scripts of substance, those that make the actors shine, he says.
The fact that it is largely Berkeley residents who come to the Addison Street theater is also a significant factor for the company. ”We have an intelligent audience. We know that,” Ross says. “We have academics and Nobel Laureates, many intellectuals.” But the plays don’t necessarily reflect the liberal outlook Berkeley is know for. “Our audience doesn’t want to see pat-on-the-back pieces. They want to be challenged,” Ross says.
Ross goes as far as to say the theater’s relationship with Berkeley has been instrumental to its survival. “Berkeley has been so supportive. If we had started in San Francisco we might not be around today.”
The Aurora’s 20th anniversary season line-up is: “The Soldier’s Tale” with music by Igor Stravinsky, the Bay Area premiere of “Body Awareness” by Annie Baker, “Anatol” by Arthur Schnitzler, and the world premiere of “Salomania” written and directed by Mark Jackson.
The current production, “A Delicate Balance”, which stars Aurora co-founder Ken Grantham and his wife Kimberly King, who both appeared in two of the theatre’s inaugural plays 20 years ago, has been extended through October 23rd.