Berkeley Repertory Theatre announced Monday that Johanna Pfaelzer, a highly respected producer who helped nurture the creation of Hamilton and other Tony-award winning productions, will be its next artistic director.
Pfaelzer will replace Tony Taccone, whose 21 years as artistic director have been marked with numerous triumphs, most recently a new production of Angels in America by Tony Kushner.
Pfaelzer, who lived in Berkeley when she was a young girl and who served as associate artistic director for the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco for five years, will take the helm Sept. 1, 2019.
“Let the wild ride continue,” Taccone, who has been at Berkeley Rep a total of 33 years, said in the press release announcing Pfaezler’s appointment. “Johanna’s vision, intelligence, and long history of curating great work make her an inspired choice as the new artistic director of Berkeley Rep. On behalf of the entire artistic staff, we welcome her with open arms. May the Force be with her.”
Pfaelzer is currently the artistic director of New York Stage and Film (NYSAF), an organization that helps emerging and established artists to develop and produce their plays. The nonprofit’s signature event is the Powerhouse Theater summer program at Vassar College, according to the New York Times.
Pfaelzer has headed the organization for the 11 years. Notable works that were developed at NYSAF under Pfaelzer’s leadership, according to the press release, include the 2016 Tony Award winners Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Humans by Stephen Karam, The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, Junk and The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music by Taylor Mac, Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell, The Homecoming Queen by Ngozi Anyanwu, The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer- and Tony- Award-winning Doubt, The Fortress of Solitude by Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses, The Jacksonian by Beth Henley, and Green Day’s American Idiot.
Pfaelzer graduated from Wesleyan University and trained for a year at the Actors Theater of Louisville Apprentice Program. When she returned to New York, she formed a theater company, Zena Group, with other Louisville graduates and not only honed her acting but learned to read scripts and raise money for productions, she told American Theatre. It was there she realized her vocation lay in producing. She served as assistant company manager on The Lion King, too. Pfaelzer has also served as an adjunct assistant professor in the MFA Theater Program in the Columbia University School of the Arts.
“I am honored beyond measure to serve as the next artistic director of Berkeley Rep,” Pfaelzer said in the statement. “It is a company I have admired my whole life, and to have the opportunity to return home to the Bay Area as its leader is a dream. Tony Taccone and Susie Medak have built an organization that is a place of boundless creative vision, great intellectual rigor, and a deep sense of community. I can’t wait to get to work with this extraordinary board and staff to continue to bring world-class work from the widest possible range of artists to Berkeley Rep’s stages.”
Pfaelzer will move to the Bay Area with her husband, lighting designer Russell Champa, and their son, Jasper.
The decision to hire Pfaelzer comes after a long process of self-reflection and education for Berkeley Rep. After Taccone announced in January 2017 his intention to retire, members of the board of directors met with 30 working artists from around the world to inform themselves of the issues facing stage actors and theaters. The organization revised its mission statement and “articulated its values in an effort to clearly identify the candidate it was looking for,” according to the press release.
Berkeley Rep hired a search firm that reviewed nearly 160 applications. Once the list of candidates had been reduced significantly, a taskforce from the board traveled around the country to meet the candidates and look at their work.
“Ultimately it became clear that Pfaelzer had what it will take to lead Berkeley Rep into a fresh artistic direction,” said Stewart Owen, the chair of the board.
Pfaelzer, unlike Taccone, is not a director. She told the New York Times that she considers herself a curator.
“I couldn’t be happier about having Johanna join us,” Berkeley Rep Managing Director Susan Medak said in a statement. “During the interview process, I became increasingly fond of and inspired by her. We had an illustrious field of candidates from across the country with a wide range of backgrounds. Johanna’s knowledge of the field and the enthusiasm of artists with whom she had worked made her our perfect choice. Her work at NYSAF in the development of new plays and musicals has made her such a good match for us. She is committed to our Ground Floor Center for the Creation and Development of New Work and our School of Theatre, as both are important pieces of our programmatic puzzle.”
Taccone will remain as the artistic director for the 2018-19 season. He is scheduled to direct the musical Kiss My Aztec!, by the actor/writer John Leguizamo, in the spring.
Berkeley Rep is not the only theater company experiencing a change in artistic leadership. Tom Ross, who has served as the artistic director of Aurora Theater for the last 15 years, is also retiring at the end of 2019.
Carey Perloff, who served with ACT for 25 years, is stepping down at the end of 2018. Pat MacKinnon, a Tony-award winning director, will become the next artistic director.