Jon Moscone is one of the Bay Area’s most innovative and entertaining theater directors, and soon a policy wonk.
Moscone leaves CalShakes on a roll. The company has more than doubled its budget in his time there, with credit also to Executive Director Susie Falk. They also remodeled the theater and thoughtfully overhauled the company's repertoire, adding a diverse set of classic and modern playwrights, from Hurston to Montoya.
And Moscone is offering a goodby gift to audiences, directing a beloved farce. Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep is a goofy, cross-dressing, quick-change spoof on classics of melodrama -- think Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. Then mix with vampires.
I talked to Moscone this week by phone for a segment of The Do List. He said his head was “spinning” from rehearsals for Mystery…
Why choose this fabulous but very silly comedy for your final play at Cal Shakes?
I had chosen it prior to my decision to leave. But I did want to have something just joyful, and funny, and silly, and smart and theatrical. And yet it’s not a small play, because there are endless costume changes that happen within 10 to 15 seconds backstage.
So you’re essentially directing two plays. You’re directing an onstage play and an offstage play. And the number of people back there who are ripping wigs off, and pulling clothes off, and putting on high heels, while the actor is having to speak on a mic from offstage, makes it quite dizzying to direct and affects the performance on stage; because every time they come back on, you can feel this energy of what did they’re doing back there, which I think is built into [playwright Charles] Ludlam’s comic mechanism. It doesn’t feel safe. It requires virtuousity, and that’s why I love the piece so much.
And you’re working with Danny Scheie, a virtuoso performer and the versatile Liam Vincent.
I picked the show for Danny, and was fortunate to bring along Liam Vincent as his partner.
And Danny just knows how to take something to the edge in performance. And he understands all the layers of comedy in this play, in the same way he understands all of the layers of comedy inside a Shakespeare play. So he’s able to play all of them at once, and he does it all while looking quite beautiful in a dress.
Fifteen years at Cal Shakes. What do you remember most vividly from that stage in the golden hills?
Oh my. I think probably that’s stayed with me the longest is The Life and Adventures of [David Edgar's adaptation of Dickens'] Nicholas Nickleby, which we did both parts of so it ran about seven hours total. And it was so ambitious. It was so batting above our skill level. And we achieved it. and it just opened up the doors to a whole new way of sharing work that isn’t from Shakespeare but can live next to it, and I’ll never forget that one.
You've mixed Shakespeare with later classics like Shaw, and with very much alive writers like Octavio Solis and Richard Montoya. What were you thinking?
The philosophy was always with Shakespeare to open up who was able to access it. We’re telling the story of now, even if we set the play in its original time frame. So I always believed that Shakespeare belonged to everybody. And once I worked through that, and was able to hire directors who would hire artists who would expand the vocabulary of who would get to tell the stories, I was then able to think about what other writers needed their stories told.
And I opened it up early on to [Anton] Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. But after a while I also realized that writers of color had not been included in our programming. And there were plenty of writers who had achieved classic status. Writers whose work endured. And that started with [Zora Neale] Hurston, And that continued with people like Octavio Solis, who is a contemporary playwright. But he wrote from Steinbeck (The Pastures of Heaven), and Octavio’s work is magnificent and theatrical and inspired by Shakespeare. So I felt that the more I could root the belief in Shakespeare belonging to everybody, then I could expand who was able to tell the story, as long as their work as a writer and director and actor contained breadth and scope and depth.
We live in the Bay Area, and the Bay Area has a majority of people who are of color. And so for us to be reflective of the communities we serve, we can’t pick and choose who those communities are. And so the more we can do that and allow people to tell their stories, to tell the story of Shakespeare in their own voices, we’ll continue to keep Shakespeare alive, and keep theater alive in the ever more diverse Bay Area.
Your new job is chief of civic engagement for YBCA. What does that mean?
Civic engagement to me, as I have defined it with [YBCA Chief Executive Officer] Deborar Cullinan and [Director of Performing Arts] Marc Bamuthi Joseph, is about a creative citizenry. And a creative citizenry is one in which in which everyone has a capacity to make things better for their neighborhood, for their school, for their street and ultimately for their city.
It sounds like you’re defining not an arts program, but a public policy program.
You’re defining the program based on the impact you’re intending to have. It’s expanding art into sectors beyond artists. This will also include urban planners, the tech community, this will also include educators, designers, and architects, and citizens.
A civically engaged city is one where everyone votes. But beyond that, a civically engaged city is one where everybody has a say and a way into making things better.