TheatreWorks Founder Robert Kelley Retires After 50 Years

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley will steps down at the conclusion of the 50th Anniversary season in 2020.  (Photo: Courtesy of Niko Kitaoka)

Robert Kelley, the founding artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, a professional performing arts organization specializing in new works for the musical theater stage, has announced he will retire at the end of the company’s 50th season, in 2020.

"I've been here for a long time," Kelley says. "The half-century mark is a really great time to change over, and a great time to bring in some new leadership for the company."

Kelley, 70, is one of the longest tenured artistic directors of a professional regional theater organization in the United States.

Popcorn, an anti-war musical which premiered in July 1970, was the very first production of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
Popcorn, an anti-war musical which premiered in July 1970, was the very first production of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Photo: Courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

At the behest of the city of Palo Alto, Kelley launched the company as an experimental youth troupe in 1970, a couple of years after he graduated from Stanford. Today, TheatreWorks is one of the largest theater companies in the Bay Area, together with American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. With an $8.5 million annual budget, the non-profit organization presents five productions each season in Mountain View and three in Palo Alto.

"I still very much love making theater," Kelley says. "I hope I'll continue with the company in lots of different ways -- as a director, as a cheerleader, and in any way that our new leadership wants to use me."

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TheatreWorks' board will begin a national search for Kelley's successor this year, with the intention of having a new artistic director in place as his final season begins.

Over the years, TheatreWorks has become a launchpad for national hitsOne of the most significant is Memphis, which went from its start at TheatreWorks in 2002 to a three-year run on Broadway, a 19-month national tour, and an extended run in London’s West End. Loosely based on the life of one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s, Memphis won four Tonys in 2010, including one for Best Musical.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley with the composer of "Memphis" and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan at the Broadway opening night, October 19, 2009.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley with the composer of "Memphis" and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan at the Broadway opening night, October 19, 2009. (Photo: Courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

Kelley also cast dozens of young actors who went on to major careers on Broadway and in Hollywood. These include Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian, The Help), James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin, Hamilton), Daveed Diggs (Hamilton), Colman Domingo (The Scottsboro Boys, Selma), Željko Ivanek (Damages, Madam Secretary), and Francis Jue (Yellow Face, Madam Secretary).

"I love working with other artists and collaborating with people from all over the country," Kelley says. "We've really found that a lot of people who've come here are eager to come back." Iglehart and Jue are among those who've returned to TheatreWorks over the years.

With its New Works Festival and Writers’ Retreat, TheatreWorks has also helped foster some major writing talents, including Wendy Wasserstein, Marsha Norman, Joe DiPietro and Beth Henley.

As artistic director of TheatreWorks, Robert Kelley has programmed a diverse roster of original dramas and musicals. Brad Erickson, head of the Theatre Bay Area, says Kelley's programming draws in audiences, "but also stretches them."
As artistic director of TheatreWorks, Robert Kelley has programmed a diverse roster of original dramas and musicals. Brad Erickson, head of the Theatre Bay Area, says Kelley's programming draws in audiences, "but also stretches them." (Photo: Courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

“He was so passionate and committed to the community from the get-go,” says Carey Perloff, who is stepping down from her role as longtime artistic director of ACT at the end of next season. “It's an audience with such an appetite for adventure. So that tells you who's here, and how hungry they are. I think the leadership has led the audience, and the audience has led the leadership."

Kelley has directed more than 170 productions for TheatreWorks during his tenure, and won the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Direction nine times

“His story is the quintessential Silicon Valley origin story,” says Brad Erickson, head of Theatre Bay Area, a regional performing arts service organization. "It's the theater version of creating Hewlett-Packard in a garage. He came out of Stanford. He starts this small company. He sticks with it, and some years later, it's now not only one of the leading companies in the Bay Area, but one of the leading companies in the country, doing world-class work and affecting the whole American canon."

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