Shaking Up Cal Shakes: New artistic director Jonathan Moscone brings a populist bent and a musical approach to the renowned Bay Area festival.

When Jonathan Moscone takes over the reins of the Bay Area's California Shakespeare Festival this month, he will be heading up a 27-year-old, LORT-D company whose audience base at its 500-plus-seat amphitheatre in the East Bay hills has been growing steadily.

Still, the challenges he faces are real. The company has received more than its share of middling-to-negative reviews of late. Popular company actor Joe Vincent resigned as artistic director last year, after a four-year stint; Mark Booher has been interim artistic director since then. The board's search process was lengthy and exhaustive. And skeptics in the theatre community note that Moscone himself has never directed a Shakespeare play professionally, nor been an artistic director.

If any of this worries the 35-year-old Moscone, he's not saying.

In a phone conversation from the Dallas Theatre Center, where he's worked for six years, Moscone chatted with Back Stage West about his new job in his old home town. He was energetic and upbeat, joking that he'd never been offered a Shakespeare play to direct, so he skipped that stage and was offered a Shakespeare theatre instead.

Papp and Pop

How did a politician's son get involved in theatre in the first place? Jonathan was only 14 when his father, San Francisco mayor George Moscone, was shot and killed, along with supervisor Harvey Milk, in City Hall by former supervisor Dan White.

"My dad used to take me to the Civic Light Opera series," explained Moscone. "Oklahoma!, Evita, really terrible productions of Bells Are Ringing with Florence Henderson. But I loved the experience. Being the son of a politician was exciting, but it was an adult world and not necessarily mine." He also went to student matinees at American Conservatory Theater in the Bill Ball era. "The first play I ever saw was Peer Gynt. I didn't understand a word but I loved it."

That early exposure to theatre inspired the young Moscone to try out for a play at San Francisco's St. Ignatius High School, and he "never stopped." He acted his way through college, "decent enough but not great," finally realizing he had the eye of a director, not an actor. After college he worked for a while with San Francisco commercial producer Carole Shorenstein Hays in her new plays program, then went to New York in 1986 as an assistant to Joseph Papp at the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival. "Three years into that, I felt I'd end up a frustrated manager if I didn't leave to pursue directing," he said.

Sharon Ott offered him a directing internship in 1989 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He went on to get an M.F.A. in directing at Yale and in 1993 became associate director at Dallas Theatre Center. There he directed Chekhov, Shaw, Wilde, Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive (for which he received several directing awards last year), and more. Touching home base briefly at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, he directed Marlane Meyer's Kingfish in 1995 and the premiere of Monika Monika's The Pharmacist's Daughter two years ago.

"I have a real taste for size and scope and operatic feelings, even in a straight play," Moscone observed. "I have a love of music and hope to bring that love and knowledge to bear at Cal Shakes."

Greatly influenced by Papp's populist approach, Moscone mused, "Part of it had to do with the way he ran the theatre. A huge lobby you could hang out in, several plays running at once. It was for everybody. I feel the same way." He added, "I'm not interested in the received perfect version of anything, whether academically or historically sound." He cites JoAnne Akalaites' production of Cymbeline with Joan Cusack as Imogen. "It was all over the map, but it was glorious. I'd rather shoot for something that ambitious and fail than shoot low and succeed."

He learned most about directing from Stan Wojewodski at Yale. "He taught me how to deal with language, and communicate emotion through language. And Richard Hamburger at Dallas Theatre Center challenged me to never stop working, always to question, and never to accept just for expediency's sake."

Moscone is unlikely to direct in this summer's predetermined lineup (Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, a show to be announced, and Love's Labour's Lost). "Next season [2001] will really be my first," he said. "I want to have all my ducks in a row."

Things to Come

What does he look for in actors? "Sharp minds, people I can collaborate with. Actors who are connected to their bodies, who can move. I'm not interested in actors who know how to stand in 17th-century style. That's a museum idea. I want an actor who can read and interpret a play and communicate the ideas of the great minds-Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare... Rodgers and Hammerstein!" He concurred that his acting background facilitates his directing: "I can go onstage with actors and talk about how to get from A to B emotionally. A lot of directors don't know how to do that." He praised the Bay Area's talent pool; in fact, he's lured Bay Area actors to Dallas for gigs in the past. "I want to use as many locals as I can but also infuse the theatre with artists from other parts of the country. That can only be healthy," he said.

As for future plans: He wants to expand the season, eventually add a second, indoor space. "I want Shakespeare to remain at the heart of the theatre, but there are many great playwrights who can stand in company with him, whom audiences should get to know: foreign classics, like Moli're. World-class adaptations. I do want to do a musical. Whether it's The Boys from Syracuse or West Side Story-musicals based on Shakespeare-or whether it's just a musical that I think is a classic. The amphitheatre is large enough to contain a huge array of work." In the past, Cal Shakes has occasionally done a non-Shakespeare classic.

What makes a great play? "Its attention to language, scope of thought, depth of emotion," said Moscone. As for the Bard specifically: "I respond strongly to the romances and the problem plays especially. They're deeply ambiguous, wild and woolly, profound, all about faith, about trying to maintain yourself in an ambivalent and ambiguous universe that can threaten to tear you apart. They have wonderful messages for the audience as we enter a new millennium."

Happy to return to the Bay Area, Moscone said, "I have utmost respect for what Carey [Perloff, at A.C.T.] and Tony [Taccone, at Berkeley Rep] do. They are the reason why the Bay Area is one of the most thriving theatre communities. I want to be a part of that. I want to be as good as they are."

As for reviews, good, bad, or indifferent, he said, "I have to do the best work I can and let the chips fall. My first duty is to the word, and through that to the audience, and then to the critics-in that order." BSW