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Robert Kelley: Theater founder honored with lifetime achievement award

Longtime Menlo Park resident hooked on theater from age 9

After graduating from Stanford University with an English degree in 1970, Robert Kelley helped create a summer youth theater project that would become TheatreWorks. Photo by Veronica Weber.

When he joined a Palo Alto Children's Theatre production at age 9, Robert Kelley didn't know he would dedicate his life to local theater or ultimately impact generations of local actors and audiences.

"I just walked by and went, 'Ooh, that looks like fun,'" he said. "The thrill of theater stuck."

As the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Kelley has spent nearly 50 years creating art on the Midpeninsula and, although the company has evolved from humble origins into an award-winning professional venture, Kelley's dedication to what he called TheatreWorks' core values — innovation, diversity and education — remains unchanged.

And as a fitting cap on his career, this year TheatreWorks will receive the Regional Theatre Tony Award from the American Theatre Wing, to be presented in New York City on June 9.

"TheatreWorks is a dream come true for me," he said. "And a lot of people have shared that dream."

Kelley, who recently received an Avenidas Lifetime of Achievement award, moved to Palo Alto at age 5 and has lived in the area for most of his life (he currently resides in Menlo Park with longtime partner Ev Shiro).

He graduated from Stanford University with an English degree. In 1970, the city of Palo Alto invited him to help create a summer youth theater project. He and his young team wrote, produced and performed an original musical, "Popcorn," at the Lucie Stern Theater.

"It was based on conflict in the community between generations; in 1970 there was plenty of that, so the premise was finding a way to bring those worlds together," he said. "We set it in 'Scraggly Tree, California.'"

While the show included a depiction of a student protest-turned-riot, a real one occurred just days before "Popcorn" opened, inadvertently leading to more attention for the show's premiere.

"The show became a great big huge hit and that's how we got started," he said. "It was a show about us, about our values, the things that mattered, and of course it was an educational project as well. All the fundamental values of TheatreWorks were built into that original idea."

(Any chance of a "Popcorn" revival? "I wouldn't hold your breath," he laughed.)

Thus, what would become TheatreWorks was off and running. The name came in 1973, and the "Silicon Valley" was added in 2014.

The fledgling group produced plays all over town, from the Baylands Nature Interpretive Center — where actors shared a dressing room with live snakes — to churches, restaurants and the parking garage beneath City Hall.

Fittingly for an Avenidas Lifetime of Achievement honoree, Kelley revealed a "secret connection" to Avenidas: TheatreWorks' 1974 production of "Cabaret" was performed in the then-vacant Avenidas building on Bryant Street, the city's former police and fire station.

In the decades that followed, TheatreWorks further dedicated itself to diversity and nontraditional casting and expanded to performance spaces including Foothill College and Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Over the years, the company became fully professional, hiring Actor's Equity Association actors and joining the League of Resident Theatres. In 2001, the New Works Initiative, nurturing emerging work and artists, was launched. And TheatreWorks' educational wing still offers students the thrill of theater that Kelley first experienced as a child.

The company has seen many of its world premieres and alumni go on to succeed beyond the Bay Area (not to mention its imminent Tony Award). Kelley's focus, though, has always been to produce work that is meaningful for local audiences.

"We haven't been oriented toward Broadway. It's really been about here: What is the right art for this community? So, it's kind of been a revelation to realize how many folks there really are out in the world that have been here," he said.

Some people have been surprised, he said, to learn the Midpeninsula can support world-class theater. But, he added, "You can't possibly imagine another place in the world where creating new things is of more value."

It's difficult to separate the company from the man who's nurtured it from the start, whose devoted-but-mellow style has helped mentor countless others in the theater community.

Kelley, said director and playwright Ken Savage, "taught me that directing is like painting — he molds his actors and design pieces into masterful works of visual art that give the audience insight to relationships and character. ... I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work alongside him to support his vast canvas."

But, an end of an era is coming. Kelley will step down as artistic director following TheatreWorks' next season. A half-century is, after all, a pretty good run.

"It felt like an appropriate time. I want the company to continue to grow and move," he said, adding with a laugh that he doesn't expect TheatreWorks' next leader to commit to 50 years.

An admitted workaholic, Kelley said that in the rare instances when he's not entrenched in theater projects he enjoys playing the piano and exploring nature. His cottage, he noted, is near San Francisquito Creek, just a few blocks from where he spent his childhood.

Despite his impending departure from TheatreWorks, Kelley has no plans to retire; he's committed to continuing his directing career, as well as writing and teaching.

"This wonderful honor from Avenidas is definitely for people who've been at it for a long time," he said. "But just because you become the oldest person employed in an organization doesn't mean you're the least active."

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