Thrilling. Overwhelming. Humbling.
That’s how Phil Santora described accepting TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s Regional Theatre Tony Award alongside Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley and Chairwoman of the Board Judy Heyboer June 9 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
“I grew up in New Jersey going to see shows in New York as a child,” said Santora, TheatreWorks’ executive director, “so to actually be on stage at Radio City Music Hall with Kelley and our board chair was a pretty amazing experience.”
TheatreWorks is now one of seven California theater companies to have won the Regional Theatre Tony Award, handed out since 1976.
“This award is for generations of collaborators who have grown TheatreWorks for 50 years,” Kelley said in his acceptance speech. “We thank our board, led by (Heyboer), our staff, new works directors, arts educators and the thousands of theater-makers who found an artistic home with us, especially the playwrights and composers who brought 70 world premieres to our stage and developed hundreds of new works that have been produced across America and around the world.”
Kelley founded TheatreWorks in 1970 as what he called a “one-shot summer production” for high school and college students. Over the next few decades, the workshop grew into a large community theater, then a semi-professional company and finally a fully professional theater in 2005. TheatreWorks is now the third largest theater company in the Bay Area, after the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the American Conservatory Theater.
One of the key factors in TheatreWorks’ steady growth is “a commitment to diversity, both in terms of what our shows might be about and how we might cast them, and to doing new world premiere work,” Kelley said. “It certainly wasn’t lost on the American Theatre Critics Association or the Tony committee that we’ve developed and premiered works at TheatreWorks and sent them on to Broadway, to the West End, to Japan, to Korea, all over the world.”
The Regional Theatre Tony Award, which often promotes companies that consistently present new productions, is based on a recommendation by the American Theatre Critics Association and accepted by the Tony Awards Administration Committee. Unlike traditional Tony Awards, recipients of the regional honor are not notified of their nomination beforehand.
“You don’t know that you’ve been nominated or that you are even under consideration. The (committee) just gives you a call out of the blue,” Kelley said. “It’s remarkable – everything changed in a big hurry for us. Everybody (at TheatreWorks) went appropriately crazy.”
The award comes at a bittersweet moment in TheatreWorks’ history, as the upcoming 2019-2020 season will be Kelley’s 50th and final season with the troupe.
“This Tony summarizes and celebrates 50 years. It seems as if it’s a culmination of a half-century of work,” Kelley said. “It’s the thrill of a lifetime. The second part is that it anticipates the next 50 years. It really does launch our final season of a half-century and puts us in an excellent position to move forward into even greater heights.”
Santora, who joined TheatreWorks in 2006, dubbed Kelley’s five decades of leadership “a Silicon Valley startup success story.”
Despite Kelley’s upcoming retirement, Santora is not worried about the company’s future.
“Kelley is the vision and the heartbeat of this theater, but he has shared this vision with every single person who works here,” Santora said. “So while Kelley is the center of the company, the company isn’t about Kelley. It’s about all of us together. He made sure that we all own that vision and those values so we can carry forward after he completes his tenure.”
‘An amazing ride’
Kelley is confident TheatreWorks will continue to grow and expand after he steps down.
“I think we are in a great position now, certainly helped by this Tony Award recognition, to keep creating new works for the American stage,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing many, many new shows developed at TheatreWorks that will wind up all over the country. That is an area of continued growth – we will continue to soar in that regard. I can’t wait.”
Santora noted that receiving the Tony Award was an “awe-inspiring” experience, but it does not mark an end to TheatreWorks’ mission of documenting the human condition via theater.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean we’re done. It’s a moment where we can take a breath and celebrate, but on we go. It doesn’t stop. We’ll just keep going and doing what we do because we love it.”
For more information on TheatreWorks and its upcoming productions, visit theatreworks.org.