ASR Not-So-Random Questions Time: The Theatre Maestro with a Great Sense of Humor — Tom Ross!

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.


Tom Ross

Tom Ross inaugurated Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company with Barbara Oliver in 1992 and served 12 years as Managing Director. In 2004, he became Artistic Director, holding that position 15 years. He stepped down last August.

Tom oversaw both Aurora’s move into the Addison Street space and the expansion into the Dashow Wing. He created the new play initiatives, “The Global Age Project” and “Originate+Generate” as well as the second performance space, Harry’s Upstage.

He directed 30 productions for the company.

Additionally, Tom wrote and directed the long running A Karen Carpenter Christmas, and for 8 years was a producer of SF’s Solo Mio Festival.

Before moving to the Bay Area, Tom worked 8 years at NYC’s Public Theater as Executive Assistant to Joseph Papp and then as co-director of Play and Musical Development.

Getting any time on Mr. Ross’ calendar is a tough ask, so we at ASR were grateful for his time, his humor, and his candor. Ladies and Gents… Mr. Tom Ross…

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

TR: A married couple stopped a performance of Neil LaBute’s “This is How It Goes”, shouting at the actors and audience that this is not a play that should be presented in Berkeley.

It is a purposely provocative play that uses the N-word and is about a smiling secret racist character. The play was going to be over within three minutes. The couple walked across the stage and told the actors that they didn’t have to debase themselves this way. The audience thought it was a part of the play.

Luckily, the incident was written about in the Chronicle and the play became a must-see. The Chronicle called it one of the 10 best plays of the year. Still I’d never seen anything like the reaction it caused. I was the director and in the house.

ASR: Which person has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

TR: Unquestionably, the great producer Joseph Papp who I worked for at the Public Theatre in NY for 8 years. First as his Executive Assistant and then as Co-Director of Play and Musical Development.

He told me that I should be a director.

He supported me in producing my first show and in writing my first show at the Public Theatre. I told him he gave me a spine and he liked that.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what are three things you would tell them are essential to know?

TR: Well… I’ve worn a significant number of theatrical hats. In general, I’d say understand the business as well as the art.

Only get involved in projects you truly believe in.

And it’s a collaborate art. Treat your collaborators with respect.

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

TR: Thai food and a glass of pinot grigio.

…I told him he gave me a spine and he liked that.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?

TR: Lied about my age.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

TR: That is a (tough) question to answer (specifically.) I am a part of an incredible community here in the Bay Area. I know they have my back – as do so many theater friends from the NYC days.

I keep wanting to jump off Facebook, but would miss keeping up with them. I respect and love my friends.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

TR: Wow! I am a music person. I have hundreds of CDs here in my place. I listen to music all of the time – even at Aurora Theatre I’d be constantly DJ’ing in the office.

The other day, during this shelter in place, I was listening to “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon and Garfunkel – “Tom, get your plane ride on time…” – and it really touched me deeply.

ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?

TR: The beautiful Hawaiian shirts I have bought in Hawaii over the years.

ASR: Which play would you like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

TR: I don’t know about 20 years, but the programming of Broadway producers seems extremely repetitive.

A few years ago, I was in Times Square looking at all of the marquees and billboards and I thought I was in a time machine. Hello 70’s and 80’s!

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

TR: Although I think that “King Lear” is the greatest play ever written, I don’t do Shakespeare.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

TR: I’d be a Light Designer. Like Sound, it’s so ephemeral and can be devastatingly effective.

I like the subliminal. Lights and sound for me.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

TR: I’d be terrified of scaling up any animal! If my cat was that big, we couldn’t share the bed and she’d be extremely annoyed. I’d be sleeping on the floor!

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

TR: Skydiving.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

TR: “Indecent Materials” by Larry Kramer. I’d brought it to the Public Theatre who produced it and then did it here in SF with my producing partner Jayne Wenger when I first moved here.

It featured my first leading lady (and still dear friend) Anne Darragh as Jesse Helms.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

TR: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”



ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact:

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Stacy Ross Shines in “Year of Magical Thinking” – by Barry Willis

Stacy Ross at work at the Aurora Theatre. Photo courtesy Aurora Theatre Co

Anyone who’s read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” might wonder how anyone could turn the book into a play. The answer is that only the author could do it, or at least, do it right. Prolific essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion accomplishes the seemingly impossible in her one-woman/one-act play at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 28.

On a stage and backdrop of what appear to be huge Travertine slabs (set by Kent Dorsey) Stacy Ross shines as she relates Didion’s horrific, heartbreaking tale of suddenly losing her husband and collaborator, writer John Gregory Dunne, while their adopted daughter was in a coma. Among the very best actors in the Bay Area, Ross fully inhabits the story without attempting to be Didion—an astute decision by her and director Nancy Carlin. Ross and Didion are as physically unlike as possible.

…brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life…

No one is ever prepared for a sudden loss, of course, and the shock of it is the running theme throughout the production’s ninety well-paced minutes. Ross opens with a recitation lifted almost verbatim from the book’s first chapter—about how Dunne collapsed as the author was preparing dinner, the arrival of paramedics, a panicky trip to the emergency room, and the inevitable aftermath. Even in shock and overwhelmed by sorrow, Didion can’t help injecting self-deprecating humor and ironic observation—she stands in line with insurance card in hand, because it seems the proper thing to do, and in the ER, she’s introduced to her husband’s momentary physician, whom she can’t resist describing as “a pre-teen in a white lab coat.”

The social circumstances of death get full vetting, brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life in Malibu and New York. But it’s the interior monolog that’s most compelling—an examination of pretending to go about the daily business of life while knowingly indulging in self-deception and compulsive rituals in the secret hope that all that’s happened can somehow be altered—the “magical thinking” of the title.

This solo production is an understated masterful performance that seamlessly blends lecture, confession, and conversation. In her book and play, Didion eloquently managed to encompass all of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—stages that apply not only to the terminally ill but to their survivors. Stacy Ross is brilliant in conveying a narrative whose subject will inevitably touch all of us.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.



ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!



AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Unpleasant “Creditors” at Aurora Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Nothing kills one’s ardor more quickly than hearing this from a partner: “We have to talk.”

That pretty much sums up this reviewer’s take on August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through February 24. Written in 1888, the then-scandalous play examines the relationships of two men, Adolph and Gustav (Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Jonathan Rhys Williams, respectively) and one woman, Tekla (Rebecca Dines). Adolph is a self-doubting artist with unspecified neurological problems that manifest in spastic mannerisms and ambulatory difficulties. Gustav is a new friend talking him through an artistic identity crisis—should he pursue painting or sculpture?—while  fanning the flames of doubt in him about his wife Tekla, who as we discover later, is Gustav’s ex-wife.

The initial exchange between the two men goes on for maybe twenty minutes—it feels like hours of manipulative psychobabble—until at some point Tekla appears, an independent, free-spirited novelist who has published a book with a central character based on Gustav. She’s been gone a week, approximately as long as Gustav has known Adolph, and has come back to flirt with her own husband while her ex lurks unseen to hear everything they say. There is nothing about the two men that is at all appealing—Adolph is a cringing neurotic and Gustav, a master schemer. It’s hard to imagine what attracts Tekla to either of them. It isn’t money, despite the play’s title.

…the actors are excellent playing despicable characters…”

Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Rebecca Dines

Tekla is the prototype of a new kind of woman emerging in Western culture at the time—assertive, confident, uninhibited. She can entertain the concept of loving more than one person while the two men cannot. (Strindberg must have thought his character was unique; he accused Henrik Ibsen of plagiarism in making Hedda Gabler a similar type. Certainly Tekla and Hedda cannot have been the only free-spirited women in fin de siècle Scandinavia.) Tekla flirts and spars with Adolph until he leaves in a huff, whereupon Gustav enters and attempts a seduction. Tekla almost takes the bait then thinks better of it, and to cut to the chase, Adolph comes back in and dies of an epileptic seizure. That’s a wrap.

In the week since it opened, “Creditors” has been gushed about by a score of critics, many of whom, it must be assumed, are classicists. And while it’s always unfair to judge the art of the past through the lens of the present, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s so gush-worthy. The story is horrible, but directed by Barbara Damashek, the actors are excellent playing despicable characters—two men suffering from terminal cases of emotional hemorrhoids, and a woman who can’t be trusted. It’s ninety minutes of late 19th century European navel-gazing, a repellent talkathon in which almost nothing happens other than the malicious destruction of the weakest character.

The fact that something is old doesn’t make it valuable or worth reviving. As David Foster Wallace put it in another context, this play is “a supposedly fun thing I will never do again.”

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.


Written byAugust Strindberg
Directed byBarbara Damashek
Producing CompanyAurora Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough February 24th
Production AddressAurora Theatre Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Telephone(510) 843-4822
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An ASR Theater Review! Bold, Incisive “Dry Powder” at Aurora Theatre – by Barry Willis

One devilish deal leads to the next in Sarah Burgess’s incisive “Dry Powder,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 22.

Directed by Jennifer King, this Bay Area premiere is a dark comedy that peers into the often impenetrable world of private equity—a niche of the financial world where companies are bought, sold, merged, or dismembered in pursuit of mind-blowing profits.

A high-stakes game with enormous potential for victory and defeat, and enormous potential to affect countless people, private equity is little understood by ordinary citizens except as a scapegoat for all that might and can go wrong on the grand economic scale. The show’s title refers to working capital—money in reserve, the industry’s primary tool.

Bay Area stalwart Aldo Billingsly, along with Jeremy Kahn, in ‘Dry Powder’ at Aurora Theater

Bay Area theater veteran Aldo Billingsly is brilliant as Rick, the volatile founder of a private equity firm that’s recoiling from some very bad press about his lavish wedding party in the aftermath of a buyout that threw thousands of people out of work.

Junior partners Seth (Jeremy Kahn) and Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) bring him potential deals, treatments for deals, financial projections for various scenarios, personal advice, and insider opinions about the probable public relations consequences of their deals—in this case, a proposed buyout of an American luggage maker with more than 500 employees.

Emily Jeanne Brown at work as Jenny, in ‘Dry Powder’

It’s a deal that Seth has been nursing for months, in the process forming a strong bond with Jeff (Kevin Kemp), co-owner of the target company. The two have such a pronounced “bromance” that Jeff is actually excited about the possibility of reviving the brand and re-jiggering its business model to create a whole new market for personalized luggage.

A math-whiz elitist with zero empathy for working people, Jenny dismisses Jeff’s ideas as feel-good nonsense and presents an alternate plan to buy the company, spin off its assets, and send production offshore—a plan with a larger potential upside but horrible social consequences. Numbers are all that matter to Jenny. The fact that this will render 500 people jobless is of no concern to her—”It’s their responsibility to learn how to do something else,” she flatly states.

Hilarious and horrific, ‘Dry Powder’ is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell…

Therein lies the moral struggle in Rick’s office, depicted with superb energy and conviction on the Aurora’s simple, all-white thrust stage (set by Tanya Oellana, lights by Kurt Landisman, sound by James Ard). Jenny and Seth battle like adolescent brother and sister—much of it side-splittingly funny—and Rick alternately takes their counsel or reins them in. A couple of plot twists near the end drive home the Faustian nature of their business, including a desperate alliance with a Hong Kong financier so corrupt that he’s lost his Chinese citizenship.

Hilarious and horrific, “Dry Powder” is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell—if you believe the old adage that the love of money is the root of all evil. In Berkeley, the message will certainly find an eager audience, who may be dismayed at the verity of another old adage: Everyone has a price.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact:



ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!