Show Wiz

By Jan Senn

Award-winning director Edward Berkeley ’66 returns to Carleton to direct the first theater production at the Weitz Center for Creativity

Ed Berkeley

“Ed was here for almost every class, so students could see what it’s like to work for a director,” says Stephen Mohring, associate professor of art, whose “Theater 233” class designed and built most of the set for The Tempest. The design echoed the Weitz Center’s theme of adaptive reuse by using found objects—a sailboat, tires, crates, bed frames, netting, and, most dramatically, a 45-foot telephone pole extending out over the audience—to evoke the play’s setting.

Edward Berkeley ’66 has staged plays before in the building at 320 Third Street East in Northfield, including the musicals Fiorello! and She Loves Me. But that was in the 1960s when it was the Northfield High School; Carleton rented its auditorium for some student performances.

Berkeley has returned to Carleton this fall to direct The Tempest—the first production in the new Weitz Center for Creativity theater, which occupies the space that was once the high school gymnasium.

It’s mid-October and the Carleton Players production is scheduled to open on October 27, just days before the 400th anniversary of what is believed to be the play’s first performance at Blackfriars Theatre in London. Thought to be Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest is about revenge, redemption, and a bit of magic. A powerful magician, exiled on an island with his daughter, conjures a storm that causes his enemies to shipwreck on the island so he can take his revenge. But by the end of the play, he is able to forgive them.

The play’s anniversary is one reason The Tempest was chosen, says Berkeley, who was contacted by theater professor Ruth Weiner more than a year ago about directing the Weitz Center’s inaugural production. “We also wanted something that would show off the students’ talent and the new space’s capabilities,” he says. “The play’s theme of renewal, of looking into the future, was appealing.”

More than 100 students auditioned, and 32 cast members and 55 crew members are taking part in one of Carleton’s largest productions to date. “Ed’s been involved in everything,” says Weiner, the Class of 1944 Professor of Theater and the Liberal Arts. “He’s pretty calm about it all, but a lot depends on him right now.”

Berkeley is concurrently director of undergraduate opera studies at the Juilliard School, since 1987; director of Aspen Opera Theater Center at the Aspen Music Festival and School, since 1984; and on the faculty at the Circle in the Square Theater School, since 1980. With more than 40 years of directing experience at venues from off-off Broadway to Lincoln Center and beyond, Berkeley is well prepared for the challenge of staging a play in a new building.

On this day, several weeks after the Weitz Center’s official opening, the theater is not yet performance-ready. The lights aren’t installed, the sound monitors are on order, and various pieces of equipment are still being delivered. Throughout the building, faculty and staff members are unpacking and settling in to their respective spaces.

Berkeley’s name is on room 212 in the Weitz Center, but few objects inside the small office are his. The bike helmet on the desk is borrowed from retired Carleton history professor Bill Woehrlin, who also has loaned him a bike to get around Northfield. (A native New Yorker, Berkeley doesn’t drive.)

Berkeley conducts most of his business out of a backpack, which holds an iPhone, iPad, scripts, pens, and a lot of dollar bills, which he finds handy for feeding vending machines or tipping when he travels. His iPhone and iPad buzz and beep frequently, alerting him to a question from Juilliard, a problem at Aspen, and an upcoming Carleton Club event in Brooklyn.

He acknowledges that the devices make it easier for him to take on a variety of projects, but Berkeley doesn’t overlook the fact that technology is changing theater itself. “Opera HD video broadcasts, which people love, are fantastic—and they’ve spread opera to a wider audience—but they’re a different experience from being in the presence of the performers,” he says. “Live theater happens in the moment; it will never happen the same way again. And an audience changes what happens onstage. One of the exciting things about the Weitz Center theater is that it feels like being in a communal space, where performers and audience members go through an experience together.”

Edward Berkeley has directed at the New York Philharmonic, the Houston Grand Opera, the Atlanta Symphony, Ravinia, the Library of Congress, Williamstown Theater Festival, and Old Globe Theater, among others. As artistic director of New York’s Willow Cabin Theater, currently on hiatus, he directed the 1993 Tony Award- and Drama Desk–nominated Wilder, Wilder, Wilder. Berkeley was a guest faculty member at Princeton and Williams, and he’s been a Dayton-Hudson and Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theater at Carleton in 2003, 2006, and 2011.

Berkeley first experienced the magic of theater when he watched a puppet show in elementary school. “The idea of creating a world that was outside my own made a big impression,” he recalls. Berkeley got involved with theater at a summer camp in the Catskills that his family attended for many years, and during high school he assisted the director at a summer camp for girls in the Adirondacks.

At Carleton, Berkeley was a set designer, producer, and director for dramatic and musical productions. His senior year he directed George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, served as a member of the Carleton Players Board of Directors, and was elected class vice president.

“I first met Ed because I was a fan of his student productions,” says Weiner. “His musicals were wonderful.”

As a student director, Berkeley cast Toni Dorfman ’67 for the lead in The Millionairess, which opened in January 1966 at Nourse Little Theatre. When Dorfman, now director of undergraduate theater studies at Yale, and her then-husband Will Valk ’65 moved to New York in 1969, they discovered that Berkeley was working as a copy reader for the New York Times Sunday edition, which enabled him to get free tickets to theatrical performances. The friends often attended them together.

A sculptor, Valk found an eighth-floor loft in a former garment factory on Canal Street that he wanted to use as a studio. “Ed and I went down to take a look at it, and we both said, ‘Wouldn’t this make a great theater?’ ” says Dorfman. “And that was the end of poor Will’s sculpture studio.” Valk saw the possibilities, too, and was an artistic partner in the enterprise from the start.

The trio leased the space for $150 a month, coated the floors with polyurethane, scraped the paint off the brick walls, named their theater the Shade Company, and opened with a production of Macbeth in 1971. Soon they were getting rave reviews.

It was a heady time for theater in New York; the number of small theaters there increased from 50 or 60 in 1968 to more than 300 by 1975. Hair opened off-Broadway in 1968 and by 1971 it was a Broadway hit, as was Jesus Christ Superstar. Both productions were directed by Tom O’Horgan. Berkeley had studied with him in a summer workshop at Brandeis after he graduated from Carleton.

“Working with Tom was profound for me in terms of experience and inspiration,” says Berkeley, who kept in touch with O’Horgan until he died in 2009. “I found his ensemble-building exercises, his way of working with music, and his understanding of the power of theater quite moving.”

Berkeley’s big break came in 1973 when producer Joseph Papp attended a matinee of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Berkeley directed at the Shade. At intermission, as Dorfman recalls, Papp offered Berkeley the New York Shakespeare Festival’s next show at Lincoln Center. “It was The Tempest with Sam Waterston as Prospero and Carol Kane as Miranda,” says Dorfman. “Not bad, eh?”

“I went from a 65-seat house to a Broadway house within months,” says Berkeley, whose New York Shakespeare Festival productions also include Pericles, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He never returned to the Shade Company, and the theater closed in the mid ’70s when its rent rose to $750 a month.

In the summer of 1980 he began working at the Aspen Opera Theater Center. “Having spent my childhood summers in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, it meant a lot for me to be in the mountains around Aspen,” Berkeley says. “And I’ve been there every summer since for 31 years. I get stuck places.”

Home, though, is Manhattan. “I still live 30 blocks from where I was born; it’s both embarrassing and a source of pride,” he says with a laugh. As a balance to spending so much time in darkened theaters, he likes to vacation outdoors, often in tropical locations, where he enjoys hiking, scuba diving, and hang gliding.

In the months before he arrived on campus, Berkeley communicated frequently with the Carleton staff members who are working with him on the play. “Ed has a vision for The Tempest, but he’s willing to consider what other people throw into the mix,” says costume designer Mary Ann Kelling. “I’m glad he’s directing the first play at the Weitz Center because it’s been a little crazy with both a new building and a new staff. Also, Ed works in an academic world, and he recognizes how busy Carleton students are.”

During his residency at Carleton—in addition to all the auditions, rehearsals, and meetings—Berkeley has found time to attend a Knights football game, a soccer match, and an Ebony II dance performance. He’s lectured on Shakespeare for the Great Conversations class at St. Olaf, held a seminar on The Tempest at the Northfield Senior Center, and coached actors who were recording a scene from the play as a demonstration for an audio workshop class.

“Even though Carleton is larger [than when I attended], many things feel similar,” says Berkeley. “There’s still a spirit of busyness. Being overly busy is a problem, but functioning and learning in an aggressively focused way helps students grow up.”

Biology major Chelsea Lau ’12 (Hastings, Nebr.), who plays Ariel, says Berkeley’s calm has helped keep her sane in the midst of a chaotic pace. “And Ed waits to see what you bring to a scene or to a line,” she says. “Then he’ll work off that and tweak it. He’s taken what I’ve done and made it better.”

“He draws out an understanding in the students that is extraordinary,” adds Weiner. “Ed doesn’t tell people what to do, but his questions allow them to discover what a scene is doing, why a character is speaking.”

During a rehearsal later in the day, Berkeley stands at the edge of the stage, stuffs his hands in the pockets of his jeans, rocks back on the curved soles of his MBT sneakers, and peers intently at the actors as they run through a scene. He speaks to them in low, measured tones.

Assistant director Lee Conrads ’12 (Prairie Village, Kans.) sits in the front row, feeding the actors their lines when needed. “We’re here to learn from Ed,” Conrads says. “It’s almost magical—he knows the play so well and how the scenes are supposed to be built that he can direct in a manner that seems almost off-the-cuff.”

“I’m here to direct the play, but ultimately it’s about helping the students express themselves,” says Berkeley. “Even if they become mathematicians and scientists, they’re going to have a better sense of how to get their ideas across.”

Being at Carleton has reminded Berkeley how much he enjoys the liberal arts environment. “Juilliard is great, but it’s a conservatory,” he says. “The curriculum is focused on developing students into professional musicians and singers. Here we can be discussing a character or a scene, and someone will bring up something that comes from history or literature or philosophy. It’s a different way of thinking.”

Berkeley’s perspective is valued at Carleton, as well. “For students to have modeled for them Ed’s level of professionalism, depth of experience, intellectual rigor, and attention to the text is enormously beneficial,” says Pierre Hecker, assistant professor of English, who teaches Shakespeare at Carleton and has many students in the cast. “In a way, they’re having a master class in Shakespeare, taught by a director rather than an academic.”

It all contributes to a larger conversation that epitomizes the liberal arts. As for the Weitz Center itself, Berkeley applauds the fact that by making a commitment to this extraordinary new building, Carleton is acknowledging the importance of the arts and creativity to society—especially at a time when many schools and educational programs are radically trimming their arts budgets. “Carleton is saying, ‘No, this is exactly what you have to be able to afford,’ ” says Berkeley.

He shoulders his backpack and strides out the door of the Weitz Center, heading to a meeting. It’s a blustery day, and golden leaves skitter and swirl across the path. It almost seems as if Berkeley—like the play’s magician—has conjured up a storm.

Web Extra: View a gallery of photos from Carleton’s production of The Tempest.

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