The 2014-2015 class of Berkeley Rep fellows. Photo: Berkeley Rep
The 2014-2015 class of Berkeley Rep fellows. Photo: Berkeley Rep

By Michael Berry

For 15 exemplary recipients, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Fellowship program is world-class learning opportunity, a chance to immerse themselves for eleven and a half months in the business and artistry of an award-winning theater company.

Sponsored by American Express and administered through the Rep’s School of Theatre, the program provides hands-on experience in a wide array of artistic, administrative and production disciplines, including development, marketing, dramaturgy, costuming, stage management and scenic design. It has served as a launching pad for exceptionally talented individuals who have forged acclaimed careers in the Bay Area and elsewhere.

One fellowship in particular serves as a reminder of a promising theater career cut off too soon. The Bret C. Harte Directing (Artistic Administration) fellowship, the first of three named fellowships, recognizes the legacy of a young director from Moraga, killed in a car accident in March 2005. Past recipients include Marissa Wolf, Director of New Works at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and Mina Morita, recently hired as Artistic Director at Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco.

The Berkeley Rep fellowships gives recipients the chance to learn alongside an accomplished company of artists, administrators, designers and guests. Senior staff members and guest speakers lead regularly scheduled seminars. All fellows serve as mentors for Berkeley Rep’s annual Teen One-Acts Festival. Recipients receive a monthly stipend to defray transportation and other costs, and limited housing is available to out-of-town applicants.

According to Rachel Fink, director of the Rep’s School of Theatre, 300 to 400 applicants vie each year to be selected for the program. Since 2006, six applicants have received directing fellowships lasting one or two years. Applications for the 2015-2016 Bret C. Harte Directing Fellowship and the Peter F. Sloss Literary/Dramaturgy Fellowship were due March 1. Applications for other fellowships are due March 15.

Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone, who serves as a mentor to each year’s directing fellow, stresses the uniqueness of the Rep’s program.

“There’s a real window of opportunity for the fellow to understand not only how his job is done or how a department works or how the institution works, but how people work,” he said. “It’s not like you’re shoved off into a corner and asked to sort the paperclips. You’re in the middle of the process. And while we don’t give people responsibilities they can’t handle or are above their experience level, it does put them at the heart of the process. I think that’s pretty unique.”

Jacob Harvey, the 2013-14 Harte fellow, now directing, producing and working as a consultant in New York City, said he recognized the uniqueness of the program from the start.

“From top to bottom, it was a very profound and rich experience that tapped into not only my passions and key interests, but really touched home on all the things I set out to accomplish.” Harvey said.

Harvey assistant-directed four shows while at Berkeley Rep, starting with Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and ending with “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.”

“That was a remarkable experience in itself, working with Tony Kushner.”

Harvey also said that one of the greatest things about the fellowship is that recipients have access to the whole company.

“Even though I was the Bret C. Harte Fellow and Tony Taccone was my mentor, I could go have a conversation with Lynn Eve [Komaromi], the director of development, and pick her brain. [Managing Director] Suzy Medak and I would sit down for breakfast. They want you to have a holistic experience with the theater, not just limited to the focus of the fellowship.”

The recipient of the first Harte Fellowship in 2006, Marissa Wolf praised the sense of inclusiveness she experienced during her two years in the program.

“People felt really on the inside of their departments, getting major experience that would launch each of them into their disciplines.”

Wolf remembers especially fondly the time she spent working with Obie award-winning director Les Waters on the 2007 production of “To the Lighthouse,” adapted from the Virginia Woolf novel by Adele Edling Shank, with music by Paul Dresher.

“It was profoundly powerful to watch Les work on a new play that was difficult and lyrical and experimental. It had opera in the final act. It was just wild! With Les and Tony, I always felt seen and valued in the [rehearsal] room. And I felt exhilarated by being there,” Wolf said.

Berkeley Rep fellows working in the scene shop. Photo: Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Rep fellows working in the scene shop. Photo: Berkeley Rep

According to Wolf, a former pre-school teacher, the years she spent as a fellow marked a turning point for her, because they allowed to pursue a career in theater full time for the first time.

“It was a moment of being in the belly of the beast of a regional theater and coming to terms with what those resources felt like and to have access to a national conversation. It was two years of ‘Yes, this is how it’s done.’”

Mina Morita, a 2008-2010 fellow, transitioned from her fellowship into employment at Berkeley Rep, serving as the company’s Artistic Associate. As both a fellow and an employee, she has been able to observe the course of institutional change.

“It has been incredible to see the genetics of the organization change over the course of my time. It has embraced new ways of making work, especially with The Ground Floor, the new play development program. We have over a hundred artists come through our door every year in June. Since its inception three years ago, it’s had 13 to 18 different plays in development during that month.”

A freelance director and Board President of the Shotgun Players, Morita credits the fellowship program with shaping her career.

“It offers true mentorship where someone is asking hard questions,” she said. “Not just looking at a career path, but helping you think about your worldview as an artist, helping you refine it, helping you think about who you are as a person. Because that is going to be reflected in your art and the community of artists you work with. It’s about understanding the sheer amount of willpower, passion and integrity it takes to create good work that’s raising the bar constantly.”

Morita recently announced her departure from Berkeley Rep, having been hired by Crowded Fire Theater as the company’s new Artistic Director. She replaces none other than Marissa Wolf, who resigned from her post at Crowded Fire to become Director of New Works at Kansas City Repertory. That kind of professional progression is representative of Berkeley Rep’s fellowship program.

Of the program’s many accomplished graduates, Taccone said, “It’s been fantastic, I have to say. I take great pride in tracking where they’ve all gone to. Many have gone on to really great work, though not always in the theater.”

Dennis and Juanita Harte pose in front of a photo of their son Bret. Photo: Michael Berry

Bret C. Harte, the directing fellowship’s namesake, was born in 1980 and graduated from Miramonte High School. A 2002 graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., Harte had returned to the Bay Area to pursue his interest in live theater, directing at smaller local companies productions that included “Inherit the Wind,” “The Six Ives of November” and “Mrs. Frederick.” He was killed on March 21, 2005 in a hit-and-run car crash.

The Bret C. Harte Young Director’s Fund was created at Berkeley Rep that year to “honor Bret’s memory and to provide other talented young people a stipend and artistic support while pursuing their careers in directing live theater.” Bret’s parents, Dennis and Juanita Harte, started the fund in part with $16,000 their son had saved at the time of his death. They also contributed monies raised through events at Berkeley Rep and the efforts of their friends and families.

Morita, Harvey and Wolf have all kept in touch with the Hartes past the spans of their Rep fellowships. Morita said of them, “They give with such bigness of heart and expect so little in return. It comes from the well of their love for their son and their hope for a future that is imbued with art and the things their son loved.”

Knowing that the fellowship named for their son will help train new generations of theater professionals seems to give the Hartes a small measure of solace.

“As a parent who’s lost a child, the last thing you want is for his name to disappear,” Dennis Harte said. “Bret’s name will live on forever. If he couldn’t get his name in lights on Broadway, then it’s here at Berkeley Rep.”

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