TheatreWorks was founded by San Francisco Bay Area native Robert Kelley in 1970 as a theatre arts workshop for teenage and college students.
Chartered by the City of Palo Alto to produce work that would reflect the concerns of the community during an unsettled period in American life, the company produced 13 wholly original works for the stage in its first three years. In those early days, "the stage" was a parking garage, a warehouse or basement, an outdoor park—wherever the company could make space for a performance.
Talented performers, designers, and other artists flocked to TheatreWorks, and the company soon became known for two distinctive qualities in addition to its originality. First, its production values were extraordinary, with sets and costumes that far surpassed its limited budgets. Second, at a time when performers of color were rarely seen on local stages, the company was determined that the diversity of the community should be reflected and represented on the stage, and so it was.
During the 1970s, re-imaginings of classic and modern plays and musicals joined original works in the TheatreWorks mix. The company continued to perform in a number of local, sometimes unusual, venues. But a tradition was established of staging several shows each season at the historic Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, where TheatreWorks also maintained offices and shops.
As the 1980s began, TheatreWorks had four full-time staff members, a six-member Board of Trustees, 700 subscribers, and a six-figure annual budget. The stage was set for growth, and growth came rapidly on several fronts. Becoming the company's first full-time Managing Director in 1981, Stanford graduate Todd Harris focused on growing the TheatreWorks audience, and within a few years subscriptions more than quadrupled to over 3000. Meanwhile, the repertory continued to expand, as landmark 20th-century American musicals and contemporary dramas and comedies shared the stage with Shakespeare, Molière, and other classics.
In late 1984, seasoned arts administrator Randy Adams joined TheatreWorks as Managing Director, and under his guidance the company established itself as a major regional theatre. Within three years the annual budget passed the $1 million mark. Around the same time, TheatreWorks signed its first contracts with Actors' Equity, the professional actors' union.
TheatreWorks' commitment to diversity and innovation continued. The repertory featured plays and musicals about minority experiences and cultures, from The Great White Hope and Eubie to Pacific Overtures and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. In addition to such shows, non-traditional casting of traditional works and roles drew Asian and Latino as well as African-American performers from the Bay Area and beyond.
As the budget grew, so too did TheatreWorks' determination to introduce Silicon Valley audiences to material not previously seen on Bay Area stages, including the work of emerging authors from around the country. The company established a Stage II series, where smaller productions of such works were produced in parallel with the company's main stage season.
By the end of the 1980s, TheatreWorks employed a full-time staff of 11, advised by a 16-member Board of Trustees. There were 5500 subscribers; the annual budget was $1.7 million. For the new decade, the company dedicated itself to building on its reputation for artistic excellence. When the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1991, the company began producing five main stage productions there each season, along with three shows each season at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The Stage II series flourished and found a home as TheatreWorks built a fully functional "black box" theatre at the Cubberley Center in Palo Alto. The 1990s also saw the launch of TheatreWorks' award-winning education program.
At the turn of the millennium, TheatreWorks had a regional profile, with 30 full-time staffers, a 20-member Board of Trustees, 8500 subscribers, and an annual budget of $4.5 million. With such resources, and with the quality and consistency of its productions firmly established, the company focused even more energy on the discovery of new voices and the development of new works. With generous funding from local foundations and individuals, TheatreWorks launched its New Works Initiative. Featuring an annual Writers’ Retreat and New Works Festival, developmental workshops and readings, commissions of new work, and main stage world premieres, the New Works Initiative is now central to TheatreWorks' mission and stature.
In 2005 TheatreWorks became a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). Joining the company in 2006, with years of award-winning experience in regional theatre management and development, Managing Director Phil Santora has helped grow the New Works Initiative in both size and stature, while forging relationships between TheatreWorks and other regional theatres.
As TheatreWorks celebrates its 47th season, it is one of California's largest theatres, with 40 permanent staff members, a 30-member Board of Trustees, more than 8000 subscribers, and an annual budget of $8 million. A pioneer in diversity programming, a regular home to world and regional premieres, and a widely-hailed source of original new works for the American stage, TheatreWorks is the nationally-acclaimed theatre of Silicon Valley.