jakub | August 23, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Giovanna Sardelli Is Meeting the Moment

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley artistic director Giovanna Sardelli. (Photo by Tess Mayer)

Artistic director Giovanna Sardelli is no stranger to Silicon Valley. She has been a part of the TheatreWorks community for more than 15 years, most recently as the theatre’s artistic associate and director of new works. Now she’s stepping up to save it.

Sardelli was appointed at the end of July to the permanent post in charge of the Tony-winning theatre housed on the San Francisco Peninsula, after a brief tenure as interim artistic director due to Tim Bond’s departure to steward the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Only the third artistic director in the company’s history (Robert Kelley’s 50-year reign concluded with his retirement in 2020) and the first woman, she was ready to dive headfirst into her new digs, preparing to kick off the company’s 53rd season. But less than two weeks after her announced hire, news broke that painted a dire picture of the company’s financial outlook.

Unless the company, which has launched the careers of many stage and screen stars, including Zendaya and James Monroe Iglehart, can raise $3 million by this November, TheatreWorks will have to shut down. To achieve necessary solvency, the company has launched “Save TheatreWorks Now,” a massive campaign aiming to raise funds in order to remain in operation. 

Despite the mammoth, unprecedented challenges for the famed company, Sardelli is cloudlessly optimistic about achieving the task at hand, and that the company, born in 1970, will continue to be a Bay Area theatrical hub for many years to come.

Sardelli was able to take a pause from her duties running the company’s New Works Festival, which she has helmed since 2014, to speak about her artistry, thoughts on how theatrical institutions are reexamining their sustainability, and what can be gained for a hesitant audience member pondering a return to live theatre. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID JOHN CHÁVEZ: When I think about what I love about your directing, I don’t immediately think of the aesthetics of your work. You obviously have wonderful designers at TheatreWorks, but I love the way you shape and tell a story. Have you always been someone who values a storyteller’s imagination? 

GIOVANNA SARDELLI: Oh yeah. I began my career as an actress, my MFA is from the graduate school at NYU. There was no one acting philosophy—the aim was to meet the story, meet the moment, and here are the tools to help you succeed. It was always led by the story we were telling. What does this moment require? So that was just how I was trained. When I start a play, I look at how I might meet this particular story, so that I don’t lead with my stamp. 

What kinds of stories are you drawn toward as a director?

I love daring pieces. That’s one of the reasons I work with Rajiv Joseph so much. There’s always a heightened theatricality in all his stories. Same with Lynn Rosen. I’ve been so lucky to tell many of these stories, and I love when it’s complicated and tricky.

Rajiv and I were working with Patrick Page when we did the world premiere of Rajiv’s play Archduke. Patrick made one of the greatest descriptors of me I ever had, and one of the greatest compliments, although I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment. He said, “You and Rajiv like to dance on the skinny branches, you don’t play it safe. You don’t hold the trunk of the tree but get out there on those skinny branches.” And I just thought, that’s exactly right. I like daring, heartfelt theatre, and at the end of the day, I like theatre that informs, uplifts, and challenges.

What kind of sensibilities as a woman, as a Latina, and as an artist do you bring to this position that longtime TheatreWorks patrons may not have seen before?

It’s interesting, because you refer to me as a Latina, and I don’t think the community sees me that way. I want to be careful about the fact that I believe most people see me as a white woman, even though I am Italian and my father is South American, from Brazil. I grew up in a very interesting dynamic and would say my experience of America is clearly not a completely white experience, which I think has impacted how I see art.

We’re all wrestling with stories we want and get to tell, because that’s part of it. Who gets to be in the room is such an issue, such a question. In my capacity as director of new works, I’ve always been able to curate a festival and invite new voices to the table. TheatreWorks was a leader in this movement, doing multicultural casting before it had language. So it’s always been part of our DNA, and it was great to have Tim come in and go, “Let’s step it up a notch, let’s actually reinvigorate this.” That’s been incredibly meaningful. [Robert Kelley] has been working with me since I took over, reconnecting me with so many artists like James Monroe Iglehart, Francis Jue, and David Henry Hwang, artists that have had a deep connection with us, with the goal to continue doing more good work.

You’ve had a robust freelance directing career nationally, spending many years in New York, and also in Las Vegas, where you grew up. Why did you feel like now was the right time to settle down and really lean in as the face of a Bay Area theatrical institution?

Part of that was the pandemic, which was the first time in my adult life where I stayed still. There was no work to go to, so it was the first time I stayed home and played with a dog. I even planted plants, which subsequently died, but I loved the act of that. I also realized I still love my freelance directing career, and still hope to work with theatres across the country. Another realization was that I wanted to be more meaningfully connected to whatever community I was part of. In Las Vegas, I was able to go to protests and help serve food to the community, even help people during a time of need with COVID, and I really loved that.

Then when Tim left, I realized we’re a theatre company, like many in the country, in the midst of a financial crisis. I thought, well, this has been my theatrical home for many years, and I have to hit the ground running. I love this company, this community, and the art we make so much. All the stars seemed to align to say this is the moment and this is the theatre.

It’s not fair for you to have to answer for a majority of the financial issues of the company, considering you are so new in the role, but for those who don’t understand the financial model of a LORT company like TheatreWorks, how do you explain what’s happening and why the $3 million needed to keep going seems so large?

It does seem large, and if you look across the country, it’s pretty typical. So many companies are asking for this amount and more, to be honest. Prior to the pandemic, I’m going to say roughly we were a $9 million company, and coming out of the pandemic, there was no model for this. That is why I think we are seeing so many theatres collapse. Everyone made their first season out of the pandemic, and everyone was making their best assumptions about who would be returning as subscribers, the donations we would get, the government funding, all these things that had been in place prior. Even with conservative assumptions, we had overestimated how many people would come back, and then all the government funding dried up. At the same time, the cost of doing business increased. Labor and materials are more expensive. While there is no more government funding, we’re still investing significantly in COVID measures like testing as well as now having understudies. These things were not in our budget prior.

How has this affected the way you plan a season? 

Here’s the deal: Rarely does a season make everyone happy, especially if you’re trying to present new works that are challenging and uplifting. You’re not going to have a hit every single play, but before you could have a show that didn’t land in the way we hoped, and recover. Now you don’t recover the same way. We have all done a season post-COVID and now understand what we’re working with. We actually have a more realistic understanding of the landscape in which we’re producing, which will lead to different decisions.

There are lots of conversations happening right now around organizations in crisis, and the theatre is having to make a case for itself as an essential amenity in a post-pandemic world. How do you envision a sustainable future for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley?

A theatre like ours, in one of the most affluent regions in the country, is assumed to be very well-funded and well-supported. That’s relatively true—obviously we’ve been making great art here for more than 50 years. I’ve been saying I didn’t understand how much theatre was like a Tennessee Williams character until this moment—how much we depended on the kindness of strangers. We are having to make a case for why theatre is important, why culture enriches the community in which you live.

We are around some of the most philanthropic people in the country. I don’t know if they’ve known that we needed the money. We have no choice but to be the theatre of tomorrow because what we did yesterday no longer works. We have to make changes and get back to our roots. We were a community theatre that just got better and better until we became the third largest LORT in the Bay, one of the largest arts employers in our area. We’re trying to cast more Bay Area performers and support more Bay Area writers while trying to keep the national reach we have. 

But let’s say I’m a prospective donor. How do I know TheatreWorks is not going to have to do this again next year?

That is such a good question and everyone is asking the same thing. The hope is that donors continue to support right now. The $3 million campaign allows us to regain our footing to our right size and continue to produce and make more informed decisions, marrying artistic excellence and fiscal responsibility while being intentional about the resources we have and how to spend them.

We hope that subscribers return, but we can’t count on that. You can’t budget for that. But I hope when people look, they see our amazing executive director, Debbie Chinn, who is fighting so hard for TheatreWorks right now, someone who joined the company a few years ago. There is Aaron Nicholson, who became our development director two months ago. I really hope people can see we’re a theatre that has all the pieces in place now with excellent leadership; people who are committed to right-sizing the organization and producing great art while doing it in a sustainable way. 

A few years ago, streaming and entertainment on our devices and in our homes took on critical importance. Some folks who learned they could receive all this great content from the comfort of their homes never made it back to the theatre. What is an audience member missing if they choose not to return?

They are missing true community. There is something celebratory about people sharing a story together, it is the active engagement of empathy. Going and sitting in an audience is sacred—we’ve been doing that for 2,000 years. There is just something profound in that shared, undeniable experience. And so I hope people make their way back, come in, and truly feel held in their community. 

David John Chávez (he/him) is a Bay Area-based theatre critic and reporter who writes regularly for the San Jose Mercury News, KQED and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and a two-time juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (‘22-’23), serving as jury chair in 2023. @davidjchavez 

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